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What does the idiom "to keep one's head out of the oven" mean? I heard the phrase in this context:

"Hey John, how's it goin'?"

"Oh, you know... keeping my head out of the oven."

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

Back in the days when ovens were often powered by gas with no added chemicals to make it smell bad, a purported method of suicide was to stick your head in the oven and turn on the gas without lighting it (the modern equivalent would be running your car in a closed garage). While that was quite a while ago now, I can't think of any other meaning this phrase could have.

Exactly what this translates to in terms of how well John is doing depends on his personality. If John is the sort to joke about committing suicide, I would probably take the meaning as: things aren't as bad as they could be, but they're not very good, either. If John seems like the type of person who wouldn't joke about committing suicide, you might want to take this much more seriously.

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+1 For getting the literal meaning right. However, what they are actually saying here is not that things themselves aren't horrible (as you imply), but rather that they are managing not to get so depressed about it that they commit suicide. Its more a statement of perseverence. – T.E.D. Sep 7 '11 at 13:27
More gruesome than I expected! – M. Dudley Sep 7 '11 at 13:27
Absolutely agree with @T.E.D. that such a reply should be interpreted as meaning "Things are worse than you probably think". Most likely the other person had no idea things might be so bad that John would even have thought of suicide. Obviously in reality it's just light-hearted exaggeration, but many a true word is spoken in jest, so I'd still tend to think that even if John isn't really thinking about ending it all, he's probably not feeling too good about his life right now. – FumbleFingers Sep 7 '11 at 14:32
@FumbleFingers: Thanks. Everybody has very good points about the seriousness of suicide. I've changed my answer accordingly. – Peter Shor Sep 7 '11 at 15:25
I don't know if it would even be understood in the US, but in my neck of the woods we haven't spoken of gas ovens or car exhausts for decades. We just say it's lucky you can never find a Stanley Knife when you "need" one. – FumbleFingers Sep 7 '11 at 15:31

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