Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Lame Duck

In politics, and sometimes business, someone in a powerful position who everyone knows will be leaving office at a particular time, but who is still in office, is called a lame duck. This is "lame" not in the sense of uncool, but in the sense of powerless due to injury.

In other words, the lame duck is unable to exert power over others because the knowledge he or she will be departing - and therefore, has less and less power to punish others for defiance with each day that passes - reduces the psychological and leadership power of that person.

Note that while being a lame duck is related to an impending departure, many people only call someone a lame duck when that person's power enters pronounced decline, a little like "jumping the shark."

Example: An American President in his second term eventually experiences an erosion in his ability to make Congress do what he wants, losing influence with even members of his own party. Due to strongly established tradition and the great difficulty of changing the constitution, the limit to two terms of four years is virtually unchangeable. Therefore, members of Congress know as a fact that the President will be departing. When the President reaches this point of limited influence, he begins to be called "a lame duck."

Also, the term "lame duck session" (relating to Congress) is a little different. This is the result of two accidents of the American system: 1) members being officially in office even after an election, until the following January (much like Presidents); 2) a modern habit of not completing budgetary business (in the trillions of dollars) within the normally scheduled time.

In 2010, legislating in the "lame duck session" between the November election and the end of 2010 reached new heights, with major pieces of legislation passed, although a giant budget bill was forced to be abandoned (and this is, I must point out, an extremely rare event). Some have questioned the propriety of legislators who have been voted out of office - and are thus "lame ducks" themselves - voting on issues of such importance, but this lack of consequences (they already lost!) has been used to great advantage by the Democratic Party in 2010.

Thus, the lame duck session is so called because departing Congressmen and Senators who are "lame ducks" are still able to use the full power of their offices... which is, again, a kind of accident of the American political system. Traditionally, they are not well regarded.

We Have A Situation

A  common line in dramas, this cannot be taken literally because everything is a situation. The implication is that we have a bad situation.

This phrase is used as understatement, meant to be said in a way that is not alarming, "loaded" (with panic), or more specific as to the type of situation (accident, incident, crisis). The idea is to instantly get the full and serious attention of the listener while remaining as calm as possible.

Example: "Mr. President, we have a situation. An airplane has been hijacked." The listener is not being bombarded with details (yet) because there is a certain protocol to follow; a President would ask for details about the situation, but that is his choice and his privilege. You do not shout down the President.

This type of line could easily appear in a movie, a television drama, or a novel. It is certainly not limited to presidents, but has been made famous in that context in American English.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Picking Up Some Chinese (Food)

Americans will use "Chinese" as an abbreviation for "Chinese food," which is food considered to be particular to Chinese restaurants and so forth. (Thus, "Chinese" from an American perspective.)

Example: "She decided to go home and pick up some Chinese down the street."

This means obtaining Chinese food, not any other meaning.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What's Your Beef?

If "Where's the beef?" is asking for substance relating to an issue, "What's your beef?" is asking what substantive issue to have with someone or something.

Related: "Having a beef" with someone or something.

Example: "I don't like that Barbara." "What's your beef with her?" "Nothing - I just don't like her attitude."

In this case, the speaker has not had a personal conflict with Barbara of any substance. It is not that Barbara stole money from the speaker, damaged the speaker's car, or threw a rock into a window at the speaker's house. The annoyance with Barbara is strictly based on superficial issues.

If Barbara had done some tangible wrong to the speaker, this would be the speaker's "beef" with Barbara.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Not Quite So Simple

While the meaning of "something simple" is, well, simple, "not quite so simple" means, in reality, something requiring a detailed explanation. This expression is used to alter the flow of a conversation or, more usually, an article, shifting to an explanation which explains why a question cannot be answered simply and reflexively.

Example: "When faced with a wild bear, what should one do? Scream? Run in panic? It isn't quite that simple. Either of these reactions may trigger the bear's predatory instincts and place the person in greater danger..."

A Big Freeze

Usually, putting "big" in front of a noun is to turn that noun into something larger and less literal. In this case, a big freeze indicates a large cold weather storm bringing much snow and ice. Thus, a vast area is "frozen"

Example: Big freeze: stay inside, Britons told, as heavy snow causes havoc (headline in today's Daily Telegraph (UK))

To Be In, Or Not In

To "be in" is, figuratively speaking, to be present inside a building. This usually applies to a place of occupation or employment, but can be stretched without problems.

Conversely, to "not be in" is to be absent.

Example: "Is Doctor Adams in?" "No, he's not in today. Can I take a message?"

This means that Doctor Adams is not present at the health center for that day. Doctors at health centers tend to work on alternating schedules, so this does not mean anything bad has happened to Dr. Adams.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Physically twisting someone's arm can be used as a means of intimidation or coercion. Due to this, figurative arm-twisting is a term used to include all non-physical coercion (also known as "pressure") to compel a person to do, or not do, something specific.

Example: The senator resisted heavy arm-twisting by special interest groups and voted for the budget package anyway.

This means, the senator resisted heavy (political) pressure and went ahead and voted as he originally intended.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Pain At The Pump

Pain at the pump refers to the gas pump, as it is known in America. In other parts of the world, the gas pump is known as a fuel dispenser. There is no difference in meaning. Also, gas = gasoline. Idiomatically, even non-gasoline fuel is "the gas pump" (including diesel!).

To experience pain at the gas pump is to be in a state of paying a painful level of money when obtaining fuel for one's vehicle.

Example: Some argue that American news media were more fond of doing "Pain at the Pump" news stories during the Bush administration, but have been reluctant to do the same under the Obama administration, even as prices at the gas pump continue to rise. It is not necessary to agree with this argument to understand this is how the idiom is used.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Slogging One's Way

To slog one's way(or variations thereof) means to make difficult progress forward against significant resistance. To use this as an idiom is simply to apply it to things that are not physical.

Example: "Slowly, painfully and reluctantly, congressional Democrats are slogging their way toward acceptance of President Barack Obama's tax cut compromise, which would let rich and poor Americans keep Bush-era tax cuts that were scheduled to expire this month."

Here, "toward" is used because there is a specific figurative destination ("acceptance") rather than simply a direction, such as "ahead." (Which would then be "slogging their way ahead," but that is not what we see here.) 

Being Outdoors

Literally, outdoors is beyond the doors of your residential home. Figuratively speaking, the outdoors is the wilderness.

Being outdoors is an expression for being in the wilderness, or at absolute minimum, being outside the house in a natural environment .

A park is considered natural for these purposes.

Example: Danny and his friends search for gold in rivers in New York State. "Danny and the gang say they're not disappointed if they don't find gold -- they just love being outdoors." 


A Number Of Something

A number of is a very unspecific expression for some, a portion, a fraction of something larger. 

Example: A number of Apple's rack server customers are located in California. 

Implied: A significant number. 

A Product Line

In business, a line is used to describe a series of heavily related products.

Related: a lineup of products (such as merchandise for display, either in real life or in a catalog). 

Example: Apple killed a line of “rack servers” called Xserve; all products were servers (for computer networks) of this type.

To Kill A Product Line

When used figuratively, to kill means to bring a thing to an end. 

Thus, to kill a product line is to end that product line. 

Example: Apple has killed its Xserve line of servers for business customers. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Won Over

If someone has been won over, that person has been convinced.

In negotiations, someone who has been won over has been convinced to approve the deal.

Since this can only be truly explained in context, let's review today's earlier idioms with the passage below.

Example: President Barack Obama’s tax-cut deal likely will squeak through the Senate, according to congressional aides, propelled by a coalition of Republicans, moderate Democrats and members won over by last-minute tax sweeteners


In food, a sweetener is something added to food to make it sweeter, like sugar or a sugar substitute. In politics and business, a sweetener for a deal is something added to make a deal more tolerable to individuals who must approve it.

A related term is palatable. This is a fancy word for "something you can eat without suffering," so you add a sweetener to a deal to make it palatable (not easier to eat, but easier to approve). Often, we say more palatable here (indicating the deal is more acceptable, rather than less).

Of course, if we want to say less palatable, we do.

Example: President Barack Obama’s tax-cut deal likely will squeak through the Senate, according to congressional aides, propelled by a coalition of Republicans, moderate Democrats and members won over by last-minute tax sweeteners.


When used as an adjective, last-minute suggests occurring at the last minute, an expression for occurring very near to a deadline; very late in a process.

"At the last minute" is another form this takes as an expression, but remember, last-minute is an adjective.

Example: Last-minute additions to a contract. These are additions placed very near the end of a negotiation process.

Related: Eleventh-hour: Assumes a deadline of midnight. Something taking place very close to a deadline . Example: Eleventh-hour agreement.

Propelled By

When applied to politics, we speak of something propelled by X when we mean, something pushed forward by X. Synonyms:  driven by and driven forward by.

Example: "President Barack Obama’s tax-cut deal likely will squeak through the Senate, according to congressional aides, propelled by a coalition of Republicans, moderate Democrats and members won over by last-minute tax sweeteners."

Squeaking By

When something squeaks by, it is narrowly passing between obstacles. There are objects that will literally squeak when they are squeezed between two objects, such as a simple child's balloon. From this arises the expression, to squeak by.

Example: Headline: Barack Obama's tax plan could squeak by with GOP help

Note: "GOP" stands for "Grand Old Party," a nickname for the Republican Party. It is used by journalists because it is only three letters long and, therefore, saves space. (It's true!) 

Today's Theme

Today's English Idioms blog theme will be the negotiations between President Obama and members of Congress to pass a compromise (deal) on taxes. Without a deal, tax cuts in place for ten years will expire. Articles like this one use numerous idioms to describe aspects of the situation. This gives me the opportunity to explain related idioms in context.

Monday, December 6, 2010

"You See"

A companion to "I see," "You see" is often used as a rhetorical statement. That is, even though its true figurative meaning is, you (the other party) see (figuratively) what is being discussed, many people use it to urge the other person to "see" the logic, even if they do not do so at present.

Example: "So you see, rebooting the computer fixed the entire problem." "...Ah, I see now."

Example 2: "I came all the way from Vancouver to see this film festival, you see?"

In this second use, this can be shortened to just see.

Example 2, revisited: "I came all the way from Vancouver, see?"

Likely, the listener doesn't see, or the speaker wouldn't be explaining it to begin with!

Again, the point of the idiomatic usage is to urge the other person to "see" something that they should see, not that they necessarily do see.

"I See"

One of the English language's most basic idioms, "I see" (without further context) does not mean actually, physically seeing something with your eyes; it means, seeing something with your mind. Or rather, your mind sees the logic of something.

Example: "So when I rebooted the computer, that solved the entire problem." "I see."

This should not be confused with, "I see that..." because this is used in a far more literal way.

Example: "I see that you brought your lovely wife Michelle... please, come in!"

This is not an idiom.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Blowing A Gasket

Figuratively, to blow a gasket is to become suddenly angered. The surge of energy and anger is compared to the popping (blowing) of an automotive gasket, which is a mechanical seal to prevent the leakage of fluid.

When a gasket "blows," there is a burst of fluid. When a person's gasket blows, there is a burst, or an outpouring, of anger for which there was no visible prior warning. Thus, it usually refers to spontaneous anger (without prior planning).

Example: When I read this headline, "Euro soars on report that US ready to aid EU fund," I remarked, "My American friends are going to blow a gasket when they read this!" In other words, they will become spontaneously angered that news reports suggest that Americans will be bailing out European nations (and that someone believes these reports to be true). 

Because I use this as an idiom, I did not alter the idiom for a plural subject ("my American friends"). I did not write, "they will blow their gaskets." I do not believe this is necessary in the case of an idiom; indeed, doing so may imply it is a literal statement, which is not the case. Humans do not have gaskets. 

Friday, November 26, 2010

Lost In Translation

When words are carried across the so-called language barrier, subtle differences in meaning can be lost in translation. That is, the translation omits information that helps to clarify the meaning of the original.

This is also the title of a film. The film's theme is cultural misunderstandings.

Nothing To Lose

A person with "nothing to lose" is someone who does not stand to suffer significant harm by taking particular risks. 

Literally, we all have something to lose - unless we're dead, we can lose our lives. However, as a figure of speech, this phrase has quite a few uses.

Example: "I know you tried calling the front desk twice already and got a busy signal, but you have nothing to lose by trying again. So keep trying, OK?"

It Can't Hurt

If used literally, this phrase would mean that a particular action will not cause you physical pain or injury. When used figuratively, however, this means that a particular action will not cause you harm, whatever form that harm might take.

Example: "It can't hurt to try a new approach to dating. You're not having much success as it is; what do you have to lose?"

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Babe In The Woods

The expression "a babe in the woods" is used to represent someone who is innocent and vulnerable and in great danger of being victimized, figuratively. 

Example: "My mother's a babe in the woods when it comes to buying cars. She ends up spending much more money than she has to because she just doesn't understand how to hold out for a better deal." Here, the speaker's mother is naive in the ways of business.

Neck Of The Woods

Your neck of the woods is your figurative location; your locale; your area. 

Example: "What are you doing in this neck of the woods? I thought you don't like places this rural and out of the way." This could be said to a friend who prefers large towns and cities who shows up in a rural area.

Big As All Outdoors

This means, on a large scale.

Example: "The politician's ambitions for higher office were as big as all outdoors."

Monday, November 8, 2010

Turning The Other Cheek

This idiom has biblical origins. Christians urged to "turn the other cheek" after they have been struck by a fist are expected to act with politeness and not retaliate against someone who has injured them. When used as an idiom, this usually refers to injury to one's pride through words, not physical injury.

Example: (Subject: George W. Bush's new memoirs) And he's not out to trash Obama in his new book. The Democrat, in his 2008 presidential campaign, spared no effort to criticize Bush for taking the U.S. to war in Iraq, for letting the effort in Afghanistan flag and for presiding over an economy sinking into the Great Recession.

Bush turns the other cheek, merely praising Obama's decision to add troops in Afghanistan.

A Loudmouth

In English, a loudmouth is someone who is routinely loud, annoying, and a nuisance to others. 

Example: "That Lucy is such a loudmouth. She can't shut up about everyone else's dating lives and doesn't know when to back off."

Friday, November 5, 2010

An Odyssey

The Odyssey was one of Western civilization's first masterpieces of literature, composed by Homer, about the ten year voyage of Odysseus, a king who fought in the Trojan War. Suffice to say he offended a Greek god and was forced to take the long way home.

Borrowing from this original meaning, an odyssey is any long foreign trip.

Example: An upcoming trip to Asia by President Obama rumored to be lavishly expensive, worthy of Roman Emperors or Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, was referred to by the Drudge Report in this way:

Leaves Election Wreckage for 9-day Asian Odyssey...
The true expense of the voyage, er, trip, is unknown.  

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Getting One's Feet Wet

The first step in entering a lake or other body of water is to get one's feet wet. Therefore, this is an idiom for taking the first tangible step towards some kind of goal. This is always action of some sort, rather than simply an exchange of words or ideas.

Example: Instructor: "Okay, I realize this is your first time using Photoshop, but the best way to learn is to get your feet wet and start using it. Of course, I'll be walking you through this lesson step by step to help you become accustomed with the basics."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Significant Other

A person's significant other is that person's partner in a relationship. The term is not gender specific; nor is the term specific to heterosexual ("straight") relationships. Thus, it can refer to a gay man's partner (as one example).

The term can be taken in the most positive, appropriate way by any listener. This makes it a polite term to use in any circumstances, particularly if knowledge of the other person is minimal.

The term also dances around the whole issue of marriage, since in the West, many people in relationships live together without being formally married. (At least, more than in the past.) Also, homosexuals are still barred from formally marrying in many locations. This further increases the use of the term significant other without risking rudeness or insult.

Example: "Tracy, do you have a significant other in your life?"

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Having Something To Say

To have something to say is to have a message or opinion to speak. It is not so much the phrase itself that is idiomatic, but how it is used...

Example: "I spoke with Louis earlier." "Oh? What did he have to say?"

This means, what was the content of Louis' message? It does not necessarily mean, what are the exact words he spoke. Rather, it is asking for the listener's view of what the message was. What was Louis' opinion? What thoughts did he express? This is idiomatic, but it is impossible for native speakers to miss the subtext and meaning. All non-native speakers should learn what having something to say means.

The above verbal exchange actually happened. Louis is the name of my father's business partner in a new venture. - Jeremiah

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Through and Through

This is an expression acting as a colloquial substitute for thoroughly.

Example: (Source: Song "Through and Through")

I need some air to breathe
I need some space, just leave
'Cause I'm colder than ever (colder than ever)
I said I'm colder than ever
I'm empty, empty through and through

(This is to say, thoroughly empty, emotionally drained, etc.)

A Crying Shame

This idiom is simply an idiomatic strengthening of the expression, a shame. That is, a disappointing fact.

Example: "It's a crying shame that the Yankees didn't advance to the World Series this year." This is to say, it is acutely disappointing.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Tell Us How You Really Feel

The expression "tell us how you really feel" is said in sarcasm and irony after someone has said an anger or hate-filled statement, drawing attention to the anger and hatred (and implicitly mocking it).

Example: I was reminded earlier that on the American television show "The View," a guest made a statement about Nevada senate candidate Sharon Angle, calling her a "bitch" and concluding that "she's going to hell, this bitch." As these words were recited to me (I had earlier read them at the link here), I expressed, "Tell us how you really feel!". This is a popular culture way of expressing, wow, if that's what Joy Behar will tell us on network television, what would she say in private?...

Of course, this statement is likely exactly how Joy Behar actually feels. My reply was sarcastic and full of irony that Joy Behar would actually say it on television. No surprise at all that certain people feel that way about a female conservative politician opposing a linchpin of the Democratic Party in Congress during a very heated election battle.

Barking Up The Wrong Tree

When a dog being used to hunt raccoons, a dog will bark up at a tree ("up a tree") to indicate that a raccoon is within the tree's branches.

If a dog is barking up the wrong tree, the dog is making a serious mistake.

Example: Lisa: "Dave, I thought I saw you in the lounge earlier. When I went into the lounge afterwards, there was coffee spilled all over the table." Dave: "It wasn't me! You're barking up the wrong tree. I was having a sandwich at my desk while I was working on the September report. You must've mistaken me for someone else."

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Wilderness and Errand Themed Idioms

In response to a request, I'm going to focus on these two themes for a while. It's a good idea and there's not really anything better to do, so why not.

A Voice In The Wilderness

A voice in the wilderness is someone who expresses an unpopular opinion.

Example: "For years, she was a voice in the wilderness about the need for government reform. Only recently has her agenda become part of the mainstream."

In The Wilderness

American politics uses "the wilderness" as a Biblical reference. Someone who is in the wilderness is an outcast, a nomad, someone without a seat in a place of power.

In practice, it is used to mean a politician or party lacking the power or influence normally due.

Example: "The Senator spent several years in the political wilderness after having made comments that offended members of a major religion. Only recently has he come back in favor."

In this sense, someone who is in the wilderness is like someone who is in the dog house.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Begging On Hands And Knees

Usually, to be on hands and knees is to have both hands and knees on the ground; that is, to be on all fours in a crawling position. However, the expression to beg on hands and knees is meant as begging very strenuously and earnestly.

Strictly speaking, the "begging position" people in the West imagine is kneeling with hands clasped together; the person is not "on" the hands at all. The incorrect usage is tolerated because this is an idiom and people are familiar with the intent.

Example: Tom was begging on his hands and knees for Susan to come back to him, even though Tom had cheated on her with another woman. Susan's reply? "I'm calling my lawyer and getting a divorce!"

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Front Burner & The Back Burner

An ordinary oven has two sets of burners on the top. The two in front are the front burners, and the two in back are the back burners.

To place something on the front burner is to make it a high priority requiring careful observation. To place something on the back burner is to reduce its priority.

Example: When watching television very briefly today, I saw major American media figure and talk show host "Dr. Phil" urging Americans to place violence against women "on the front burner." This meant, to make the issue a top priority rather than deny its existence or downplay its importance... which would be, of course, placing violence against women on the back burner, which is exactly what Dr. Phil was urging Americans not to do.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Surging and Ebbing

In politics, and other areas, to surge is to accelerate forward rapidly, while to ebb is to decelerate backward rapidly.

You can surge to make relative progress without making absolute progress, and vice versa.

Example: "The Washington Redskins surged back from behind but lost the game to the New York Jets by 2 points." The surge did not result in victory, but resulted in narrowing the 20 point gap by which the Redskins had been behind at halftime.

Example 2: "Sen. Nelson says he sees the campaign of Kendrick Meek surging following strong performances in recent debates."

Playing Your Cards Right

To play your cards right is to skillfully exploit an opportunity.

Example: (Subject: Payments by BP (formerly known as British Petroleum) to Gulf coast residents for economic losses.)
For those who played their cards right, BP's money brought a summer of quiet windfall. Ted Melancon, a shrimper from Cut Off, La., worked for BP for 130 days.

Positive and Negative Advertisements

In English-language countries, positive ads (advertisements) and negative ads describe ads that are either a) ads that are positive about the candidate the advertisement is meant to support, or b) ads that are negative about the candidate's opponent, tearing the opponent down with insults and attacks.

Example: In American politics, candidates who are safely ahead usually air positive ads that advertise their own achievements and virtues. Candidates who are threatened have, in recent years, aired large amounts of negative ads attacking their opponents as morally, intellectually, and politically flawed persons who are not deserving of being elected.

Negative ads have raised the general level of cynicism about politics. This is the context in which they are described in the Western media.

Enthusiasm Gap

An enthusiasm gap is an idiom that has been created in American media and politics to describe a difference in the enthusiasm between supporters of two rival factions, mainly political parties.

Example: In 2008, voter enthusiasm was greatest among natural supporters of the Democratic Party and voters for Barack Obama. In contrast, the 2010 mid-term elections have, by all appearances, a large enthusiasm gap favoring the Republican Party as Obama's "hope and change" campaign has disappointed the expectations of many of his own 2008 voters.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Through The Barrel Of A Gun

In politics, using English, the expression through the barrel of a gun means only one thing: through the use of armed violence; the opposite of peaceful, lawful politics.

Example: (Warning! Quotation does not imply endorsement of claims) (Subject: Sudan) "Abdullahi al-Azreg, Sudan's ambassador to London, dismissed predictions of looming mayhem as insulting and exaggerated but admitted there were serious problems. ..."The SPLM is ruling the south through the barrel of a gun. It is intimidating the voters," he said. "The last election [in the south in April] was not fair, it was not transparent, it was rigged. If the referendum is the same, we could not accept it, we would reject it. If there was fraud, we would say so straight."

This is to say, the south of Sudan is (according to this ambassador) being ruled through (in his view) illegitimate armed violence. When "the barrel of a gun" is used, organized armed violence is usually implied. 

(Quoted from:

Monday, October 18, 2010

Man Up

A phrase entering greater popularity is man up, an idiom urging the other party to behave in a less submissive manner.

Example: The best example is from the recent debate between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and challenger Sharon Angle, where Angle urged Reid to "man up" and face the United States' long-term financial issues. This implies that Senator Reid was hiding from these problems rather than face them.

The implication, particularly if the target of the idiom is a man, is that the target has been behaving in an "unmanly," cowardly, timid, "chicken" manner. Unsurprisingly, this implication is considered insulting.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Case For Action

In English, a case is an idiom used to refer to any respectable argument that can be made for a given position. So long as an argument will not be simply laughed at as too ridiculous, it constitutes a case; therefore, an argument.

Example: "There would appear -- all else being equal -- to be a case for further action," Bernanke said at a conference sponsored by the Boston Federal Reserve Bank.

This is to say, a respectable, serious argument can be made for further action (in this case, Federal Reserve action to pump money into the U.S. economy). 

Thursday, October 14, 2010


When the economy darkens, the outlook worsens.

Example: "The U.S. growth outlook has darkened significantly and the Federal Reserve is unanimously expected to embark on a fresh round of asset purchases to prop up the economy, a separate Reuters poll showed."


When economic prospects brighten, they improve.

Example: Many people pay attention to monthly economic statistics, searching for any sign that the economy is brightening.

Salvaging Victory

Figuratively, to salvage something is to save it from disaster. Thus, to salvage victory is to obtain a narrow victory after having been facing defeat.

Example: (Note: Strictly opinion of original writer) U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Tom Donahue, writing about the Democratic Party's attacks on his organization:  “It’s sad to watch the White House stoop to these depths to try to salvage an election,” Donohue wrote, according to The Times’ Michael D. Shear.

This means, the attacks on his organization are meant to rescue the Democrats from widely predicted losses in the mid-term elections. This usage - in politics and in general - is common in English. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Political Battlegrounds

Elections are not properly fought with muskets and cannon, but figuratively speaking, any area where there is a fierce political campaign, with the final outcome in serious doubt, can be referred to as a political battleground.

(Above: Depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg)

Example: Last week the U.S. Chamber of Commerce pumped more than $10 million into key battlegrounds.

Here, "key" just means crucial, and provides emphasis to the battleground part, indicating that this political advertising went into areas with highly competitive political races where such advertising could alter the final outcome.

This and the preceding three posts were inspired by this article:

I only altered text for educational purposes, as quoting certain parts without the full context required adding details ("the chamber" -> "the U.S. Chamber of Commerce"), and quoting large portions at one time would have been too confusing to non-native learners.

Pumping Money

A pump is a device for pushing air, water or other fluids through tubes or pipes. To pump is to perform this pushing. Therefore, to pump money somewhere is to put money into that place for some kind of purpose.

This is easy to demonstrate with an example from politics.

Example: Last week the U.S. Chamber of Commerce pumped more than $10 million (U.S. dollars) into states important for the upcoming mid-term elections.

This is simply giving the reader the (correct) impression that this is a significant amount of money relative to normal levels of political advertising.

A Wave Of Ads

When we figuratively refer to a wave of something, we mean a large series, with one coming after another. Thus, the effect is like a large wave washing ashore, with sustained (but finite) force.

Thus, a wave of advertisements (ads for short) is a series of one advertisement after another.

Example: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has run a wave of ads for the 2010 U.S. mid-term elections, most supporting Republican candidates.

Ramping Up Spending

A ramp is a flat walkway raised to rest at an angle, performing the same function as stairs (but far more suitable for anything wheeled, such as wheelchairs for the disabled).

When raising a level of spending, a graph would show a series of points, one rising after another. If you connect the dots, the resulting image looks like a ramp. Therefore, to ramp up is to increase the level of something measurable, particularly in relation to money or effort.

Example: In spite of recent political controversies and attacks by no less than the President of the Untied States, the U.S. business lobby group called the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has made a defiant statement through its Chairman vowing to "ramp up" political advertising in the final weeks before the Nov. 2 election.

This means the Chamber of Commerce will increase political advertising.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Smooth Sailing

The opposite of rough sailing, smooth sailing implies particularly easy progress with little effort required.

Smooth sailing would be sailing in calm waters.

Example: In a normal election year, incumbent politicians (those who are running for re-election) usually have smooth sailing when running against their challengers. Incumbents generally raise much more money than those who would challenge them; failing this, they have established political connections, name recognition, and existing public support. The 2010 mid-term elections appear to be an exception to this general rule; incumbents are endangered by widespread dissatisfaction with the government and its management of the stagnant U.S. economy.

Rough Sailing

Rough sailing is an abbreviation for rough weather sailing or sailing in rough waters. This gives the impression of very difficult progress requiring much greater effort than normal progress.

Example: Thanks to widespread disaffection with Congress and the generally poor state of the national U.S. economy, Democrats have rough sailing ahead of them as they approach the mid-term elections in November. While dissatisfaction with both parties is high, Democrats, who enjoy majorities in the House and Senate, possess power, and therefore, have much more to lose from general dissatisfaction with government.

Sailing To Victory

Figuratively, to sail to victory is to achieve victory easily, with little effort. 

As a sailboat seems to move gracefully and with little effort - certainly less effort than rowing - sailing has become an idiom, in general, for success with minimal effort. 

Example: Unions and other groups forming the core of the United States' Democratic Party believe that if President Obama implemented the policies that they (unions etc.) advocate, the Democrats would be sailing to victory in the mid-term elections.

President Obama has implemented far less than what these groups advocate, however. This has left these core Democratic Party voters depressed, frustrated, angry and less likely to vote for Democratic Party candidates. These voters and groups, convinced that they are crucial to victory, claim that this state of affairs makes victory far less likely.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Going Solar

To go solar is to convert a house so that it will collect solar energy through the use of solar energy panels (or some kind of equivalent). It does not imply powering a house by electrical power alone, but suggests a great effort to maximize the percentage of power drawn from solar energy. The most reliable use of this energy is often to heat water.

Example: The White House, under President Obama, recently announced that it would place solar energy panels on the roof of the White House for the purpose of solar energy collection. Major media outlets widely reported that the White House was going solar, with the same meaning.

Note that this is not the first time the White House has been the site of solar panels; President Jimmy Carter was the first to do so. Solar panels were also used by President Bush (Sr.) for heating water in a limited capacity. Other recent presidents have shunned the appearance of transforming a national monument into an experiment.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Zombie Banks

A "zombie" is a fictional undead creature, usually the animated corpse of a human being. A zombie is among "the living dead," something that is neither fully dead, nor alive in any normal sense.

Thus, a "zombie bank" is a bank which is technically "alive" (i.e. not in bankruptcy) but which is incapable of meaningful, productive, or new financial activity. Such a bank may exist, but it does not truly live.

Examples can be found from most major sources of news during the last few years. The "zombie bank" phenomenon creates demand for clarity and honesty about banks which report that they are healthy, but which have hidden liabilities that make them into the walking dead, that is, walking, but not with any life in them.

Taking The Temperature (of a group)

To "take the temperature" of a group is to obtain opinions from various members and determine the level of support, or opposition, in the group for a particular action or policy.

A group can be warm or cold to an action or policy.

Example: "Democratic insiders are taking the temperature of some top party donors about the possibility of naming White House press secretary Robert Gibbs as chairman of the Democratic National Committee heading into President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012, senior officials tell POLITICO."

This means, the insiders are measuring the support, or lack thereof, for placing outgoing press secretary Robert Gibbs as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. According to the article (link below), reaction is positive, so we may say members are warm to the possibility.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Buck Up

To buck up is to behave like a buck - in the sense of, a male deer - that is rutting, that is, in the midst of its mating cycle. This would be similar to a cat in heat, except it applies exclusively to males and represents aggressive male behavior, such as butting heads with other bucks (figuratively and very much literally), displays of antlers to female deer, and so forth.

This expression has evolved from a meaning similar to "dressing up" (that is, dressing in a snappier/ more vibrant manner that is pleasing to women) to the sense of "raise your spirits" and to become more enthusiastic. However, there is another connotation. Let's begin with an example.

Example: In reference to disappointed Democratic Party and left-wing political activists, Vice President Joe Biden revised an earlier comment in which he told people to "stop whining" with the following statement:
"And so those who don't get -- didn't get everything they wanted, it's time to just buck up here, understand that we can make things better, continue to move forward and -- but not yield the playing field to those folks who are against everything that we stand for in terms of the initiatives we put forward," Biden said on MSNBC.
However, in this sense, "buck up" is really telling people to "man up," to behave with a strong, male spirit, to show some backbone, and indeed, to grow a spine.

Thus, it is difficult to understand his comment as an attempt to tell Democratic activists to stop whining, just as he had done before. VP Biden simply used an older expression to convey an identical message without using the same words in the belief that people would find "buck up" to be less offensive than "stop whining," even while conveying the exact same message: that left-wing activists should rise up and vote for the Democratic Party in the 2010 mid-term elections.

Thus, it is a distinction without a difference. Indeed, younger activists may not even understand what "buck up" is intended to mean. Men in their late 60's who have been involved in politics for most of their lives certainly would know the term, however. We cannot know if those in the intended audience who are familiar with the term will understand the message as being any different (that is, less patronizing) than the earlier "stop whining" statement.

P.S. Telling any American adult to stop whining is to treat that person like a child and is normally considered rude to the extreme.

Show Some Backbone

The backbone is really just another word for spine. The form of this idiom is to "show" or "demonstrate" some backbone, meaning, to demonstrate to others that you are not a chicken (coward), but rather, a brave and vigorous person.

This version is considered less crude, and thus, is more often applied to the political arena in written English.

Example: "Activists expected the Obama Administration to show some backbone in dealing with Republican opposition, but many have been sorely disappointed in the administration's behavior."

This is not to pick sides; I am simply delivering context for the post that will follow this one. Stay tuned.

Have / Grow A Spine

The spine is the set of bones that is the body's pillar of support. The human body's muscles use the spine as the foundation for all firm, aggressive motion. Therefore, having a spine has become idiomatic for behaving in a courageous or vigorous manner, the opposite of behaving like a "chicken" (a coward).

To grow a spine is to begin behaving in a courageous or vigorous manner, while having a spine is to continue to behave in such a manner.

Example: "Don't tell me you can't get rid of one little spider! Grow a spine! How old are you?!"

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Breathing Down Someone's Neck

In politics, as in horse races, to be breathing down someone's neck is to be very close behind that person in a race. 

Example: "But it was a surprise. Only one week after his upset victory over Rick Lazio in the Republican primary, Paladino is now breathing down Cuomo’s neck.
Only six points separate Cuomo and Paladino in the Quinnipiac University poll. Cuomo now leads 49-43, with a plus or minus error of 3.6."
(Source: CBSNewYork)

Front Runner Status

One of a variety of "horse race" political idioms, front runner status means the state of being in the lead.

The "race" is the campaign for political office.

Example: "Wednesday was supposed to be Cuomo’s day as he picked up the endorsement of New York City’s notoriously independent mayor, Michael Bloomberg, in the race for governor.
But a new poll changed that because it turned Cuomo’s once comfortable front-runner status on its head. ...Only six points separate Cuomo and Paladino in the Quinnipiac University poll. Cuomo now leads 49-43, with a plus or minus error of 3.6."

Staring Down The Barrel Of....

When you are staring down the barrel of something, you are faced with an imminent danger (one which happens soon). 

This is used in a political context.

Example: "New York City is staring down the barrel of a $4 billion budget deficit next year. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has called on his city commissioners to look at their departments and slash a combined $800 million from the current budget and $1.2 billion from the next budget."

Monday, September 20, 2010

In Line (To Succeed)

When you are "in line" to succeed someone, you are part of a line of succession determining who, and in what order, will replace a leader if he/ she cannot continue to serve due to death, disability or other causes.

Bad Example: U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden has apparently stated, incorrectly, "I'm second in line to be President!" If this was true, someone else would be first in line to succeed President Obama should any misfortune befall him. This is not correct.

Good Example: The Vice-President is first in line to succeed the President. The second in line is the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Incidentally, a "Bidenism" is an incorrect statement made in a moment of loose mental concentration by Vice-President (and former Senator) Joe Biden. VP Biden has a history of statements that veer off in unexpected and unplanned directions.

Up For Grabs

When something is up for grabs, it is available; it can be obtained freely without stealing from someone else. 

This is often used in electoral politics, but has other applications.

Example: (Context: United States) "In the mid-term Congressional election this November, all House seats and one third of Senate seats are up for grabs."

Barring special elections, which can occur as a result of deaths of members serving in office, all House seats and one third of Senate seats are up for grabs every two years, but American news articles will write as in the above example. A reader unfamiliar with the American political system might think that this situation is somehow exceptional.

House members serve for two year terms; Senate members serve for six, and their elections are staggered so that a third of all seats are subject to election every two years (so that one vote is held for both houses of Congress). We call these elections "mid-term" because they occur in the middle of the Presidential term of office (four years).

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Band-Aid Solution

A band-aid is a small covering placed over small cuts to protect an injured area, limit bleeding, and speed healing. Properly speaking, Band-Aid is a brand name, but is so widely known that it has become an idiom in itself.

A band-aid solution is a quick fix incapable of dealing with problems of a large scale, providing temporary relief only, and usually, inadequate temporary relief at that.

Example: "Education is in crisis. What we need is comprehensive reform, not band-aid solutions that won't work and only delay the inevitable!"

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Blip

Unlike a wave, "a blip" is a reference to a signal given off by radar (originally an acronym, now treated as a noun) indicating the presence of a real object at a given moment in time.

In trends, a figurative "blip" means a temporary event that is not, or is not yet known to be, part of a larger trend.

Example: "Today's upswing in national employment figures is believed to be a blip caused by a one-time event, and is not expected to be sustained until consumer confidence improves."

This is to say, the positive change is temporary, and not a trend... according to this statement, at least.

A Wave

In idioms, "a wave" is any significant, sustained change. This can be positive, but is often used in a negative manner.

Example: "The slumping economy has produced another wave of bankruptcies among small American businesses."

This means, a significant, sustained change, though not a permanent one.

A Tsunami/ A Tidal Wave

In nature, a tsunami (Japanese term) is a giant wave. Properly speaking, "a tidal wave," used as the equivalent of tsunami, is incorrect; a wave created by a tide can be very, very tiny.

In politics, as well as other settings, "a tsunami" or "a tidal wave" (such as a tidal wave of support) means a powerful trend that, temporarily at least, changes the proverbial landscape.

Example: "(Party X), deeply unpopular in the polls, faces a potential tsunami at the next election, sweeping it out of power."

The phrasing may vary, but this is the general idea.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Method To One's Madness

Proverbially, when there is said to be a method to someone's madness, this expresses that what at first appears to be madness, that is, random, illogical behavior, has a real purpose. It is in fact a method to achieve a tangible goal, with actual thought behind it. 

Example: "Mr. Jones talks about the craziest things to people, but there's a method to his madness. People loosen up around him and tell him things they'd never tell most people because they don't take him seriously."

There are surely many, many other examples, but it is best to view the idiom in practice to learn how people employ it.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Crowning Achievement

A "crowning achievement" is a great success worthy of much praise and respect.

Example: In video games, a "jobs" system allows role-playing game characters to learn different skills suitable for different "jobs" (role-playing professions), such as knight, wizard, priest, thief, and so forth. While this type of role-playing game feature truly began with the Dragon Warrior series (Dragon Quest in Japan), this was adopted, and greatly expanded upon, by the "Final Fantasy" series of video games. Popular with gamers, the "jobs system" is often considered the crowning achievement of the series, giving players a deep personal connection to their fictional alter-egos.

This is to say, it is considered a great success worthy of giving great praise.

A crown is not only a physical treasure; "the crown" of something is its peak, its highest point, its pinnacle. (i.e. "the crown of the head," "the crown of a tooth") These words are easily used as metaphors for success.

(This post is based on the first paragraph from .)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Easier Said Than Done

Something that is "easier said than done" - in other words, this idiom used as an adjective - means, something that is more difficult to actually do in reality, than to promise, pledge, or vow to do it. 

This is a very common phrase in North America expressing that boasting of doing something before you have actually done it is easy, and worthless. Something easier said than done is something harder to do than it is to boast of doing it.

So, do it.

Example: Billy and Carol are at a karaoke. Billy: "I'm going to sing this song a lot better than Ray over there." Carol: "Easier said than done. He's pretty good at this. Are you?"

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

In Store

Idiomatically speaking, "in store"  means something that is lying in wait for a person to encounter.

Example: "Read on to find out what dangers are in store for our brave hero as he attempts to rescue the beautiful princess!"

For Starters

When I use the phrase, "for starters," I mean, as a starting/ beginning point, the first of a series.

Example: "What kind of movies do you like to watch?" "For starters, I like action movies. I'll also watch the occasional suspense thriller."

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Jumping The Shark

The phrase "jumping the shark" began as the expression of a single person's opinion as to where the once extremely popular American television show, "Happy Days," began a permanent decline away from its peak until the moment it ended. 

In this show, a major character became involved in a water-skiing race. A shark in a netted area of the ocean was to be jumped over as the tiebreaker for the race. This was seen by many as completely ridiculous, and a vivid sign of the declining creativity of the writers of the show. When shows become fully mature, their story lines tend to have already exhausted the best material, leaving second-rate material until the show mercifully comes to an end.

Example: "I think that ____ jumped the shark when..."

Just replace ____ with a given television show, and the idiom is being used correctly.

Rarely, some television shows are considered to have never declined, and maintained a high level of quality right until their final conclusions.

Heading Downhill

When something is figuratively heading downhill (that is, going downhill), it is in decline; it is past its peak and deteriorating.

Example: "After our old boss quit, things headed downhill for about six months until the new manager had learned how everything works. Productivity rose steadily after that point."

In All Seriousness

When I write the phrase, "in all seriousness," I mean, as a completely serious, literal point, without sarcasm, irony, or humor.

Example: "In all seriousness, that house looks absolutely hideous. That shade of purple makes me want to cry."

This is saying, the house in question is not being described as hideous as some sort of joke; no, it really is hideous.

(A house in my local community, which was mercifully torn down to make room for a pharmacy a decade ago, fit this description perfectly, and was painful to even look at for many years. - Jeremiah)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Digging It

An idiom popularized in the 70's, to "dig something" is to like that something very much.

This is often used in reference to music or film or other parts of pop culture.

Example 1: "I'm really digging that dress you wore to the party." "Oh, thank you."

Example 2: "I dig that new film. Has one of my favorite actors in it."

Giving A Damn

A "damn" (a damnation/ condemnation) directed at something is not a positive thing, but at least it means the person "giving a damn" cares about the subject in one way or another. 

The person's level of emotional investment may be quite minimal, but if someone "gives a damn," they at least care something about the outcome of an issue. This is colloquially used in both positive and negative senses.

Example 1: "Tom gives a damn whether or not the Red Sox win the World Series this year, but it's not as if he's betting money on the results. He's just a Red Sox fan."

Example 2: "Troy doesn't give a damn whether his son has good grades or not. What an irresponsible parent he is."

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A.M. and P.M.

Abbreviated from Latin. A.M. means Ante Meridiem and P.M. means Post Meridiem.

Meridiem = Meridian, the dividing line between the early day and the late day, otherwise known as noon.

It is better not to speak of 12 a.m. or 12 p.m., but rather 12 noon or 12 midnight, or simply, noon or midnight. For 24 hour systems, this would be 12:00 for noon and 00:00 for midnight.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Keep Up The Good Work

If someone tells you to keep up the good work, that person is telling you to continue what you are doing. In addition, this statement is complimenting your efforts as good work.

Often, the work has not been complimented prior to saying the phrase, so it is both an urging and a compliment, at the same time.

Example: Janet's boss is pleased with the work she is doing. Her boss walks over and smiles, saying, "Keep up the good work, Janet." Janet knows her boss is pleased - and hopes that Janet can continue producing good results.

To Keep Something Coming

If someone says, keep X coming, this is an invitation to bring more of that thing.

Example: Brian's boss is very pleased with the work Brian has been doing for their insurance company. Brian's boss tells Brian, "Excellent work. Don't stop. Keep it coming." Brian knows his boss is strongly urging him to keep doing excellent work.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

"Make My Day"

Doubling as a famous quote, "Make my day" is urging someone else to provide an excuse for a violent confrontation, which will provide pleasure to the speaker. This may or may not be used as a bluff.

More broadly, if something makes your day, it has made the day a good one.

Example 1: "Sure, throw the first punch. Make my day. I'll enjoy hitting you back."

Example 2: "I just got a call from my Uncle Jack. I haven't heard from him in two years. It really made my day! I wish he'd call more often."

Forcing Something

Literally, to force something into a suitcase (for example) would be to push and push to squeeze clothing into the suitcase. This is despite the clothing not being properly packed to fit inside the suitcase's size.

Figuratively, to force something is to attempt to succeed by effort where an action is not appropriate, suitable, or comfortable.

Example: Violet is planning to visit her sister Maggie, and Maggie's husband, Joe. Violet loves her sister but despises Joe, holding great contempt for him. Violet's friend Sarah says to Violet, "You shouldn't force yourself to be nice to him. He's a jerk." Violet replies, "Yes, but he's married to my sister. I don't want to cause trouble for her."

As in this example, people can force themselves figuratively to do something, or attempt to do something, that is against their natures and their desires, either for their own sakes or the sakes of others.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Turning The Page

Figuratively speaking, to "turn the page" on something is to leave an event or series of events behind and continue on with life. 

If one phase of a series of events can be likened to a page, to turn the page is to make that series of events into history. This seeks to express that there has been some kind of fundamental shift, an irreversible change that marks a new phase in life.

Example: On August 31, 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama declared an end to U.S. combat operations in Iraq in accordance with its Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq. In doing so, Obama's staff told the news media that he would absolutely not use the words Mission Accomplished in regards to Iraq. (A careful reader of my post on "Mission Accomplished" will note that technically, President Bush did not speak the words either. They were simply on a highly visible banner.)

Instead, President Obama said, "It is time to turn the page." This wording was intended to convey that a new phase had begun in Iraq, a phase intended to be different from the old one, and better than the old one. However, even though the words are different, the meaning of "time to turn the page" and "Mission Accomplished" is extremely close, to the point of being virtually identical. It is obviously the hope of the Obama administration that listeners will view Obama's statement as having the "proper" meaning without being "tainted" by a phrase using different words, with an identical meaning, used years earlier in a way that was thought, in hindsight, to be unwise and improper.

In other words, this time, we really mean it.

Mission Accomplished

Originating from the military, "mission accomplished" simply means that a mission's goals have been successfully fulfilled.

The trick is defining the mission properly. Technically, a mission is a single complex task within larger operations, battles, and wars. Idiomatically, politicians often use the word mission to refer to any major sustained effort. These two meanings can come into conflict.

Example: In a famous speech, former U.S. President George W. Bush declared major combat operations in Iraq to be over, speaking from an aircraft carrier with a huge "Mission Accomplished" banner visible to the news media. "Minor" combat operations would claim the lives of many Americans and a great many Iraqis in years to come. Here, the literal mission may have been accomplished, but the figurative mission was far from finished, and far from success.

I Can't Thank You Enough

When someone says, "I can't thank you enough," this is saying that words alone are insufficient to represent the deep gratitude the other person has for you.

Example: Doctor: "There, this antibiotics prescription should eliminate the infection completely. Make sure you take all of the pills." Patient: "I can't thank you enough, Doctor."

Words Fail Me

When words fail you, you are unable to find the proper words to fit a situation, often because the situation is so abnormal.

Example: Laura: "Can you believe it? Denise is back together with that no-good boyfriend of hers, even though he might go to prison for that robbery he did two months ago." Angela: "..Words fail me." Laura: "It's unbelievable."

At A Loss For Words

When a person is at a loss for words, that person is speechless.

Speechless does not mean unable to speak (i.e. a person who is mute); it means someone who is too overwhelmed to speak, or at the very least, unable to say anything profound enough to suit (fit) the occasion.

Example 1: Margaret: "I saw a car accident where five people died. It was horrible...!" Peter: "I'm at a loss for words. That's terrible, I'm so sorry to hear that."

Example 2: Patricia: "My friend in Boston won a million dollars in the lottery!" Donald: "I'm at a loss for words... that's incredible!"

Monday, August 30, 2010

"I Can't Hear You!"

An idiom used by military drill sergeants in an aggressive, provocative way. When a drill sergeant yells this at a new recruit at a distance of two inches, the message being conveyed is this: "Speak louder!"

Being an idiom, this is not formal, and it is far less polite - but it is not intended to be polite. It is intended to get the recruit accustomed to being yelled at and to respond in a soldier-like manner.

Even though this idiom has military roots, it is used throughout society to imply that the speaker should speak louder. Here's an example without relying on the idiom alone:

Example: Janet was trying to call Jonathan on his cell phone to tell her about Lisa's getting engaged to be married. Jonathan was having a difficult time hearing Janet's voice due to poor signal strength. He said to her, "I can't hear you! Speak louder!" Janet replied at the top of her lungs, "LISA'S GETTING MARRIED!" Jonathan replied, "Oh!! That's wonderful!"