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!"

To Snatch Away

To snatch away something is to a) grab onto something, b) take possession of it, c) take it out of reach of the original possessor.

This idiom is often split.

Example: "The Washington Redskins snatched victory away from the Arizona Cardinals with a last-minute field goal, winning the game 22 to 21."

At The Top Of Your Lungs

To say something at the top of one's lungs is to say it very loudly, probably by SHOUTING.

The reason Internet writers are encouraged not to use "all caps" (all capital letters) is because it is understood by the native English speaker as equivalent to shouting, which is far too loud for a conversational tone.

Example: Lisa entered the home of her best friend and exclaimed at the top of her lungs, "I'm getting married!!!" Her best friend Janet replied, "That's wonderful!!" in a normal voice.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Hanging Your Head (In Shame)

To "hang your head" is not to commit suicide; it is to lower your head in shame or embarrassment.

You hang your head by tilting your head forward, eyes looking down. This is body language associated with shame, defeat, and humiliation.

Example: "In football, only those who hold back, who give less than their best effort to win, should hang their heads in shame."

Leaving It All On The Field

This idiom, from professional sports, refers to exhausting all possible efforts to win, either individually or as a team.

Figuratively, this refers to leaving one's sweat, blood, and tears on the playing field. This represents being sincere in one's effort to achieve victory, but does not refer to cheating or other morally questionable methods. It refers simply to hard work and exertion.

Example: "In football, there is no shame in being defeated as long as you leave it all on the field."

Saturday, August 28, 2010


Figuratively speaking, if something is "cool," it is stylish.

This, too, can be applied to both people and things.

Example 1: "That football quarterback is so cool! He doesn't just win games; he's always well-dressed."

Example 2: "I saw a really cool movie the other day."


Figuratively speaking, something that is "hot" is intense.

When applied to people, particularly women, this means, for example, intensely sexy.

When applied to products, it means, intensely popular.

Example 1: "That actress is really hot. Is she single?"

Example 2: "The Prius is really hot right now. You can't just buy it from the dealer and drive it off the lot; you're put on a waiting list and might have to wait months!"

To Trust Blindly

To trust a person, or a news source, "blindly" is to trust it without question; without the slightest doubt that the source may be mistaken.

Example: Yesterday, I read a story called "Wired youth forget how to write in China and Japan."  According to the story, young people in China and Japan - countries with very high literacy rates - are forgetting how to write with a pen, and gradually, how to even read "kanji," the Chinese characters that are the foundation of both writing systems. This amnesia is supposedly due to young people doing so much "texting" (sending text mesages) with cell phones using pinyin or kana, which function more like alphabets.

Today, I spoke to a resident of China, a Chinese native speaker, who is learning English. After answering a question of his, I mentioned the above news story. He replied, "But the truth is not like that." I answered back, "I'm used to the media exaggerating so I didn't trust the article blindly." I retained skepticism that the article was truly accurate and represented the full story.

The opposite of trusting blindly is to take something with a grain of salt, which is featured in my eBook, "Food for Thought."

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"I'm Free"

Generally, this is not a reference to freedom, as in, the opposite of slavery or imprisonment, but saying, "I have free time right now; I am available."

Example: "Can you talk right now?" "Yeah, I'm free." This means, the speaker is free (at liberty) to talk.

This can be applied as a question: "Are you free?" This asks, "Are you free to talk?" (at liberty to speak)

Cultural Epicenter

Literally, an epicenter is the point of origin of an earthquake, the part that has the strongest vibrations. Figuratively, especially when applied to culture, an "epicenter" is the center, the focal point, the place with the richest, highest concentration of something, such as culture.

Example: In a recent review of Sapporo University for potential exchange students to Japan, I wrote, "Of course, being removed from the cultural epicenters of Japan means making some compromises. Certain things will probably be more expensive in Hokkaido than they would be in Honshu. Hotels don’t seem to have free Internet, for instance."

To conclude the article, I wrote, "It’s an interesting mixture of nature and people, occupying a different place on the slider than options in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto." Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto are the cultural epicenters of Japan.

Monday, August 23, 2010

"I'll Let You Kick This One Off"

In idiomatic speech, to "kick off" something is to begin something; that is, to be the first to do something.

Example: In a recent "The Early Show" segment on CBS, two political commentators were being consulted by a CBS hostess about recent political events: (Republican) Ann Coulter, and (Democratic) Tanya Acker. The first question concerned credit for the U.S. withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq for President Obama. The second question concerned what the Associated Press now calls the "NY Mosque" controversy.

Ann Coulter had answered the segment's first question before Tanya. When the hostess posed the second question, she said, "Tanya, I'll let you kick this one off." This meant, Tanya would be permitted to answer first for the second part of the segment. It is in this sense that she was "kicking off" the second part.

(English Idioms takes no political positions, but this is a real-life example of the idiom.)

"Did You Get Him?"

In American action movies, to "get" someone is to successfully kill or make unable to fight an enemy in a gunfight.

This use was a feature of idiomatic speech in the U.S. Army long before ever seeing the movie screen.

Example: In "Cop Out," the goofy African-American sidekick "Paul" (played by Tracy Morgan) to Bruce Willis' character "Jimmy," successfully shoots "a bad guy" in a gunfight within the corridor directly behind the front door of a house owned by a notorious drug dealer.

"Jimmy" (Bruce Willis) asks, "Did you get him?"

"Paul" (Tracy Morgan) replies, "His head ain't on his body no more, does that count?" [Rough paraphrasing. I only saw the movie because a family member rented it.]

This means, the bad guy's head had been "taken off" by the gunshot so yes, that was probably a fatal shot. (Probably?) 

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Something You Can Live With

Broadly speaking, "something you can live with" is something that is undesirable, but is tolerable and can be withstood. In business, "something you can live with" is a deal that will not result in catastrophic consequences such as bankruptcy.

This idiom is used to describe a painful result that is not "fatal" to a company; if it is not "deadly" or "lethal" to the company's profits, the financial pain can be tolerated.

Example: "Company X made many concessions in its recent deal with the labor union. The deal was something the company could live with. Regardless, a prolonged strike would have been more damaging than the deal that was reached."

Meeting In The Middle

To "meet in the middle" (also: meet mid-way, meet halfway) is, put simply, to compromise during negotiations of some sort.

The context can be political or social, but is often applied to business deals. Each side concedes something in order to reach an agreement that benefits both sides in some way, even if neither side is fully satisfied with the result.

Example: "Company X avoided a long labor dispute with the union representing its workers. The union's demands were very high, but both sides met in the middle and a deal was reached."

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Day of Reckoning

Literally, the Day of Reckoning (capitalized) is, in Christian religion, the day of God's final judgment upon all nations. Figuratively speaking, the day of reckoning (not capitalized) for a person accused of a crime is the day upon which a verdict is rendered, finding the accused guilty or innocent.

Example: In medieval English law (let's say, 1066 to 1350 A.D.), an "appeal of felony" was a private prosecution against a person for some kind of crime. With rare exception, the appeal had to be made by the person harmed by the action. In the case of a murder, the wife of a murdered man could make the "appeal of felony." 

In these times, such lawsuits were usually for some kind of financial compensation. These lawsuits were usually settled before the day of reckoning. If both sides came to terms, money or some other form of compensation was paid to the spouse of the victim.

That is to say, usually, a settlement would be reached before a judge decides whether the defendant is guilty or innocent. If found guilty of murder, the defendant would be executed through hanging! Clearly, there would be little point in settling the case after the day of reckoning, with the defendant either found innocent (and owing nothing) or guilty (and paying with his life!). 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Aiming For Something

To "aim for" something is to work towards a particular goal.

The goal must be specific for the word "aim" (or "aiming") to have any meaning. Taking aim is as in archery or marksmanship; it is to identify a specific, particular target and aim a weapon at it, preparing to fire. Thus, figuratively, this means to move closer to one goal, rather than many.

Example: U.K. Universities Minister David Willetts urged high school graduates who did not successfully obtain a place at a university (when trying to do so) to do volunteer work to improve their resumes and to consider aiming for heavily attended (high student population), less exclusive, less prestigious universities. This would give students refused entry to better universities an opportunity to get some kind of university education, rather than nothing.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hopping Mad

This idiom creates the image of someone hopping (jumping) up and down, enraged and furious. 

This expression comes from the early 1800's and has been a regular feature of English since. It is not meant to be taken literally, but to be a vivid expression of intense emotion.

Example: "The boss was hopping mad when he found out that someone had been stealing from his department. He's very determined to fire the person responsible."

Getting Under Someone's Skin

To figuratively "get under someone's skin" is to annoy that person, as if you are a bad itch.

Example: "That used car salesman really gets under my skin. He's so annoying when he talks like he's your best friend, especially when he's trying to trick you into something. I wish he'd just go away."

You've Gotta Be Kidding Me

This is a modern, informal version of "You must be joking." It is an expression of disbelief regarding something another person has said.

Example: "I heard that Mary-Ann is going to marry Frank in two months." "You've gotta be kidding me! There's no way she'd get together with a boring man like that!" This is an expression of complete disbelief.

Although idioms in general are not "formal English," expressions like "gotta be" ("have got to be") are informal; they are slang, and should never be used in formal situations. This particular idiom/ expression is nonetheless extremely common in American English.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Throwing The Baby Out With The Bathwater

To figuratively "throw the baby out with the bathwater" is to discard the good alongside the bad.

In old England, dirty, used bathwater from a baby's bath was discarded behind a house. No one sane would ever throw out the baby with the bathwater. Therefore, this expression describes an act of extreme foolishness and a complete lack of understanding of value and worth.

Example: "It is simply wrong to replace the entire marketing staff just because of one failed sales campaign. There are some people that need replacing, yes, but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater! We need to hold onto the good people that we already have."

Off The Reservation

Someone who is, figuratively speaking, "off the reservation" is beyond the control of his or her supposed leader.

The word "reservation" is used in two senses: animal preserves, where hunting of animals is forbidden, and reservations for Native American Indians, upon which these people are permitted by national governments (be they American or Canadian) to live largely according to traditional tribal laws rather than under the authority of state or provincial governments.

In either case, to be "off the reservation" is to be beyond a well-defined boundary.

Example: "Richard was speaking to a reporter about his division's new product. Either his boss knows about it and this was planned, or Richard is completely off the reservation and will get in very serious trouble. Unless he had approval, he could lose his job over this."

In this case, Richard is either part of a plan to quietly announce the product to the news media, or he has leaked in violation of his company contract. The latter would definitely be beyond a well-defined boundary!

At First Blush

The idiom "at first blush" is based on the initial appearance of something. 

Just as the rose-colored sky before the dawn is not representative of the color of the sky during the day, the first blush has a tendency to mislead the viewer about the truth of the situation.

Example: "At first blush, the offer seemed reasonable. However, I realized that the seller was asking for far too much given the questionable condition of the merchandise."

Love At First Sight

A particularly common English idiom, "love at first sight" is a strong and immediate attraction to someone upon meeting, and seeing, that person for the first time.

The implication is that this attraction is due to external factors: physical attractiveness, sex appeal, and so forth. It is not based on knowledge of the other person's thoughts or personality.

Example: "When Billy met Cassie, it was love at first sight. He was stunned by her casual charm and elegant figure."

Review: Animal Idioms

John was always an eager beaver whenever he bought a new tool. First, he would be a busy bee around the house, repairing or renovating everything in sight. Then, he would put his tools away in his overcrowded garage. John was a packrat who never threw a single tool away, leaving his garage very crowded.

Reginald was a fat cat who had made hundreds of millions during the real estate boom. However, his best known project, an expensive hotel, was criticized as a white elephant that consumed a great deal of money while delivering very little in return.

Carol believed at one time that her husband was being faithful, but she smelled a rat when he was arriving "late from work" one too many times. Carol's friend Sandra let the cat out of the bag by telling Carol that her husband had indeed been unfaithful; he had been sleeping with Sandra! This revelation opened a can of worms by causing a great deal of friction between the one-time friends.

Veronica enjoys pigging out at the local fast food restaurant. Often, she can be seen wolfing down a hamburger during her lunch break. Peter, an acquaintance, asked Veronica's friend Kathy if Veronica would ever eat in a more dignified and ladylike manner. Kathy replied, "Yeah, when pigs fly!"

Donald was speaking with his grandmother over the phone. She was having difficulty speaking clearly. Donald asked, "Are you all right? You sound like you have a frog in your throat. You should be careful. People have been dropping like flies with the flu this year. If you don't feel well, you need to see a doctor."

A Busy Bee

A "busy bee" is someone or some creature who or that is very busy, like an industrious worker bee.

Example: "Lucy was a busy bee around the house, washing dishes, dusting shelves, and doing the laundry."

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Smelling A Rat

Just as something being "fishy" describes something suspicious, to "smell a rat" is to suspect trickery or treachery.

Trickery is as in fraud. Treachery is as in betrayal. Also, in criminal culture, "a rat" is a police informant. This term has spread into popular culture; "ratting" or "ratting out" is to inform on someone and betray that person to an authority of some kind, whether lawful (police) or unlawful (organized crime).

Example: "I considered buying that car at nine thousand dollars, but I smelled a rat. The car should have been worth much more. I looked deeper and discovered that the engine will need to be replaced. That'll add thousands of dollars to the price. I want a good car for $9000, but I want one in good condition."

When a dog bred to hunt rats acts like it is suspicious, it probably smells a rat. This is the origin of the expression.

A Packrat

The Packrat - genus Neotoma - is a type of rodent of western North America that is famous for hoarding food and other objects.

Similarly, when a human is referred to as "a packrat," the person is being described as someone who hoards objects, finding ever more creative ways to pack the maximum amount of possessions in the space available.

Example: "Jerry's a total packrat. He never throws his old junk away. His house is so packed full of old things, you can barely walk in it! He needs to throw that junk out!"

Well, as a famous proverb says, one man's trash is another man's treasure. A packrat wants to keep objects around because they could be useful in the future; thus, they are held for their potential value, not their value at the present. To someone else, these objects are junk; to the packrat, they are much more valuable. Only time can tell us if the packrat is correct in his assessments, or is simply overzealous and obsessive beyond the point of reason.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Frog In Your Throat

If a person really did have a frog in his or her throat, that person would have a very difficult time speaking. As an idiom, to have a frog in your throat means to be speaking with a hoarse voice.

Hoarse means gruff, deep, and harsh. It is usually caused by some kind of illness.

Example: "Mary, are you all right? You sound like you have a frog in your throat." "Ah, I'm fine, it's just a cold, nothing serious." Here, Mary's voice sounds hoarse, but it is not (to anyone's knowledge) caused by a serious illness, but by the common cold.

When Pigs Fly

One of English's more colorful idioms, "when pigs fly" describes an extremely unlikely event, one that will never realistically come to pass.

Pigs would only fly (legitimately) if they sprouted angel-like wings and began flying on their own power. This is a ridiculous idea, and is used to ridicule another idea.

Example: "Think you might wind up marrying Ray someday?"  "Me? Marry that fat, lazy slob Ray? When pigs fly!!" In this case, the speaker is strongly denying that there is even a remote possibility of marrying "Ray."

Horsing Around

To "horse around" is to play roughly, without regard for normal limitations such as rules or safety.

Real horses play very energetically and roughly. This is why "horsing around" creates an image of rough, physical activity. However, children "horsing around" can cause damage to private property, or injury to themselves or each other. Parents and school teachers usually limit or ban horsing around for this reason.

Example: "Ted and Tommy were horsing around outside. Because of that, Ted tripped and scraped his left knee. Their mother should tell them to tone it down."

The word horseplay (a noun) represents the act of horsing around.

An Eager Beaver

Someone said to be "an eager beaver" is someone very excited and enthusiastic about doing a particular task.

Example: "Ron's been such an eager beaver since joining the company. He volunteers for everything and never complains."

While this is usually a positive trait, excessive enthusiasm can be annoying, or threatening, to some, especially in a very competitive environment.

A person can be an eager beaver for a particular task, that the person particularly likes.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Dropping Like Flies

When many living creatures, including plants, are dying in large numbers, English natives often say, they are "dropping like flies."

Few high school graduates in Western countries are unaware of fruit fly experiments. Fruit flies have a short life span; that is why science studies them extensively. A group of fruit flies that has reached the end of that life span will result in many small, dead flies lying on their backs. This is the image created by the expression, dropping like flies.

Example: "Many elderly people have been dropping like flies during the heat wave in Russia. Please, check up on your loved ones and make sure they are safe and sound." (Safe and sound is another idiom that means "safe and in sound (good) health.")

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Wolfing Food Down

To "wolf down" food is to eat food quickly, without fully chewing it.

Often, something that is wolfed down is not really chewed at all; it is simply swallowed.

Example: "Peter wolfed down his sandwich before leaving for work. I think he was in a hurry." In this case, Peter would have had to chew his sandwich somewhat (or choke to death!), but he did not take the time to eat the sandwich slowly. Rather, he ate as quickly as physically possible, swallowing his food in as large chunks as possible, to save time before hurrying to go to work.

Pigging Out

To "pig out" is to eat a great deal of food, thus resembling a hungry pig.

Pigs do not have table manners, so the phrase implies eating without any regard for manners whatsoever. Either way, the phrase implies eating a large amount of food.

Example: "Martha's kids were pigging out at McDonald's the other day. They were eating so many French fries, I thought they would burst." This means, the children were eating a great deal of French fries. French fries from a fast food restaurant are usually eaten with fingers, not forks, so "pigging out" can be an appropriate idiom for eating that way.

Opening A Can Of Worms

Figuratively, to open a can of worms is to create or initiate a situation that will cause trouble or will simply be unpleasant.

Worms are considered unpleasant and rather dirty in English culture. To open a can of worms - such as worms prepared as bait for fish - makes cleaning things up again much more difficult. Just as letting the cat out of the bag means letting a secret out that cannot be hidden again, opening a can of worms means starting trouble that is much more difficult to finish, than it was to start.

Example: "When Jim said bad things about Megan's web page, little did he know that he was opening a can of worms. The fans of Megan's page were convinced that the criticism was unfair and mean-spirited. Jim ended up receiving an avalanche of criticism himself." In this example, the initiator of trouble gets far more trouble than he bargained for (than he believed he was going to receive).

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Letting The Cat Out Of The Bag

Letting the cat out of the bag, is a metaphor for revealing a secret. It is far easier to keep a cat in a bag, than to put the cat back into the bag after it is out. Cats, like secrets, are very independent creatures that do not do as they are told; they follow their own desires. Once revealed, a secret cannot be made secret again; it spreads and becomes known to one and all.

Example: "Billy was having an affair with Jessica, but his wife didn't know. Jessica started bragging about it and one of her friends told Billy's wife. Now the cat's out of the bag and Billy's wife is probably going to divorce him." The consequences of a secret being revealed cannot normally be undone. Once the cat is out of the bag, it stays out.

I Love Good English

I have a Facebook page that I administer. I did not create it, but I was asked by the creator to administer it. It's called English Idioms. It has twenty four thousand "fans" on it. Comments are not moderated, but most are about learning, well, English idioms: idiomatic phrases like "A White Elephant" and "Putting Food On The Table."

I am not paid for this in any way. All of my efforts on this Facebook page are absolutely free. Somehow, this is not good enough for some people... not English learners, but people who want to draw fans on my page to their own pages.

Today, one of the owners of a rival page with some five hundred "fans" insulted my page again, in public, stating that no one needs "correct" English and my page was "really going to the dogs." (He also wrote many words in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, but that is another story.)

Let me address an issue here.

Correct English is English that is technically correct in the sense of grammar.

First, speaking about "correct English" makes it sound like there is only one version of English that is correct. This is false. English is a mix of two styles of writing: one German, one Latin. The Latin version is reflected in standard French. This means, English will almost always have two ways of writing something that is correct; both ways have the same meaning. Sometimes there are three or four ways. All are "correct."

To teach correct English would be to teach people to use English that is grammatically correct, even when it sounds bad.

That is emphatically not what I do.

I teach good English.

The English I teach sounds good. It reflects my experience as a professional writer and native English speaker. Usually, in fact, almost always, the good English I push is "correct," but I will never criticize a learner for using English that is "incorrect" but which sounds natural. After all, native speakers do this all the time.

The point is, when there are several ways to write correctly, but only one way sounds good, I always teach the way that sounds good. That is teaching good English.

This person used the word "correct," but what he was really implying is that no one needs to learn good English.

To this, I say: you are wrong.

Good English is the difference between sounding like a fluent, but uneducated and rude person, and sounding like a fluent, educated person worthy of respect in a civilized society. Unfortunately, I do not think this individual can appreciate the difference. Certainly his actions show no regard for the difference.


Separately, but within the same time frame, the administrator of a page called "I Hate Bad English" made a post on English Idioms that truly disturbed me.

The post read, "Do you know the difference between 'Where is he from?' and 'Where does he come from?' He linked to his own page to suggest people find the answer there, but bear with me.

There is no difference.

The meaning of 'Where is he from?' and 'Where does he come from?' is absolutely, 100% identical.

Both are correct in English.

To imply, falsely, that there is a difference between the two, is wrong. It is, frankly, downright cruel.

It is suggesting that there is an important difference between five plus four, and two plus seven. There is not. Both are equal to nine.

This is what is known in English as 'a distinction without a difference.'

Here's my problem with this: even a non-native English speaker who knows the correct answer, will doubt that answer when he sees a native speaker imply that there is a difference after all.

The non-native thinks, is there something wrong what I know? Do I not know enough? Did I go wrong somewhere? Is there a difference that I didn't know about? What's wrong with me?

To make someone who knows, correctly, that there is no difference, think these thoughts, is cruel.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of legitimate English issues that this man could have addressed, but instead, he chose to use a trick question.

By the way, this man denied it was a trick question. He said, "I just wanted to make people think about the language." Sir, that is exactly what trick questions do. They make people think about something that they should not have to think about, because they already know the correct answer.

Incidentally, his own page says both are correct and mean the same thing. I looked so that you don't have to.

In fact, the only distinction between the two is a matter of style.

Style, you ask? What do I mean, style?

I mean, even if two ways to write something are exactly the same, a writer could choose one over the other for reasons of style alone.

After all, 'Where is he from?' is a sentence with four syllables and four words. 'Where does he come from?' has five syllables and five words. It takes longer to say. It puts stress on the sentence. It makes the sentence sound slightly more important.

Understanding the difference in style lets a person choose which version is appropriate for a situation. It is not a matter of correct English; it is a matter of good English.

Most importantly, it is a matter of choice. In English, we always have choices. In English, we have a strange freedom; we can express the same thing in many different ways, using many different styles.

Good English is simply using the language as a tool to convey to others what we really think and feel in our hearts.

That is all.

That is why I love good English, and why I seek to help others learn good English, so that they may enjoy this language like I do every day.

Thank you.

A Fat Cat

Idiomatically, "a fat cat" is someone who is very wealthy and, as a result, is able to eat more food than necessary and otherwise enjoy a life of luxury. Thus, they resemble fat, lazy cats that eat, sleep and do nothing useful.

Once, wealthy people who were plump (not obese necessarily, but merely larger than average) had their size seen as proof of their wealth, showing that they could survive famine and that they stood above ordinary people.

Today, obesity is more of a problem with poorer people who cannot afford health food, gym memberships, and all the various trappings of a "healthy lifestyle." Fatter foods have become cheaper and available to the masses, while healthier foods have been made more expensive.

In practice, any wealthy person can be described as "a fat cat," but in modern times, this has a clear, negative connotation.

Example: "The fat cat who runs the local bank is a greedy jerk who enjoys taking advantage of people. Even though he has so much money, he tries to cheat other people in business, even over the most trivial things! He won't even tip waiters at restaurants properly." This describes a person viewed (by the speaker) as being unjustly rich, and unjustly aggressive in seeking to save trivial amounts of money (to a rich person).

A White Elephant

White elephants have been regarded as holy in Thailand, India and other Asian countries since ancient times. The owner of a white elephant was required by law to pay for the upkeep of the elephant with special (and thus, expensive) food and to provide access for common people to worship the white elephant.

It is said that if a Thai king was dissatisfied with a subject, he would give the subject a white elephant. Since the elephant was holy, it could not be refused. As a consequence, the cost of maintaining the elephant would bankrupt the subject, reducing him to poverty and suffering. Thus, the "gift" was a gift meant to hurt the recipient.

Idiomatically, a white elephant is something that is very expensive to maintain, and which provides absolutely no benefit whatsoever to the owner.

Example: The Millennium Dome, a structure built in England to house an exhibition from January 1, 2000 until the end of that year (which brought in the new millennium, hence the name). The Dome is considered to be a poorly planned and poorly managed project that did not attract the expected number of visitors. Also, after the original exhibition was closed, the Dome cost one million pounds per month to maintain. Because of this, many considered the Dome to be a white elephant, a building that was nothing but a financial burden to the government, and to taxpayers.

The English word boondoggle is often used with a similar meaning, implying financial waste without meaningful gain.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Tip of the Iceberg

High school science classes teach us all about icebergs, or ice in general, and how the ice visible on the surface is only a small portion of the ice itself. This visual deception was one factor in the sinking of the Titanic in the early 20th century.

Figuratively, "the tip of the iceberg" is a small, visible portion of a larger, real problem.

Example: Company X is having trouble selling a particular product. A manager is examining customer complaints about the product. These complaints include frustration with customer support staff. The manager reports to the company president, "I'm sorry but, the complaints about thin-skinned customer support staff are just the tip of the iceberg. This product is the subject of five times the complaints of products we've sold in similar numbers. I'm convinced this is an indication of larger problems."

A Stick-In-The-Mud

Figuratively, a stick-in-the-mud (usually written with hyphens and pronounced as if it is one long word) is a person whose behavior resembles, well, a stick (of wood) impaled in mud: someone who is resistant to being pulled into a productive activity. Such a person is a loner who does not like group activities or may be actively hostile to them. In vocabulary, a "grouch" is similar.

Example: "Carol was inviting co-workers to a party. However, she did not even bother trying to invite Paul to the party. Carol knew Paul was a stick-in-the-mud who hated parties; even if Paul could be convinced to go, he would ruin the party with his negative attitude. As a result, Carol did not invite him at all."

A Sight For Sore Eyes

"A sight for sore eyes" is something, or someone, that is a relief to see after a long absence.

A person who makes a journey to another country for an extended period of time will say this to express joy at returning home.


Howard is an American who has been working overseas, in Europe, for a period of ten months. Only now is he returning to the United States by airplane. As his plane flies to an international airport in New Jersey, he sees land through his window. He sees America.

In his mind, he thinks to himself, "That sure is a sight for sore eyes." Howard is happy to be back in America after so long.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Raining On Someone's Parade

To "rain on someone's parade" is to criticize someone when they are doing something that makes them happy, as if ruining a fun parade with a rainstorm. Example: "Bill rained on Janet's parade by badmouthing the graphics she did for the new ad campaign. She's quite upset about it; I mean, she woked so hard on those graphics."

Making Waves

To "make waves" is the opposite of "going with the flow." To make waves is to stand out, to demonstrate your individuality and uniqueness, and to make a name for yourself by becoming better known. Hopefully, when we make waves, it is in a good way, so that we are known for our successes, and not for our failures. Example: "Martha made waves when she campaigned for extra sick leave for all employees. Not everyone agreed with her, but everyone respected that she genuniely believes in her idea."

Go With The Flow

Figuratively speaking, "the flow" is the course of events; it is the direction society is taking, and the momentum behind the movement in that direction. To go with the flow is to do as others do and to take the path of least resistance, like water coursing through a river. Example: "You're new on the job. You should go with the flow for a little while until you get the feel of things. You can make a name for yourself later." The new worker is being advised to take his time and not focus on standing out as an individual until he understands the "flow" of the workplace.

Down to Earth

Someone who is "down to earth" is someone in touch with the lives and realities of ordinary people. No matter how high a person's social status, if we say that person is "down to earth," that person does not behave in a way that is separate from the average person. Example: "Louse makes a lot of money, but she's very down to earth. She treats everyone like they're important and doesn't act arrogant or spoiled whatsoever." This phrasing is meant as a compliment.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Under the Weather

Someone said to be "under the weather" is someone who appears to be at less than full health, like a sky that is cloudy instead of clear. The person can either be ill, or intoxicated; the important thing is that the person is not feeling well. Ex.: "Arnold looks under the weather. Maybe he's having a bad reaction to the mussels he ate last night?" Mussels are a type of sea food; people not used to eating them will sometimes get seriously ill due to sensitivity to particular bacteria. A milder reaction may merely make someone feel under the weather.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Weathering the Storm

To weather a storm is to endure a difficult, but temporary situation. Because the difficult situation is temporary, it resembles a passing storm. Eventually, the storm ends. Ex.: "The Senator was under a cloud of suspicion, but no hard evidence was found. As a result, he was cleared of all wrongdoing. He had successfully weathered the storm." In the West, the presumption of innocence means that an inability to prove someone guilty results in complete innocence before the law. Whether or not the public is convinced is another matter.

Having Your Head In The Clouds

To have your head in the clouds means that your thoughts are not on the task at hand. Your thoughts are elsewhere, as if they are floating in the clouds, not firmly planted into the soil. Ex.: "Keep your head out of the clouds and concentrate on finishing this essay! You can't keep your grades high if you don't finish your homework on time!" This is admonishing a student to focus on the task before him (an essay) rather than think about other subjects, perhaps more enjoyable ones.


Something or someone that is lightning-quick is, figuratively, as quick (as fast and agile) as lightning. Ex.: "That hockey team's center is lightning-quick! He can score goals before you even know he's there." Can be written "lightning quick" (two words). Equivalents: Quick as a flash; quick as a wink; quick as lightning. All of these mean the same thing; the only thing that changes is how the idea is conveyed.