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.