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.