Wednesday, June 8, 2011


In an entertainment context, "buzz" means the amount of popular discussion about a subject. This discussion is not by movie critics, but by people at large. Therefore, those measuring it cannot point to specific reviews or specific words; they measure "buzz," which is a representation of background noise.

Example: "There is a misconception that buzz will always transfer into sales," says Matt Smith, co-founder of the digital media and marketing company The Viral Factory, responsible for the viral campaign to launch the 2008 film Cloverfield."

Original story re: the next Batman film's viral marketing campaign here. .

Cold Case

A "cold case" is an investigation that has had no new developments for a long period of time. Here, a "case" is a less formal word for "a police investigation".

A cold case is a case that does not have any "hot leads," that is, the case is not getting warmer (which would mean getting closer to a conclusion). A lead is a piece of information that leads the investigator to new facts and evidence.

A cold case that develops a new, but not dramatic, lead may be said to be "warming up." A cold case that develops a new, dramatic lead can be said to be "heating up." A case that has a number of fresh, dramatic leads is "a hot case."

"Cold Case" is the title of a Western television program. The heroine investigates cases that have been "cold" for some time, resolving cases that have gone unresolved for years.

On Ice

When something is figuratively put "on ice," it is preserved and protected, and out of sight.

This combination can be used in good and bad ways.

Example 1: "Having scored its fourth goal, England's victory was on ice." This means victory was preserved.

Example 2: "Once England scored its fourth goal, South Africa was put on ice." This means that the South Africa team was disposed of, and its chances of victory were put out of reach.

Example 3: "The report on police corruption was put on ice by a nervous mayor." This implies that the report in question was permanently placed where the public would not see it.

As you can see, a single idiom can be used in various ways... but the meanings are all similar. It's simply a matter of applying the idiom to the circumstances of the sentence, otherwise known as the context.

Getting Warmer

When someone is playing a guessing game, the person asking the question might say, "You're getting warmer." This means, a guess is getting closer and closer to the answer.

Example: Paul: "Guess how many pennies I'm holding."
Jason: "Uh... five."
Paul: "Wrong."
Jason: "Uhhh, okay. Nine."
Paul: "Getting warmer."
Jason: "Eleven!"
Paul: "Still warm."
Jason: "Ten?"
Paul: "Yes, I'm holding ten pennies."

This type of idiom is used for other kinds of "games" as well.

Conversely, "getting colder" means getting further away from the correct answer.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Suffix, -ish

When used as a suffix, the modern colloquial idiom -ish indicates, "approximately".

Example: Dave: "So when should I pick you up to go to the movie?" Melissa: "Eight-ish. It only starts at 8:30."

In this example, the meaning is "sometime around eight o'clock". It can be 8:05, even 8:10; Melissa lives only a few minutes' drive away from the movie theater. Dave does not need to arrive "on the dot" (exactly at 8:00 PM). However, he should still arrive at a time relatively close to 8:00.

This could also be written "8-ish"; it is not likely to ever be accepted in formal written English. It is colloquial, and widely understood by native speakers (at least in North America), and should always be used appropriately to indicate an inexact, approximate quantity.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Coming To A Head

When things are "coming to a head," a confrontation or point of crisis is being reached, usually after a long period of build-up.

Example: "Canada Post's urban workers could go on strike late Thursday night if the Crown corporation declines to accept its latest offer, as seven months of heated negotiations between the two sides appears ready to come to a head."

That is, at the time this story was written, the two sides had not "sealed the deal" (reached an agreement successfully); rather, a strike has been called, and Canada's postal workers were set to go on strike within days.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Hitting the Books

To "hit the books" is to devote yourself to study. This is as opposed to hitting the hay (going to sleep).

Example: "We need to study for our Physics test. We'd better hit the books for a while."

Bonus Example: "I'm going to hit the books for an hour; then I'm going to hit the hay."

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Turkeys Voting for Christmas

Turkey is a traditional Christmas holiday meal in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. No one asks turkey birds themselves whether they believe Christmas is a good thing. If anyone was to put Christmas to a vote among turkeys, it is strongly assumed turkeys would vote Christmas out of existence.

This silly scenario gives rise to the idiom, "Turkeys voting for Christmas." In other words, this is an idiom for people voting against their own best interests, individually and as a group. This is usually brought up in the context of how people, as a rule, don't vote for something obviously against their own interests.

Example: "From the sublime to the ridiculous, Greek newspaper reports have it that Prime Minister George Papandreou has threatened to call a referendum on the austerity measures if he cannot secure political agreement. The story has been denied, but it demonstrates how desperate the situation has become. Mr Papandreou is in such a fix that he was thinking of relying on the idea that turkeys really would vote for Christmas." Original link here.

We are expected to take from this paragraph that Greek voters cannot be seriously expected to vote for more austerity measures (budget cuts, cuts in benefits to government employees, and so forth) to please the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and so forth. (Also note that "in such a fix" means in a desperate situation, i.e. a political stalemate with opposition parties.)

Put simpler, we can assume turkeys would not really vote in favor of Christmas, and that Greeks would not really vote in favor of more austerity, if either group was allowed a vote.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Sound Bites

In journalism, a sound bite is a short clip of audio from an event that is the subject of a news report. A bite is, idiomatically, a small and digestible thing.

In politics, a sound bite is an excerpt of a speech that is used without surrounding context. Politicians intend for sound bites to give flattering portrayals of their speeches, and themselves, and are a core part of one's image in the media.

Example: "Professional speech-writers for presidents and other high public officials are careful to include specific sound bites that the media will use to highlight their speeches."

A careful reader may realize that the same phrase may be a sound bite in both the literal and the figurative senses. They're different things to different people.

Since politicians know in advance that reporters will largely reduce a speech to its sound bites, and at any rate, sound bites offer the politician's best opportunities to actually have their voices and faces broadcast on TV or radio, politicians "offer" sound bites to the media as if it is a familiar religious ritual. Understanding what a sound bite is, and the context that comes with it, is important to understanding even basic stories about journalism and politics in the English-speaking world.

Friday, May 20, 2011


The adjective "draconian" is an idiom for particularly harsh laws. It is a reference to Draco, the legislator (in this instance, the writer of written laws) in ancient Athens in the 7th century B.C.

Example: "The disgraced banker was dramatically granted bail last night under draconian conditions as it emerged he will face a trial for his alleged sex attack on a hotel maid."

Draco's laws put lower class debtors into slavery, and the penalty for even minor offenses was death. When asked why, he replied that he could think of no lesser punishment for the minor crimes, and unfortunately, he did not have any greater punishment available for the greater crimes. (!) So yes, Draco was not playing around.

In this context, the use of "draconian" in the example above evokes the phrase, in the American constitution, cruel and unusual punishment, but the word can be used to exaggerate circumstances. (This writer believes that the above use is stretching the word very thin, but it is an example of how English writers will use the word. - J)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Suffering A New Blow

In this case, "suffering a new blow" is blow in the sense of an attack, a strike, a hit. A new blow means a new and additional setback to a cause. This is "suffered" by the person or entity damaged by the blow. 

Example: "Gordon Brown's prospects of taking over at the IMF suffered another blow today as Business Secretary Vince Cable suggested the top job should go to someone from within the Eurozone." 

In this example, the event described is another setback making former UK Prime Minister Gorden Brown's efforts to become head of the International Monetary Fund less likely to succeed. The context is continued vigorous opposition to Brown's candidacy by both coalition partners forming the sitting government of his own country. The more opposed the government becomes, the less likely Brown will succeed. Thus, another major cabinet minister opposing his candidacy is a new setback, i.e. a new blow.  

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Into Thin Air

There are various words added to "into thin air" to create expressions with very similar meanings.

If something evaporates into thin air, it is gone forever; it is gone with the wind.

If something vanishes into thin air, it is lost, but not necessarily lost forever.

Disappears into thin air means the same thing as "vanishes into thin air," per the above.

Gone With the Wind

While famous as the title of a novel and movie, the expression "gone with the wind" simply means disappeared, evaporated, vanished, gone forever.

Example: "Thanks to the collapse in housing prices, our profit margin has gone with the wind. Until conditions improve, our outlook is poor." This means that the company in question has seen its profits evaporate.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Mixed Messages

When we refer to "mixed messages," this means confusing, contradictory, inconsistent messages (plural) where a single, clear message is called for.

Example: Paul: "So this girl, first she screams that she hates me, then she calls me at 2 in the morning! Talk about your mixed messages! Does she love me or hate me?!"

While primarily an idiom in social situations, it can be cited in any similar situation regardless of the context.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Make No Mistake

The idiomatic phrase "make no mistake" is used as emphasis for a statement. It gives the impression that what is being said is firmly true; of course, this is a claim, the opinion of the speaker. Its meaning is that the listener should have no doubt; that the statement should be accepted as true.

Example: "Make no mistake, we will overcome these obstacles and triumph in the end." This is a typical use of the expression. The expression can be applied to any number of causes.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Subject: Clarity

The following idioms all indicate adding clarity:

Making things clear

Spelling things out

Saying it straight

Making something plain

Crystal clear


Robert: The boss was making things clear at that staff meeting. He wasn't happy.

Steve: The boss really spelled things out, huh?

Robert: Oh yes. He was saying it straight, no sugar-coating whatsoever.

Steve: So he made plain that he wasn't happy.

Robert: Oh, that was crystal clear. He made sure we all understood.


Note that each of the idioms above refers to the exact same event. Using different idioms to say the same thing avoids repetition while adding emphasis. In the above case, the two men are agreeing on the same set of facts through a process of two-way communication.

When a phrasal verb (such as "making clear") is used as an idiom, different tenses of the verb are permitted (such as "he made clear ten minutes ago that...").

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Causing A Stir, Making A Scene

In a manner of speaking, "a stir" is the same thing as "a ruckus," "a scene," "a commotion," or any kind of unusual social situation that causes people to react to it, by gossiping if nothing else.

So, to "cause a stir" is to create an unusual situation that gives rise to excitement and interest among others. Note, however, that the "stir" is not necessarily positive. There can be such a thing as bad publicity!

Example: "Tracy caused quite a stir when she was cursing loudly in the theater. I know she thought she'd lost her cell phone, but by the time she found it, the usher had come to kick her out because she was making such a scene!"

"Making a scene" should be thought of as meaning the same thing as "causing a stir." By using two different idioms that mean the same thing, we avoid the appearance of repetition. If I'd stopped at "to kick her out!", the reason for the usher (a person who keeps order in a movie theater) to kick Tracy out might not have remained perfectly clear.

Bearing The Brunt

The "brunt" of an impact or blow is the principle or main part of it; most of the force and damage of a blow or attack. To "bear" this is to sustain it, to be the target of it.

Example: "Banking stocks bore the brunt of today's damage on Wall Street, with retailers suffering relatively mild losses." (Here, the idiom is in the past tense)

In this example, the damage is purely financial, but this idiom can be used for politics, war, or any other situation where violent forces - literal and figurative - are at work. A particular street can bear the brunt of a tornado, for example.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Striking Out

Drawn from baseball, "to strike out" is to completely fail at something, including missing an opportunity for success. It is frequently used in business and politics.

In accordance with normal rules of grammar, "striking out" (present) and "struck out" (past) are used, and share the exact same meaning (aside from verb tense).

Example: "Pfizer struck out on getting FDA approval for X drug, so it has been taking it on the chin on the stock market."

This is not a real quote, but is an example. Here, striking out means failed to get Food and Drug Administration approval for an unnamed drug. Approval is necessary for legal sale of a drug within the United States.

Taking It On The Chin

The idiomatic expression "taking it on the chin" refers to a bar brawl or other forms of fist-fighting, where being hit by a punch on the chin is a common occurrence. It carries the same meaning as "taking a beating," which is an expression but not an idiom. However, the beating may be, for example, a political or electoral beating.

Example: The headline for the May 03 2011 edition of The Chronicle-Herald, the main newspaper of Nova Scotia, Canada (oldest newspaper on the North American continent), was, "Liberals take it on the chin," referring to the historic election defeat suffered by the Liberal Party of Canada on the preceding day.

The same sense can be used in business situations. Example: "Sony took it on the chin on the stock market today as a result of continued questions concerning the large Playstation Network customer data breach." (This is not an actual quote but represents the use of the idiom.)

Monday, May 2, 2011

Jumping On The Bandwagon

A bandwagon is "an elaborately decorated wagon used to transport musicians in a parade." That is, musicians play while riding on the bandwagon. This has become a metaphor for group behavior.

To "jump on the bandwagon" is to join an activity or engage in a behavior already being done by other people, as if you jumped on a literal bandwagon that is already in motion (but slowly, since parades move slowly).

Example: Sarah: "Hey, it's not too late to jump on the bandwagon. iPad 2's are out, why not buy one?" Lisa: "Hmm, maybe you're right. I'll have to think about it."

Alternatives: get on the bandwagon, climb on the bandwagon, hop on the bandwagon, and so forth. Of these, "get on the bandwagon" is the most common, but any mixture featuring the word "bandwagon" will carry the exact same meaning.

Missing The Boat

To "miss the boat" is to fail to take advantage of an opportunity. The phrasal verb "to miss out" has a similar meaning without any reference to boats. As cruise ships sail on fixed schedules, to miss the boat is an expensive mistake!

Example: Lisa: "I missed the boat on the whole iPad things. Are they any good?" Sarah: "Depends what you want to do with them."

This implies that when iPads were first unveiled, to great fanfare and popularity, Lisa did not purchase one; and, even as the fanfare died down somewhat, she did not purchase one later, either. This also implies that she has not purchased one as of this time. This is why she is asking another woman whether iPads are worth buying. (This blog holds no opinion as to what the proper answer is!)

All In The Same Boat

To "be in the same boat" as other people is to share the same difficult circumstances with others.

Example: John: "I'm having a hard time paying my bills with prices going up and up." Steve: "We're both in the same boat there. I need to cut my expenses down somehow."

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Striking It Rich

To "strike it rich" is to suddenly become wealthier. It evokes the idea of a miner suddenly discovering a large nugget of gold.

Example: "Wow, Tom really did strike it rich on the stock market. I thought he didn't know what he was doing.. Maybe he just got lucky?"

Beating The Odds

"Beating the odds" means overcoming improbability. That is, something is not likely to happen, but either by luck or skill (or a little of both), it happens anyway.

Example: "Oh my god, Lisa beat the odds and made money gambling at that casino. What are the chances of that?"

Note that the odds of this happening to you are quite low...

A Fool's Paradise

"A fool's paradise" is an expression dating from the time of William Shakespeare's plays, meaning a state of happiness built upon false and misplaced hopes.

Example: "Tom's living in a fool's paradise. He thinks he's going to get rich trading stocks, but he doesn't know anything about finance!"

Friday, April 29, 2011

That Remains To Be Seen

"That remains to be seen" is an idiomatic expression used in response to a statement. It is an expression of skepticism and doubt related to two sayings: "seeing is believing," and "don't believe everything you hear."

Example: "Analysts predict gas prices will actually start falling toward the end of May, as refineries increase production and more gas becomes available. That remains to be seen: Many analysts failed to predict the prices drivers are paying now, caught off-guard by surging oil prices." Source

Thursday, April 28, 2011

An Unforced Error

In tennis, an "unforced error" is an error caused purely by one's own inability to succeed. It is a failure that cannot be blamed on the opponent or otherwise excused.

In business, and as an idiom in general, an unforced error is a unilateral failure, a problem that was caused solely by one's own side.

Example: Recently, hacking (of some sort) has been responsible for a giant breach of the Sony Playstation Network, which has some 70 million customers, many of whom could have credit card data that could (theoretically) be stolen. In contrast, an employee of an American baseball team, the New York Yankees, accidentally e-mailed the personal information of some 17,000 season-ticket holders to hundreds of people.

Of these two situations, the first was caused by an outside party; the second was an unforced error, purely the fault of the employee in question. Sony may have a case that it did everything reasonable to prevent an attack on its system; the New York Yankees team does not.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Taking The Scenic Route

Imagine you are choosing to ride a train. You have two choices: the fastest and most direct route to your destination, or the scenic route, the longer (and therefore slower) path that allows you to relax and enjoy the trip. Before mass air travel, train was how many vacation tours were accomplished, helping the phrase get firmly established in the language.

In idioms, "the scenic route" means the long way (whether or not there is an advantage!), as opposed to the short way, which is the most efficient path to one's destination.

Example: "Daisy was supposed to be here at 10 o'clock, but she took the scenic route when she went shopping. Who knows when she'll arrive now?"

In this example, taking the scenic route is not a compliment. It means that the person has deliberately chosen to be slow and late based on whim. This reflects how the phrase is most likely to be used in English as an idiom.

When meant literally, it can mean a wonderful vacation. Figuratively... not so much.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Making Fun Of Something (or Someone)

To "make fun of something" is to treat something as a joke, something that ought to be laughed at. Making fun of things is generally not considered a problem.

To "make fun of someone" is used in the same sense as mocking someone. However, many people use the idiom as a lighter version, not meant to be as vicious as let's say, ridicule. The problem is that not everyone will take it as a lighter version. What the listener hears can vary.

Example: Denise was making fun of Jane's habit of arriving late to work due to accidentally oversleeping.

Here, Denise is amusing herself about a thing that is not treated as something truly serious. If it is not truly serious, Jane is probably not going to be fired for her habit, and probably isn't very late.

Example #2: Denise was making fun of Jane after Jane arrived late to work.

In this second example, the emphasis shifts from what Jane did to Jane herself. It is therefore a much more personal criticism that could be easily read as making Jane look bad (that is, embarrassing or humiliating Jane in front of Jane and Denise's co-workers).

The problem, such as it is, is that writers could easily use either phrase to refer to the exact same event. Yet Example #1 reads like something much more benign than Example #2.

In essence, the issue is the intent that Denise has. If Denise's intention is to poke fun in a harmless way ("poke fun" is a phrasal verb with a meaning very, very close to "making fun of something"), then it is intended to be friendly. If Denise's intention is to humiliate Jane, that is a different thing altogether, and is not friendly at all.

In a case like this, it is important to understand the effect of word and idiom choice on the tone of the message. In public relations (PR), this could also be called the spin on something.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Paper Tiger

A paper tiger is an expression drawn from a Chinese saying. A paper tiger may pose in a threatening way, but it is actually completely harmless.

A native English expression with a similar meaning is "its bark is worse than its bite," referring to dogs.

Example: Asian politicians and leaders such as Mao Zedong have sometimes referred to the United States as "a paper tiger," describing it as far more menacing in abstract than it would be in reality. Of course, using this description was itself a great deal of political posturing.

Actual paper tigers can be made using origami.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Your Take On Things

Your take on something is your personal opinion on a given subject, whether that opinion is based on facts or on sentiment.

Example: "My take on health care is that everyone should have access to it for a reasonable price."

One might reply that this is easier said than done.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Needed Like A Hole In The Head

A hole in the head is the expected result of a gunshot to the human head. As most people have better things to do than to be shot and murdered, needing something like a hole in the head means to not need something at all; for something to instead be unwelcome in the extreme.

The expression may be an expression of British sarcasm, but it has long been used in American discourse. It is probably out of date in the United States.

Example: Chris Keates, general secretary of one of the United Kingdom's main teachers union, said to British media:

“Teachers want another curriculum review like a hole in the head. This is a pointless review when ministers have already determined that children should have a 1950s-style curriculum."

This is saying that British teachers do not want a review of the national educational curriculum whatsoever. It is as unwelcome as random murders of teachers by masked gunmen.

One might think that this is a wild exaggeration, but fights between teachers and governments about what teachers should be required to teach in schools, and if they should be required to teach more "hard subjects" with more math, more history, and more language, are extremely fierce nonetheless.

Dumbing Down

To simply something is to make something simpler. To dumb something down (the process known as "dumbing down," the past tense being "dumbed down") is to make something simpler by making it less intelligent.

Example: A frequent theme when discussing education in Western countries is whether the education curriculum has been dumbed down in favor of "trendy" and flashy subjects. It is argued that this leaves students of the current generation less prepared for academic life and employment once out of high school.

To simplify has a positive connotation. Dumbing down always has a negative connotation. "Dumbing down" or "dumbed down" is never intended as a compliment.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Blue Rose

In times past, a blue rose was an expression signifying the impossible, the unattainable, something that exists in fantasy alone, not in nature. 

Perhaps it can still be said that blue roses do not exist in nature. Once, white roses were dyed blue; now, blue roses can be produced thanks to genetic engineering. In spite of this, blue roses continue to hold their old meaning.

As a result of their "main" meaning, blue roses signify romantic feelings, love at first sight, and hope that things that seem unattainable at first (like love with a particular person, or prosperity in the future) are indeed attainable. This is an optimistic spin but remains part of the message that the flower can be used to send.

Of course, a person may use "a blue rose" to describe something extremely rare or normally impossible.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Slashing A Budget

A slash is a swift, violent cut. As a result of being swift and violent, the wound created by a slash is longer and deeper than a shallow surface cut. To slash has therefore come to mean making deep cuts.

It is in this sense that we use it in the expression, slashing a budget. That is, rather than making small cuts, or gradual cuts, slashing a budget means making deep, dramatic cuts, ones that affect the near future greatly.

The noun form would be a budget slash (singular) or budget slashes (plural).

Example: On January 6, 2011, the Internet news portal The Drudge Report characterized this article on Pentagon spending cuts that would result in a reduction of U.S. active duty military troops as "Pentagon Budget Slash: Obama To Cut Troops On Active Duty". As is customary with this tabloid-like news site, the headline is intended to dramatize; after all, instead of "budget cut" we have "budget slash," implying a violent, damaging process.

Whether this characterization is accurate or not, this is how the writer wishes us to read and understand his headline. In that context, this is a good example of how "slashing" is used in a budgetary context.

Budget Cuts

To cut a budget means to eliminate (cut) spending from a budget. The items being eliminated are "cut out" of the budget.

Example: Mary was spending more on food than she should have, so she cut an expensive brand of ice cream out of her budget. By reducing a luxury, she was able to bring her food expenses budget into line.

The noun forms represent the act of cutting a budget. Singular: a budget cut. Plural: budget cuts.