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.