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."