Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Sailing Expressions

San Francisco has the America's Cup sailing races coming up soon, and local newspaper writer Al Saracevic came up with an article listing various expressions with their origins from the world of sailing and sea faring.  http://blog.sfgate.com/saracevic/2013/06/30/sailing-mother-of-cliches/
Al describes the origins of often used phrases such as
  • know the ropes
  • over a barrel
  • three sheets to the wind
Others that come to mind would be, "that puts wind in my sails," meaning something has given you energy, new enthusiasm.

Also related to whaling is the exclamation, "There she blows!" meaning the sight of a faraway whale spout.  The whalers then must hastily pursue the Leviathan.  "There she blows!" may be used whenever a signal of some significance is spotted.



Friday, May 31, 2013

Can of Worms

Sometimes when planning or discussing a project, someone may make a complicated suggestion, or have an idea that introduces many difficult problems.  "We don't want to open a can of worms," would be an appropriate response.

Opening a can of worms is a common idiom, similar to saying, "there will be too many factors to sort out in order to solve this problem.  It's not worth the effort to do it."

Imagine opening a can of worms and staring into it.  You cannot distinguish the start of one worm from its other end!  It's just a confusing jumble. 

Today's entrepreneurs look at a seemingly impossible problem, such as organizing a can of worms, and use the power of computers and software algorithms to sort out and solve difficult problems.  They might say, "Ah, it's only a can of worms!  What's so bad about that?"

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Silver Lining


One of 2012's most popular movies in America was Silver Linings Playbook.  In this motion picture, the phrase "silver lining" is used frequently by Bradley Cooper's bipolar character, Pat, but it is never fully explained.  For those who may be unfamiliar with the phrase and its full meaning, it originates from a longer phrase, "Every cloud has a silver lining."

"Every cloud has a silver lining," is an optimistic expression.  It is used as a comforting tonic, when something bad happens, there may also be a good aspect to it.  So, for every negative occurrence, there is hope for a positive side to it.  Another similar phrase would be, "There are two sides to every coin," although this phrase does not automatically suggest hopefulness and positive encouragement in the way silver lining does.  It simply means there are two sides, or opposite meanings, to every story.

In the movie, Pats says to his doctor,
You have to do everything you can, you have to work your hardest, and if you do, if you stay positive, you have a shot at a silver lining.
In this case, the silver lining is not something magically granted from within a dark, rain cloud.  It is a goal and a reward to be earned by personal effort.

The origins of this idiom, according to my online research, is not American, it is by the English poet John Milton.  The poetic reference was reused in other writings and made its way across the Atlantic into the American consciousness.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Horse Sense

Many American Expressions originated on the ranches and farms across the country.

Don't beat a dead horse, is advice given for someone to stop arguing, because the decision has been made. If a deal has already been settled, it does not matter any more. So, why beat a dead horse?

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. This expression means that you can provide an opportunity to somebody, but there is no guarantee that he or she will accept it.

Here is a web page with many more horse idioms, such as these:
  • Don't put the cart before the horse.
  • Don't change horses midstream.
  • Don't look a gift horse in the mouth.
  • Horsing around

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Carrot and Stick

In President Bush's December 4, 2007 press conference, he said, "that was the sticks-and-carrots approach." He later corrected this improper use of the phrase by saying, "One thing is for certain: The NIE talks about how a carrot-and-stick approach can work." (See full transcript of the press conference here.)

The idiom refers to the image of a horse or donkey being led in the master's desired direction, by dangling a carrot on a stick in front of the animal from the carriage seat.

The President is not known for his diplomacy, assumes a posture of a superior, paternalistic empire while insulting another country, in this case, Iran.

Another subtle insult was the use of the term regime for the Iranian government. No one refers to the U.S. regime. It is a term for a government, but often with a negative connotation, a government that is perhaps new, unstable, or criminal, such as a fascist regime.

In politics we see the subtle use of language and terminology making differences in perception and opinion, right on down to who is an "enemy combatant" or "terrorist". In the press conference Bush would say, "the most disappointing thing about Washington has been the name calling." Strange to hear from one whose buddies, the right wing talk show "pundits" such as Rush Limbaugh, Don Imus (see previous article) and Michael Savage revel in assigning negative labels such as "femi-Nazis" to those they have chosen to make their enemies.




Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Moving the Goalposts



Originally uploaded by Rebecca Key
Moving the goal posts is an expression meaning to change originally established rules or goals to benefit your or your team. This strategy is often taken by a person or party whose efforts have fallen short of making their goal. The easy solution is to move the goal posts, so that an errant attempt might make the goal, or not appear to be an extremely bad miss.

The phrase originates from football, and it's variations. How many sports contests would be altered if somehow the location of the goal posts were magically moved?

U.S. Government officials have spent two days reviewing reports and asking questions of Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. forces in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Iraq, Ryan Crocker, and this phrase was invoked a number of times. Many U.S. representatives and the public are concerned that the war in Iraq has indefinite goals and timelines. The U.S. bombed Baghdad in March 2003 and since that time millions of Iraqis have fled their country, billions, perhaps trillions of U.S. dollars have been spent on the conflict - some of it unaccounted for, over 3,000 U.S. soldiers have been killed, and many more permanently wounded or crippled. Statistics of Iraqi civilian casualties are unclear. After all this, there is still great instability in Iraq and no end in sight.

Raising the bar is a similar expression to moving the goal posts, and originates from the high jump event in track and field competition. To raise the bar normally has a positive connotation; that a person is setting a higher goal to achieve. To match the metaphors, if one were to say, "Go ahead and move the goal posts 10 yards back, and I can still make the kick good," or "Raise the bar 10 centimeters higher, and I can jump over it."

In the case of the military and political goals in Iraq, moving the goal posts seems to have more to do with timelines than space. Yesterday's goal post may have been based upon a promise that the war can be finished by October 2008. Today's goal post is moved to 2009, or maybe further out. This fog of war happens when there is no clear, long term mission strategy at the beginning, so the rules are made up as they go along. There is an expression for this response to a lack of study and planning, and it may have originated in the days of wild west Texas: shooting from the hip.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

False Alarm


false-alarm gps
Originally uploaded by jennybach
At the JFK airport baggage claim, a young man was speaking on his cell phone. With an Eastern European accent he shouts, "It was a false alarm! Don't you know what false alarm means?" I guess his friend thought there was trouble, and this guy was telling him everything was really OK.

The term false alarm originates from a mistaken call to the fire department reporting a fire, when there really is no fire. Also called a nuisance alarm, it could be a deceitful prank, or just worry over something that did not actually happen. A similar instance is the classic anecdote of someone yelling out, "Fire!" in a crowded theater, causing a dangerous stampede by the panicked crowd.

Another example would be the Aesop fable of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf", but that's another story.

The Grass Is Always Greener


Greener Grass
Originally uploaded by mdsnbelle
The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence is a common expression, meaning that by human nature, people often believe others have it better. "That guy's lawn, or that guy's house looks better than mine," is classic envy or coveting of another's property.

In many cases it may be true. People leave Afghanistan, Iraq, India, China, Vietnam, Cuba, Russia, Mexico and come to the U.S.A. to find a better life. There must be a good reason for this.