Archive for Idioms

Moving house with military precision

I just moved house this week. (Had to. Lease unexpectedly terminated on the second day of classes in the new academic year. Gaaahh!) Colleagues and friends keep asking me how it went. I've decided that the right thing to say is: "It all went like a military operation."

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Josh Marshall, "Did Dave Brat Fib About Princeton?", TPM 6/11/2014:

The Post suggests that Brat was trying to give would-be supporters the sense he locked horns with the elites on an Ivy League campus. And if that was the plan or the impression. That's really not right. But picture, I don't think there's much to see here. As a gotcha, it's an extremely weak one.


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My country

Sima (long-term resident in China) from writes:

I've been a regular Sina Weibo [VHM:  PRC clone of Twitter] user for some time and enjoy default news updates on my phone. Each update usually has two stories and, of late, almost invariably, one is about the outing of a corrupt official (cash, apartments, mistresses) and the second is about the latest 'play' over those rocks in the sea near Taiwan.

My latest update says:


[VHM: wǒ hǎi jiān chuán zài rù Diàodǎo jùjué Rìběn kàngyì
literal rendering of each syllable or word:  I / We sea surveillance ship(s) again enter Fishing Island reject Japan protest]

Whilst I'm used to expressions like 我国 [VHM:  wǒguó {"my / our country"}], which I wilfully employ when talking about 'my England', much to some people's disgust, and 我校 [VHM:  wǒxiào {"my / our school"}], which I actually write in articles and official documents relating to the school cricket team [VHM:  in China] (which I may have bored you about at some time), I'm not accustomed to such flexible employment of 我.

Do you know whether this use of 我校, 我国, etc. has a long history (i.e., pre-1949, or pre-1919)? Can 我 be freely applied? Is there a name for this phenomenon?

It reminds me a little of Western attitudes to sports teams; 'we won the world cup', when obviously said cup was won by eleven or so over-paid men who kick balls for a living, and not (usually) by the speaker himself.

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"and/with/on its X"

In "Believed ham", I asked

When did French-language menus start using possessive pronouns, in constructions like et ses/son/sa X "and its/their X", to describe secondary or accompanying ingredients? When did English-language menus start copying this construction? And is it as awkward and odd in French as it is (restaurant tradition aside) in English?

The picture, from a restaurant-reviewing blog, illustrates an "Onglet de black Angus avec ses frites" ("Black Angus hanger steak with its fries"). The only connection that the fries have with the steak is that they're served together — so in what sense are they "its" fries?

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The "off the cuff" mystery

The other day, someone asked me about the origins of the phrase "off the cuff". I've always assumed that it had something to do with the old practice of writing informal notes on men's detachable (and disposable) cuffs. And the OED's entry agrees, glossing it as

off the cuff (as if from notes made on the shirt-cuff) orig. U.S., extempore, on the spur of the moment, unrehearsed

But as far as I know, the practice of wearing detachable (and sometimes disposable) cuffs ended by the time of the first world war or even before, while the OED's earliest citation for this idiom is from 1938:

1938 New York Panorama (Federal Writers' Project, N.Y.) vi. 157   Double talk is created by mixing plausible-sounding gibberish into ordinary conversation, the speaker keeping a straight face or dead pan and enumerating casually or off the cuff.
1941 Time (Air Exp. Ed.) 4 Aug. 1/1   Talking off the cuff to a group of civilian-defense volunteers he made them a little homily.
1944 Penguin New Writing XX. 130   In that scene, shot off the cuff in a shockingly bad light, there leapt out of the screen..something of the real human guts and dignity.
1948 Economist 3 July 17/2   Mr. Truman's off-the-cuff comment.

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Annals of "What!!??"

D.D., who previously contributed some observations on Caribbean "What!!??", sends more:

After a general staff meeting concluded this a.m. at work, I was sitting with a few co-workers and for some reason the conversation turned to 'strange critters' that people of different cultures eat. ('Koreans eat dogs'… 'Some Africans & Chinese eat insects'… etc etc.)

Our workplace is currently being painted/renovated by 3 Caribbean men who have been there for a week or so–one of whom I've had a couple of chats & shared a few jokes with in passing.  Hearing our conversation, that one man (from St. Vincent) stepped away from his painting on the other side of the conference room and addressed me, "Did you ever eat POSSUM?"

I laughed aloud, wondering if he was serious. He seemed to be, so I asked, "Uh… is it good?"  His loud reply, "WHAT!!??" (Read: 'OMG it is friggin' delicious!')

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Because NOUN

Lindy West "Are Men Going Extinct?", Jezebel 7/11/2012:

Did you hear the big news? Men are going extinct. Really really slowly, and probably only in theory, but extinct nonetheless! […]

Lame! RIP, dudes! Now, I'm sure kneejerk anti-feminist dickwads think that the eradication of men is exactly what we women mean by "plz can we have equal rights now thx." Because logic.

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Reader C.A. writes:

I oversee a chess club at my local library. The kids (mostly 8-10 years old) will often use "versus" as a verb, saying "I already versed him" or "do you want to verse me?" I was wondering if you've seen this usage cropping up anywhere (I'm in a suburb of Ft. Worth, TX). Is it specific to this age group or geographic area? Is it becoming common usage in younger people?

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Hwæt, the parking-spaces …

Reader D.D. writes to ask about a use of the word "what" that he's noticed "on the part of young blacks of Caribbean descent here in NYC":

The word is sort of shrieked, or perhaps yelped, as if a very insistent question… and the final 't' is accentuated (Brit like)… But the meaning is something like "And how!" or "I'll say!" or "Fuckin' A!!"

I've noticed it outside of work this past week–by two strangers in public settings–but this most recent at-work example sticks in my mind:

Yesterday at work a twenty-something Jamaican-born NY'er went out to move his car, as per NYC parking regs. When he came back MUCH LATER someone asked him, "Was it hard to find parking?" His loud reply, "WHAT!!?" (and then he mumbled something about how hard it was…)

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Hero after hero after dead hero

Tom Roeper sent the following "Summer question" around to the UMass Linguistics Department the other day, and I offered to put it onto Language Log as a guest post. What follows is all Tom's. (I've never worked on this topic myself).

For anybody who is intrigued: This is a summer question because you might have time in the summer to devote 10 minutes to it — if it captures your fancy. For several years [too many actually] in my various explorations of recursion, I have looked at cases like: hero after hero after dead hero => all the heroes are dead.

Today in the NYT, I read this quote from Ray Bradbury who just died: "it was one frenzy after one elation after one enthusiasm after one hysteria after another" My question is: what does this sentence mean?  Is it a set of frenzies followed by a set of elations followed by a set of enthusiasms or are they systematically interspersed, or randomly interspersed? Any comments welcome– Tom

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Just sayin'

Bob Moore asks:

Has Language Log ever looked at the origins of "(I'm) just saying'" as a stand alone utterance (without an S or S-bar complement)? In last night's episode of "Downton Abbey" on PBS, one of the servants used it in a scene set in 1916. I am not aware of having heard it much before, say, 2005, so I am wondering if this was a howling anachronism. Just sayin' :-)

I don't think that we've discussed it, except for a comment or two.

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More "dude" lexicography

In the spirit of this, this and this (but maybe not this):

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Death of a simile

Throughout my whole life it has been the standard British English metaphor for Sisyphean tasks, the jobs that are endless because by the time you get to the end you need to start over: It's like painting the Forth Bridge.

It is legendary that after finishing the magnificent rail bridge over the Firth of Forth north-west of Edinburgh in 1890 they started repainting it, and a hundred years later they were still at it. Every time they painted their way to the far end, which took years, the paint had worn off where they had started, and they had to go back over there and begin again immediately.

But there was a new development this week: they finally finished the job, and stopped. Now the simile's future looks bleak.

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