Archive for Idioms

Top Chinese general loses his chastity

The internet has been in an uproar over the sacking by Xi Jinping of two of China's topmost military men.

Exclusive | "Was fallen Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe compromised by hostile force?  A rare form of words that the Communist Party normally only applies to those accused of betrayal was used in the indictment against him", by William Zheng, SCMP (7/10/24)

China’s fallen former defence minister Wei Fenghe may have been compromised by a hostile force as the peculiar wording of the official indictment hinted.

In an unprecedented move, Wei, along with his successor Li Shangfu, was officially impeached by the Politburo headed by President Xi Jinping on June 27. The duo were expelled from the party and could face further legal action.

[Since Wei and Li were in charge of the PLA Rocket Force, which gets into nuclear missiles and what not, the situation could not be more dire.  Maybe they did not accede to Xi's wishes regarding a launch.  Who knows?  No matter what, Xi was royally peeved.]

While Beijing has not revealed details of their offences, one particular phrase from the official impeachment against Wei caught the attention of seasoned Chinese experts.

Of the all top generals who fell in Xi’s war against corruption, Wei was the only one described as “zhongcheng shi jie” 忠诚失节 or “ being disloyal and losing one’s chastity”.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (3)

The modernity of the Middle Ages

[Prefatory note:  The material for this post was sent to me by a usually trustworthy source.  Moreover, it comes from a blog that sounds and looks as though it should have done its homework and know its stuff, and the blog drew their material from Madeleine Pelner Cosman’s  Medieval Wordbook that has been in circulation since 1996, with enthusiastic reviews (avg. 4.5) on Amazon.   Cosman (1937-2006) had a Ph.D. in English and comparative literature from Columbia University (1964) and a J.D. from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law (1995) at Yeshiva University.  She was a professor in the Department of English at City College of New York for nearly three decades (1964-1993), lectured on medieval daily life at the Metropolitan Museum of New York for years, and was active in medical, judicial, and other fields across the United States. I must confess that, as I prepared the post, I felt qualms over the quality of some of the entries.  I should have followed my instincts and investigated further, and apologize for having failed to do so.  Mea culpa — straight from the Middle Ages (Confiteor [1100]).]

You'd be surprised by how many of our most common, comfortable expressions come from the medieval period.  Here are twelve collected by Madeleine Pelner Cosman as part of her book on words and phrases from the medieval period that you are likely to be quite familiar with.

12 Expressions that we got from the Middle Ages,, May 21, 2024

Crocodile tears

To display insincere sadness. A few ancient and medieval writers believed that crocodiles would cry while eating their victims. The story was spread in England by the 14th-century travel writer John Mandeville. He explains that “these serpents slay men, and they eat them weeping; and when they eat they move the over jaw, and not the nether jaw, and they have no tongue.”

Bring home the bacon

To earn a living or achieve success. This expression dates back to 1104 when a nobleman and his wife dressed themselves as peasants and asked the local Prior for a blessing for not arguing after a year of being married. In response, the Prior gave them a side of bacon. Afterwards, the nobleman gave land to the monastery on the condition they gave couples who accomplished the same deed with the same reward.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (24)

Crazy bone

One of the students in my class — all from China — hit her elbow on the edge of her desk and grimaced.  I asked her, "Did you hit your crazy bone?"

She didn't know what I meant, and none of the other students in the class knew either.  I explained what "hit my crazy bone" signifies (see below for a physiological note), and the entire class thought it was funny.  Lots of giggling and laughing.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (22)

Get around

One needs to be careful when using a phrasal verb that has a wide range of possible meanings.  For example, if you're corresponding with a woman who travels a lot and you comment, wishing to commend her mobility, "You sure do get around a lot", she may be offended and retort, "Are you saying that I'm sexually promiscuous?"

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (14)

Mao's leaky, lawless umbrella

Linkedin post by Matías Otero Johansson:

The Orientalism Problem: Edgar Snow's last interview with Mao

In an article published in Life Magazine in 1971, journalist Edgar Snow (1905-1972) ends his account of the last interview Mao Zedong would grant him thus:

"As he curteously escorted me to the door, he said he was not a complicated man, but really very simple. He was, he said, only a lone monk walking the world with a leaky umbrella. … I believe #China will seek to cooperate with all friendly states, and all friendly people within hostile states, who welcome her full participation in world affairs."

As soon as I saw the word "umbrella", I knew what this turn of phrase was about.

It is covered in John Rohsenow's magisterial dictionary of xiēhòuyǔ 歇後語, which I refer to as "truncated witticisms".

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (15)

"Eat their young"

In "Trump Short-Circuits in New Video as Concerns Grow Over Cognitive Decline", Meidas Touch 10/14/2023, Brett Meiselas presents the apparent mis-use of an idiom as evidence of neurodegeneration:

A new video posted by Donald Trump to his social media account is the latest in a series of clips of the former president that have raised concerns about his rapidly deteriorating cognitive abilities.

In the video, Trump launches into a deranged rant accusing his former Attorney General Bill Barr, Senator Mitt Romney and former Republican Congressman Paul Ryan of conspiring with big donors and two GOP candidates running against him.

Trump says they are disloyal losers with no talent and that they “eat their young” by opposing him and that “Republican Nation” must not listen to them.

"But remember, Republicans eat their young. They really do. They eat their young. Terrible statement. But it's true," Trump said in a dark room where he records his videos. […]

It's possible that Trump's teleprompter said that Republicans "eat their own" and that Trump misread the phrase twice in just a couple seconds […]

But what is extra sad is that Trump's handlers seem to have completely lost control of the criminally indicted, disgraced GOP candidate. They had an opportunity to reshoot this prerecorded video prior to posting it, yet they didn't even bother.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (13)

How do you say "polo", "logo", and "erase with Photoshop" in Chinese?

"Hebei official’s shirt logo removed for ‘aesthetic reasons,’ triggering speculation among netizens"

By Global Times (Sep 05, 2023)

Official photos of a city Party chief in North China's Hebei Province, with his shirt's logo removed by editing, have sparked a wide-ranging discussion among Chinese netizens, with some speculating that it was a move to obscure the price of the clothing. 

In an article posted via Nangong city's official WeChat account on Sunday, the official's daily work was released, with one picture of his shirt logo in, followed by another two pictures without shirt logo. Some netizens questioned the reasons why they removed the shirt logo, and some checked the similar coat prices online discovering the high retail price for the item, according to media reports.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (5)

Once in a blue moon

From the MIT International Student Office:

Blue moons are best known from the phrase “once in a blue moon,” which means “extremely rarely.” The first recorded use of this idiomatic phrase is in an anti-clerical flyer in 1528, published by William Roy and Jeremy Barlowe. In reference to the clerical corruptions, one said in Old English, “O churche men are wyly foxes […] Yf they say the mone is blewe / We must beleve that it is true / Admittynge their interpretacion.” The context is not one hundred percent clear; but a number of websites interpret this as a reference to priests who required laymen to believe in their statements regardless of how false or ridiculous these were.

A current example would be: “Once in a blue moon I go to a concert, only when there is a singer I really like.”


Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (22)

Excuse my French

The following article is presented in typical New Yorker cartoon style, but I've retyped the text so that it will take up less space, allowing me to expatiate on the origin and meaning of the key phrase in the title.

Pardon My French: A Guide to French Colloquialisms

A visual "guide" to speaking and thinking like a French person

By Zoé Albert, New Yorker (July 14, 2023)

First the colloquial expression in French, then a literal word for word translation, then the idiomatic meaning:

tomber dans les pommes

"to fall in the apples"

to faint

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (19)

Flash sale

Ben Zimmer spotted this interesting street sign in the New York Times photo essay, "DMs from New York City" (June 26, 2023).

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (11)

The scatology and physiology of push and pull

Having just written about "Drainage issues" (6/25/23), with a graphic depiction of what causes the problem with the drainage system in question, I am emboldened finally to answer a question that one of my graduate students has been asking about for several years.  Namely, why do Chinese say "pull poo / shit / excrement" (lāshǐ 拉屎 / lā dàbiàn 拉大便)?  What's the logic of that usage?  How can one pull excrement when one defecates?  Wouldn't it make more sense to say "push" (tuī )?  Think about it.  A bowel movement involves peristalsis,

the involuntary constriction and relaxation of the muscles of the intestine or another canal, creating wave-like movements that push the contents of the canal forward.
(Oxford Languages on Google; emphasis added)

And what do doctors (and husbands) always say to a woman in labor?  "Push", of course.  And the baby comes out from the birth canal.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (88)

"Move out of Missouri"

Here I am in the middle of Missouri, Macon, to be exact (not precisely the geographical center, but not very far from it either, and certainly not near the edges of the state), and I still don't know the origins of this authentic Doggyism:  "Move out of Missouri!"

As I explained in "How to pronounce the surname 'Mair' and other Doggie talk" (2/17/22),

My basketball coach at Dartmouth was a very colorful character known as "Doggie Julian" (1901-1967).  Doggie was born in Reading, Pennsylvania and, in his 66 years of life, held an incredible number of positions as professional athlete and coach (football, basketball, and baseball) at one high school, many colleges, and one professional sports team.  He coached the legendary Bob Cousy (b. 1928) at Holy Cross and with the Boston Celtics.  It's difficult for me to imagine how he could arrange and sign for so many jobs, let alone move to such a large number of locations and coach thousands of games, but he had a steel will and dogged tenacity.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (15)

Kanji of the year 2022: war

Here are the ten top places in this year's event:

1. 戦 (ikusa / tatakau)* Conflict; war 10,804 votes
2. 安 (an / yasui) Contentment; peace; inexpensive 10,616 votes
3. 楽 (gaku, raku / tanoshii) Enjoyment; ease 7,999 votes
4. 高 ( / takai) High; expensive 3,779 votes
5. 争 ( / arasou) Strife; dispute 3,661 votes
6. 命 (mei; inochi) Life 3,512 votes
7. 悲 (hi / kanashii) Sad; sadness 3,465 votes
8. 新 (shin / atarashii) New 3,070 votes
9. 変 (hen / kawaru, kaeru) Change; strange 3,026 votes
10. 和 (wa / nagomu) Peace; harmony 2,751 votes


*VHM:  Instead of a slash, there should be a comma between ikusa and tatakau, plus three more Japanese-style readings:  ononoku, soyogu, and wananaku.  There should be a slash before ikusa, preceded by the Chinese-style reading sen in front of the slash.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (2)