Archive for November, 2010

November 30, 2010

About cake

I bet he would love to eat his cake and have it too, pic: © Paul Moore |

This seems to be the proper season to write about expressions that involve cakes, cookies, and other sweet stuff.  So here is an interesting expression for you:  “you can’t eat your cake and have it too”, it also works the other way around “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”.  Both variations work although the first one (eat-have) seems the more traditional one and the second one (have-eat) the one more frequently used now.

The meaning is pretty straightforward: if you eat your cake, you don’t have it anymore.  Eating and having it are mutually exclusive. Hence this proverb is used to express the impossibility of having something both ways, if those two ways conflict.

Therefore the expression is used mostly in the negative “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”.

An example for the usage of this expression is here:

Janet: “I really want those cute Manolo Blahnik shoes.  But then I need to save money to afford to go to college.”

Jennifer: “Tough choice.  But you can’t eat your cake and have it too.”

November 30, 2010

Eye to eye

Seeing eye to eye has nothing to do with a staring contest. Pic:

This idiom has nothing to do with  “eye for an eye” the old testament notion of retaliation.   To see “eye to eye” with someone means to agree with that person, be of the same opinion as that person.

It is used both in the positive sense, two people seeing eye to eye and therefore agreeing on something, as well as in the negative sense “not seeing eye to eye.”  If anything the negative use is somewhat more frequent.

Positive usage example:

“My husband and I pretty much always see eye to eye when it comes to our finances. ”

Negative usage example:

“I resigned my job yesterday.  My manager and I just did not see eye to eye about how to handle this important project.  One of us had to go.”

The idiom can be used in business and personal communication.  It is a fairly mild and civilized way of expressing that two people do not agree.

November 29, 2010

Look who is talking!

This is a very mild and socially acceptable comeback or response to a hypocritical statement by somebody.

"You are late!!" "Look who is talking", pic:

Assume you have a friend who is always late and one the one day you are late to meet him or her you are greeted by the following question: “Why are you late?”  You could now get into a tirade about how you always have to wait for that person and end up in a nasty fight or – if you feel more mellow you would say: “Look who is talking!”

That would convey the message that your friend is in absolutely no position to criticize you for being late having been late himself many times over.

The expression works fine for harmless issues like the one above, being late, not taking the garbage out, using up the last piece of toilet paper on the roll and not replacing it, and such like.  In an discussion about nuclear disarmament between North Korea and the US it wouldn’t be the appropriate language to use.

November 29, 2010

A dime a dozen

A US dime – the smallest coin in size is made of copper and nickel and costs about 3 cents to make, source:

If something is a “dime a dozen” it is very cheap and easy to get.

A dime is a 10 cent piece.  It used be worth something, one could actually buy something for a dime, like a Jiffy Cake Mix or a Campbells tomato soup in back in the Ohio of 1957  (reference).   But even in the Ohio of 1957 something you could buy a dozen (12) of for a dime wasn’t anything special.

The expression is now used to refer to something that is very common, cheap, easy to get and therefore nothing special.  It is a mildly derogatory expression, there a lot worse things one can say about things of little apparent value.

The phrase is used to refer to things and people.  In the latter case, people whom you refer to as a dime a dozen are probably not very pleased with that description.

Here are some examples:

“These stuffed animals used to be collectors’ items but they mass produced and now they are a dime a dozen.”

“You don’t need friends like these, they are a dime a dozen.”

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November 28, 2010

Lights up!

Time to put up the Christmas tree!, pic:

With Thanksgiving weekend almost over it is time to start the Christmas season in earnest.  Here in California (and other parts of the country as well) this is how it works:

if you haven’t bought a tree this weekend you are well advised to buy one during the week or next weekend at the latest.   Unlike in Germany, where the tree gets decorated on Christmas Eve and then remains in the house at least through January 6 (the Holy Kings Day) here the tree goes up right about now, fully decked out and decorated and gets taken down on or before New Years Eve.

In addition, the house gets decorated with colorful lights as well as the front yard, the trees, palms, and shrubs.  Lighted snowmen, Santas, reindeer are brought out and pretty soon the whole neighborhood looks very festive.  There is an element of wanting to outdo the neighbors with larger, nicer, more spectacular displays but it is a friendly competition.

First, I found the whole putting-up-the-tree so early business strange, I was used to the idea that decorating the tree was a sacred duty that could only be performed on Christmas Eve between the hours of 4 and 6 pm.  Now, I am used to it and quite like it.  Having the tree in the house for 4 weeks makes the darkness of December more bearable, adds a friendly and festive note to the house, heightens the anticipation.

And, let’s face it, once Christmas is over, it is over, you don’t want that tree in the house for another 2 weeks.  The new year starts and one moves on.  Christmas is a thing of the past, spring is coming, Valentine’s Day decorations appear in the stores, the first Easter candies show up , …

So, lights up, everybody!

November 28, 2010

Over my head

Let's hope he is not in over his head, ice climbing is very dangerous. pic:

Here are two idiomatic expressions using the concept of “over one’s head”.

But first, literally something can be over your head, like e a balloon or a bird or some such thing.  This, however, is not the sense in which the expression is normally used but in the figurative sense where it means that something is too difficult, complicated or complex for the speaker to understand.

Here is an example of how the phrase might be used:  “Advanced macroeconomics is way over my head.”  Implying that the speaker does understand at all what the professor is teaching.

One can also be “in over one’s head”.  This expression is related and means that is in a situation one can’t handle and needs help with.

Here is an example for that usage:

Junior person at work: “I am in over my head on this project.  I need help to pull this through.”

November 27, 2010


The numbering of floors in a building is another of those slightly confusing and puzzling things to Europeans (well, at least Germans I shouldn’t speak for the rest of them).

From 12 on to 14 - an American elevator, pic:

So here is how it works:  When you enter a building in the US on street level you are on the first floor, not the ground floor.  The next floor up is the second etc.  In Germany the one on street level is refered to as ground floor and the next one up – the US second floor – is the first, etc.

That holds until you reach that ominous, bad-luck number 13, or rather you don’t reach it.  In the US many buildings have no 13th floor, it is simply skipped, you go from 12 to 14.  The reason is superstition, the notion that 13 is an unlucky number and that a tenant (or hotel guest) would not want to reside there.

On wikipedia I found the following bit of information, whether correct or not, I don’t know: “Based on an internal review of records, Dilip Rangnekar of Otis Elevators estimates that 85% of the buildings with elevators did not have a floor named the 13th floor.”

That is a lot of superstition going on!

November 26, 2010

Black Friday

The Friday after Thanksgiving is generally referred to as Black Friday.  Now that sounds somewhat ominous, like market crash, doom, and tragedy but the black here doesn’t imply that in this case – quite the opposite, black is used in the sense of black numbers = profits.

Sex and the City - wellknown for shopping sprees, pic:

See, the Friday after Thanksgiving is the official start of the Christmas shopping season.  And that is a serious matter:  people get up at crazy hours – like 3 or 4 in the morning – and head for the shopping mall (some allegedly still in their pajamas) to get the best deals, the so called “door busters” (so called because once the doors are opened people burst in a big dangerous stampede).  There are a limited number of laptops for $300 off or for spectacularly cheap iPods, sweaters, Wii consoles, etc.  And then it is shop until you drop.

Stores advertise week in advance when they open and what the door busters are, people plan and strategize – where to go first, what to get, etc.  Some even camp out in front of the store – and by camp I mean tent, sleeping bag, thermos the works – the whole night just to get those deals.

Every year there are reports of people getting almost killed on such occasions.  In 2008 a store clerk at a Walmart was actually killed when a crowed stormed the store.

Everybody who does not enjoy crowds, the occasional skirmish and long lines at check out should stay away from the malls on Black Friday, also called “Thingsgetting” Day.

November 26, 2010


Can’t let the Thanksgiving weekend slip by entirely without a Thanksgiving blog.

Thanksgiving dinner, pic: © Dan Ionut Popescu

Thanksgiving is a big deal here, the busiest travel season of the year and pretty much everybody is off work.  Even the local Safeway and the 24 hour gym close at around 2 in the afternoon.  It is a family holiday, with lots of food and tradition.  There is the turkey feast that everybody indulges in one way or the other, with way too much turkey and plenty of side dishes: the yams, potatoes, veggies, stuffing, gravy and later on have pumpkin and pecan pie, whipped cream and ice cream.  There are ample opportunities to get the calorie count up!

Then there are the little family traditions which every family has, the hike before dinner, the basketball game in the yard afterward, the movie one always watches, the special drink, the board game, etc.

It took me a while to get used to Thanksgiving because it is not part of my European tradition and I was just not used to making a big deal out of eating that large dry bird with sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows.   I have to say, though, Thanksgiving has grown on me over the years, it is a holiday devoted to friends and family and eating – nothing wrong with that – and blissfully absent – at least on the actual day of Thanksgiving – is the whole consume craziness that is such an integral part of Christmas nowadays.  If you are invited somewhere you bring a side dish or a bottle of something yummy – done.  No last minute rush to buy fancy gifts just to keep up with the Joneses.

The day after Thanksgiving, also called Black Friday or Thingsgetting is a different story.

November 24, 2010

Another white elephant

It appears that white elephants are very popular in the US.  So here is another expression featuring one: “white elephant gift.” This one needs a bit more explanation and a bit of history.

Famous white elephant: the Concorde, pic:

Allegedly, the kings of Siam used to give a white elephant as a gift to people who had fallen out of favor.  A white elephant was considered sacred and therefore could not be put to work, but it required a lot of money for upkeep and could ruin the owner.   So these days a “white elephant” is an expensive, rare possession that costs a lot to maintain and generally is no longer wanted by its owner.  However, the owner can’t get rid of it easily.

Not only possessions but also projects can become “white elephants” if they cost more than they are worth.  A well-known example is Concorde, the high-speed intercontinental passenger planes that were jointly built by the Brits and the French.  Only fourteen production aircraft were ever built, though it was planned that development costs were to be amortized over hundreds of units.  Staggering losses were incurred.