Archive for November, 2010

November 24, 2010

Raining and pouring

When it rains it pours! pic:

When it rains it pours is a proverb that is used to express that something that didn’t happen for a long time all of a sudden happens in excess.  Generally the “thing” is something negative, undesirable, or annoying which one felt happy to have escaped for a long time and then – all of a sudden – a whole lot of negative things happen all at the same time.

This idiom can be used in personal and business conversation.  It is without negative or questionable connotation.  Here are some usage examples:

“We got all the way through December without the flu but now all the kids have gotten it at once.  When it rains it pours.”

Sales person: “The store was super-quite for two hours, only two customers in total and now then ten came at once.  When it rains it pours.”

November 23, 2010

Want a piece of my mind?

I am going to give this rascal a piece of my mind! pic:

To give somebody a piece of one’s mind has nothing to do with mind-melts and other sci-fi ideas.  It also doesn’t mean to share deep and profound thoughts with somebody – although that would sort of make sense.

It means actually pretty much the contrary, namely to speak angrily to someone because they have done something wrong.  It implies that one is fairly angry and upset with the wrongdoer and plans on telling him or her in no uncertain terms exactly how one feels.

The expression betrays the speakers own state of mind – rather strong anger, upset, or displeasure – so it shouldn’t be used lightly.  If you confront  somebody after promising to give him/her a piece of my mind and then say “I really feel a little sad about your being so unpleasant to me” then you look weak, like you didn’t dare to really say what was on your mind and backed down.

“Giving somebody a piece of one’s mind” is most often used by parents when their children misbehave, bosses for completely incapable staff or between peers.  If you give your boss a piece of your mind better update your resume before you do so.

November 23, 2010

Word confusion, part 5

Another word pair that make life difficult but can be explained readily – discreet and discrete.

A shocking secret, please handle it discreetly, pic:

Discreet means judicious in conduct or speech, careful to avoid social embarrassment or distress esp. with regard to keeping a secret or a delicate fact.


“He is a very discreet person, he would never give away your secret.” or “Thank you very much for handling that delicate matter so discreetly, it could have caused me a lot of embarrassment if this had come out.”

Discrete is more of a technical term meaning distinct, separate, apart or detached from others.  Here are a couple of examples:

“There are several discrete steps that are required to complete this task.” and “There are several discrete buildings making up the campus of the university. ”

Both terms are really quite different in meaning but confusingly similar when it comes to spelling and pronunciation, in fact the pronunciation is identical for all practical purposes so in spoken English you will have to tell from the context which of the two words apply – which should be fairly straight forward, now that you are aware of the meaning of this confusing pair.

November 22, 2010

Sorry, continued

I explained the correct and necessary use of the word sorry here.  There are certainly more but first a let me talk about what  I think is an incorrect and downright silly abuse of the word and should be avoided.  However, it is necessary to understand how and why the word is used in certain contexts.

Sorry is often used when expressing a dissenting opinion – whether one is truly sorry for having or expressing it is irrelevant, it is just a set phrase to soften the blow of disagreement.

Person 1: “The US economy is headed for disaster.”

Person 2: “I am sorry, but I disagree, I think after a short down-cycle we see swift and complete recovery.”

There is a definite gender bias when it comes to the usage of the word sorry.  I haven’t done a study on it but anecdotal evidence suggests that women use it far more frequently then man.  I leave this observation stand without further comment.

November 22, 2010


Sorry is the most used, abused, and misused word in the English language, with the possible exception of the infamous f-word.  In the US  “sorry” used much (much, much) more frequently than in Europe (or at least in Germany) as an all purpose word to get attention, express regret, when passing by people, when touching them, when almost touching them, etc.

Here are some examples for what I consider legitimate use of the word:

Even in a crowd like that you use sorry to push through, pic:

Situation 1: You are at the supermarket and need to push your shopping cart by somebody else’s cart in the aisle.  Even if there is enough space to get by without touching the other person or his shopping cart you would never do that without saying “sorry” first.   And you don’t just mumble it, you say it out loud and wait for the other person to acknowledge you somehow, for example moving out of the way.  Most certainly the person will say “sorry” and move out of the way.

Situation 2:  you are in a hurry and need to get through a crowd fast.  You do not – ever – just push your way through.  It is considered extremely rude.  You are supposed to be polite, say “sorry” and you try and get around people, avoiding to touch anybody.  If you absolutely have to touch them you do so gingerly and say something a little stronger like “I am so very sorry”, or  “Excuse me, could you please let me pass, I am in a hurry”.

The whole pushing people around, bumping into them, stepping on their toes without as much as an “excuse me” is absolutely unthinkable here.  When in doubt, double up on the sorries, never leave them out.

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November 22, 2010

Of fish big and small

Big fish in a very small pond, pic: © Madartists |

There are a few idioms with fish, one of the more useful ones is “being a big fish in a small pond”.  Fish in this case stands for a person and so the expression refers to people who are important but only in a limited circle of influence, such as a small company or organization.  A permutation of this idiom is “being a little fish in a big pond”.

An example would be the CEO of a small company that gets acquired by a large multinational and now is senior director of something or another.  Before he was a big fish (boss man) in a small pond (small company) now he is a little fish (just one of many senior directors) in a big pond (big company).

Neither one of these options is necessarily better than the other, it is a matter of personal choice.

November 21, 2010

Hairy issues

Those girls are getting in my hair!, pic:

There are a number of idioms and expressions involving hair.  Here is a useful one: “getting in someone’s hair”.

If you are getting in someone’s hair, or someone is getting in your hair you annoy, bother, or pester them, or the other way around.   There are many expressions that express the concept of annoyance and bothering other than this one and this one is a fairly mild, non-offending way to say this.  if there is a non-offending way to say that somebody bothers you).

It can be used in business and casual conversation, but – like with many idioms or expressions – you would want to think twice before using it when talking to the Chairman of the Board or the person who decides decides whether you get fired or receive a fat bonus.

Here are a couple of examples:

“How do you like your new roommate?” “He gets in my hair a lot, he plays loud music until 2 am and throws parties all the time.”

“The guy in accounting gets in my hair.  He is so uptight about turning in the travel expenses on time.  It’s annoying!”

November 20, 2010

Number Confusion

As if big numbers weren’t confusing enough in and by themselves there is some language confusion to compound the complexity of all. Up to 1 million everything is fine but after that the problems start.

Let me explain:  there are two scales, the short and the long, when it comes to naming big numbers.  The short scale introduces a new name for every number that is 1,000 times larger than the previous one, so if we start with 1 million (a 1 with 6 zeros) and multiply by 1,000 we get 1 billion (1 with 9 zeros) and if we multiply again by 1,000 we get a trillion (1 with 12 zeros). then comes the quadrillion (15 zeros), the quintillion (18 zeros) and the sextillion (21 zeros).  I am sure there is more but unless you are a astronomer you wont have to concern yourself with those.

The long scale introduces a new name for every number that is 1 million times larger than the previous one. Again starting with 1 million and multiplying by 1 million we get a billion – same name as above for 1 with 9 zeros but this one has 12 zeros.  The 1 with 9 zeros is called milliard.  After the billion comes the billiard (15 zeros), then the trillion (18 zeros) and the trilliard (21 zeros).  Then … who cares?

A scary big number: the national deficit in the US. Pic:

Now, most English-language countries use the short scale.  Therefore the usual suspects: UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, as well as a few others like Brazil, Indonesia, and Israel use the short scale.  Long scale is used a lot in Europe, and Latin America. For a complete listing see here.

So, if you read that the national deficit of the US is $14 trillions it is bad, real bad, but not as bad as you might believe if you think in long scale terms.

November 20, 2010

Getting the hang of it

A "getting the hang of it" word play, pic: the hang of it_55879

Suppose you have been trying to learn something or to acquire a new skill, like learning to speak a language or windsurfing and you finally feel that you are making progress, you are starting to understand, to “get it” – then you are getting the hang of it.  It implies that you haven’t mastered the skill yet but are making real progress.

This expression is fairly casual, it can be used in a business context in more informal situations such as:

Supervisor to summer intern: “Alex, how is it going with the data entry?  Any problems with it?”
Intern: “It’s going good.  First I had some trouble but now I am getting the hang of it.”

It should not be used in formal conversations and might send the wrong message if your boss asks you during the annual review how you think you are performing in your job.

November 20, 2010

Elephants in rooms


I like this expression, at first it seems to make no sense but once you get to understand it it is actually quite clever: “the white elephant in the room.”

White elephants are pretty rare to begin with and if you encounter one you wouldn’t expect to do so in a room, especially a conference room on the 12th floor.  So if there was a white elephant in the room everybody would stare at it and talk about it.

Now if everybody sits in that room and talk about the weather or baseball than you would have a “white elephant in the room” problem, namely a obvious issue or problem that is being ignored, goes unaddressed and no one wants to discuss.

Since it is pretty hard to overlook an elephant the expression implies that people pretend the elephant is not there that they are choosing to concern themselves with small and irrelevant issues rather than deal with the big scary one.  Often the reason for this behavior is that the problem causes embarrassment or involves a social taboo.

Project leader: “Let’s discuss the implementation of this project once we a re done with planning next week.”

Manager: “I suggest we address the white elephant in the room first, planning is delayed and wont be finalized until March.”