Archive for February, 2011

February 23, 2011

Flocking birds

Another of these somewhat old-fashioned idioms that are good for your passive vocabulary – good to understand but not necessarily what you would use every day in your conversations with your colleagues, the cashier at Safeway or while getting your nails done.

Sea-gulls flocking together, pic: (c) Tina Baumgartner

The idiom is: “birds of a feather flock together”.  My 6-year old would be very excited now, screaming “it rhymes!”

Rhyming or not, the idiom means that people who have something in common: interests, temperament, taste, education etc. like to hang out together.

This can be good and bad – on the good side members in groups with common interests can be very tight and mutually supportive.  The negative side effects of people who think alike are obvious with groups like the Klu-Klux Klan.

The origin is obvious: birds of a single species do frequently form flocks. Ornithologists explain this behavior as a ‘safety in numbers’ tactic to reduce their risk of being caught by a predator.

February 22, 2011


Shameful numbers, source: IMF

I just read a horrifying number and cannot not write about it although it certainly opens the door to political partisanship.

So here is the number – and some context:

The US has 743 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants which is more than twice as much as the next country, France, at 365 per 100,000.  If we ignore the French for a bit (I know I shouldn’t say that as a German but let’s just do it anyway) the US has more prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants than the next three countries  on that list put together (not all countries are on the list).  The “list” was put together by the  International Monetary Fund, an institution not know to be a bastion of radical leftish thinking.  The entire table with other interesting data is included here.

According to a blog I read (it is a subscription type of affair that’s why it doesn’t make sense to put the link here) the US is spending $15 billion every year to keep these people in jail.  Which is a hell of a lot of money at a time where the Republicans want to cut funding for national Public Broadcasting which will save a whopping $445M.

The Land of the Free sure seems to love its prisons.

February 22, 2011

Shooting fish

in a barrel – this action is exactly what you think it would be: easy, effortless, a simple action, success virtually guaranteed.  As such this is a rather lame way of obtaining fish for dinner.

Shooting fish in a barrel - all too easy, pic:

An interesting side story is that, a group called Mythbusters actually tested out whether it is easy to shoot fish in a barrel.  Mythbusters is a Aussie created and produced show in which science (or at least some science) is used to test the validity of rumors, myths, movie scenes, adages, Internet videos and news stories.

Here is what they found: shooting fish in a barrel is indeed easy.  Actually hitting them might not be but the pressure wave created by the shooting is enough to kill the fish.  Details about their experiment can be found here.

This expression is not very frequently used but it is good to understand what it means should it come up in conversation.

February 21, 2011

Mall rat

mall rats are not critters lurking in dark corners of shopping malls, although one may be forgiven for thinking that given the term.

mall rats in action, pic:

Pre-teens, teenager, or young adults, who spend entirely too much time hanging around and wandering through the great American indoors, also known as  shopping malls, are known as mall rats.  These kids stroll around the mall for hours with their girlfriends (or boyfriends if they have any and they are game), often not buying a single thing.  The mall is their meeting place, especially on a Saturday afternoon.  Mall rats often have the ulterior motif of finding a boyfriend at the mall.

Mall rats are most often female and you will know them when you see them, they generally are quite made up and wear whatever brand of clothing is currently in.   There is a mall-rat hierarchy, those who can afford the higher-priced clothing rank higher than those who wear the cheaper, less desirable brands.

The term is not very friendly but not as bad as it sounds especially when adult family members, e.g. mothers refer to their kids half-jokingly and affectionately as mall rats.
“My Jessica has become quite the mall rat recently.  She used to play soccer every Saturday but no she just wants to go to the mall and hang out.  Teenage girls, I tell you!”.

February 21, 2011

Six of one …

Six of one ...

… and half a dozen of the other.

Six and half a dozen are obviously the same thing so this idiom is used to point out that something people refer to or think of as two different things are actually the same or at least there is no important difference between the two.  So it pretty much does not matter which way you say it or do it.

Let’s check out a couple of examples:

“Molly is Susan’s secretary”

“She is her assistant, not secretary”.

... and half a dozen of the other, pic:

“Come on, six of one, half a dozen of the other – secretary or assistant, those are the same things.”


“We can drive to San Francisco taking either 101 – it is shorter but slower because of the traffic – or on 280 which is a long route but probably faster because it has less traffic.  It is pretty much six of one and half a dozen of the other.”

February 20, 2011

Funny words, persnickety

The fussy Mr. Persnickety, pic:tvrecappersanonymus.

As I am writing about funny words I realize how often my first intuition about a word’s meaning is completely wrong.  Point in case: persnickety.  To me it sounds like sneaky or conniving – probably because of the “snickety” part that sound like “sneaky.”

Alas, it means something quite different: being fussy about details, being snobbish, requiring a great degree of precision.  if you require that everything is done just so you are a persnickety person.  Good synonyms would be nitpicking and finicky.

Here are some examples:

“The older he got the more persnickety he became.”

“Our math teacher is very persnickety, if not everything is perfect he gives you a bad grade.”

The word is fairly old and apparently of Scottish origin.  It is one of those words one uses rarely to make a point rather than incorporating it into the  everyday vocabulary.

February 20, 2011


There are countless ways to call somebody  stupid, some more subtle and gentle than others.  Here are a few you might hear on an ordinary day.  Most you wouldn’t actually say to the person in a context like: “you shouldn’t do this, it is a really stupid idea”.  Rather it is what you say about people who aren’t present.

A six-pack but not short on bottles, pic:

“He is a beer short of a six pack” – there are many variations of this expression which is based on the idea that somebody is missing a few components of a complete solution (here a six-pack = traditional pack of six cans/bottles of beer).   Very similar: a few fries short of a happy meal (fast food meal for kids).

He fell out of the stupid tree and hit every branch on the way down – no explanation necessary

Elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top floor or a variation thereof: the light are on but nobody is home

He/she is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. – sharp in the double meaning of sharp knife that cuts well and sharp (smart thinker, mentally keen person)

There are more, dozens – at least.


February 19, 2011


Another of those words that when I heard it the first time (and the second and the third) had no idea what it meant.  It is a strange word that sounds like nothing else I know.  Like with many of such words over time one develops a feeling for what they mean and how to use them to a point were I can use it correctly but still can’t define or translate it.

Filling in tax forms - not my bailiwick, pic:

Okay, to end the suspense: bailiwick – as used in general language means a persons area of skill, knowledge authority, work, or expertise.

Here is an example:

“Sorry, I can’t help you with your taxes, filling in tax forms is really not my bailiwick.”

One from my own experience:  “I can’t help you with your swollen joints, I am a biologist, medicine is not my bailiwick.”

The origin for this one is known: the Middle English bailliwik(e) means “district under the jurisdiction of a bailiff (sheriff’s deputy)”.  That word derives from bailie (or bailiff) + wik(e) “village, district.”

February 19, 2011

Urban legends

Every once in a while you hear a story that goes something like that: “This happened to an  aunt of a friend of a friend of mine, after not washing her hair for three days she found dozens of spiders nesting on her scalp ….”

A classic urban legend: the alligator in the toilet, pc:

You have just been told an urban legend.  The definition I found on is rather good and comprehensive so I am just quoting it here instead of reinventing the wheel.  An urban legend is “an apocryphal (erroneous, fictitious), secondhand story told as true and just plausible enough to be believed, about some horrific, embarrassing, ironic, or exasperating series of events that supposedly happened to a real person.”

Urban legends are universal and seem to be playing into some deep psychological need to deal with deeply routed fear, like the fear of creepy animals infesting your body.

Despite its name urban legends don’t necessarily originate in cities or urban areas, the expression – or its alternative – contemporary legend (not used in conversation, more of a technical term)  are used to differentiate those stories from older legends from pre-industrial times.

A good selection of urban legends (albeit with annoying pop-up ads) can be found here.

February 18, 2011


The integration of people from other countries is never an easy task but in Silicon Valley we seem to have managed it quite well.  My evidence is anecdotal but I think never the less convincing: just look at the menus and staff or your average Silicon Valley restaurant.

Thai chicken taco - what else? pic:

Last Tuesday we went to a pizza joint.  It had a giant plaster statute of Liberty in the window, the owner was Italian or Mexican, can’t tell he spoke both Italian and Spanish, the guy behind the counter looked Middle Eastern.  The pizza available had names like “Times Square”, “Don Corleone”, “Bella Indiana” and most noticeably “Indian Veggie Pizza” with ginger, cilantro, garlic, mushrooms and bell peppers.

Today we went to Aqui – which implies Mexican food – and it is, sort of – as Mexican as artichoke lasagna gets.  Of course there are chili verdes and quesedillas on the menu along with that walnut mango organic greens salad that I have to yet be served in any restaurant in Mexico.  Then there are the interesting options:  Thai carnitas  with peanut sauce (what else?), Teriyaki beef burrito, and chicken Vindaloo tacos.

Got to love it.