March 28, 2011

Muffin top

Muffin top: yes!, pic:

If you think something yummy and sweet to eat your are off, but not by too much: the dreaded muffin top is the consequence of too much to eat (or pants that are too tight – you can choose whatever explanation suites you better).

Muffin top non-no, pic:

A muffin top is a slang term – and not very friendly one – for a roll of fat spilling out over the waistline of pants or skirts.  That roll of fat looks like the upper part of a muffin that raised during baking and spilled over the paper casing.  Muffin tops are a big fashion and taste “no-no” in the best of cases, combined with a mid-riff free top they are a fashion/taste catastrophe and to be avoided at all costs.  If hidden under a wide sweater or t-shirt they might be okay – just as long as nobody sees them.

For once my fellow Americans did not come up with that term but our friends downunder.  The term is fairly new – created in 2003, made Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary (why is every other thing, street, university, building in Australia called Macquarie??  I guess I need to look into that) word of the year in 2006, the American Dialect Society honored it as one on the most creative words the same and our British friends finally caught up this year – 2011 – by including the term in the Oxford English Dictionary.

March 27, 2011

Third Rail

The third rail: touch it and your dead! pic:

If you have ever taken mass transit in an American city 9and few of us have outside of New York, San Francisco and a few other places) you have encountered a third rail. The third rail is an extra rail used for supplying electricity to trains.  Something that supplies electricity to trains also supplies electricity to body when touched – so, you heard it here, never ever touch the third rail.  In fact, just don’t touch rails at all and you’ll be fine.

Like litmus test the expression third rail has a metaphorical meaning in politics.  A topic is a “third rail” when it is controversial and charged that anybody how takes a position, or even “touches” the subject will suffer gravely if not terminally in politics.

There are in fact plenty of such third rail topics and here are the most well-known ones:

  • enacting gun-control laws
  • proposing tax increases
  • views on abortion
  • suggesting to cut spending on defense
  • views on immigration
  • proposing “socialist” program such a more secure state-funded social security net
  • being an atheist

The list goes on …

Other countries might have third rail topics, too, but the US seems to have a remarkable number of them and on topics where one would assume that reasonable people could disagree without getting nasty about it.

March 26, 2011

Litmus test

The good old Litmus test of the non-political kind, pic:

Scientist among you know litmus tests as simple and easy tests to indicate the pH, i.e. a test lets let you test a liquid and decide whether it is acidic or basic/alkaline.  Blue litmus paper turns red under acidic conditions, blue under alkaline ones and purple if the solution is neutral (pH 7).

Where am I going with this, this is not a Science 101 blog.  Right, so lets turn to the figurative usage of the term litmus test in politics.  There a litmus test is a question asked of a candidate that shows his or her opinion on a certain – often controversial – topic.  Depending on the answer to such a Litmus test question the voters/those who approve the nomination of the  candidate might choose to support the candidate or to withhold that support.

Litmus tests are frequently used in American politics – be it expressedly stated or not.  Candidates for any type of higher office face them and especially judges.

Here are some examples: for many conservatives abortion is a litmus test, if a candidate for office is pro-choice he/she failed the litmus test and will not be supported by the majority.

Gun control is another such litmus test for conservatives.  If a candidate is for gun control chances are slim he’ll/she’ll be a conservative politician.

In summary, a (political) litmus test is a test in which a single factor (as an attitude, believe, opinion, etc.) is decisive

March 25, 2011

Raining cats and dogs

It's raining cats and dogs, pic:

It has been raining very heavily for days without end in sight – so the old idiom “it is raining cats and dogs” came to my mind.  It means just that: very heavy and persistent rain.

I hardly ever use this idiom because I thought that it  is an old-fashioned expression and that nobody used it anymore and likely people wouldn’t even understand it anymore.  The first is true, the latter not necessarily as was proven to me the other day when my 6-year old said:  “Mama, it is raining cats and dogs!”

“Where did you get that expression?” I asked

“In school, from a book” he answered  – so obviously the idiom is still widely enough used to make it into kids’ school books.

The origin of the phrase is unknown and – as usual in some cases – a number of theories have been put forward.  One explanation that has some credibility as there is a documented source is that in England of the 17th century sewage and drainage systems weren’t very efficient and so when heavy downpours happened the streets were turned into rivers of doubtful water quality carrying with it all sorts of things, including the corpses of drowned cats and dogs.

Here is the reference: Jonathan Swift’s 1710 poem ‘Description of a City Shower’, in which he describes “Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,/Dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood.”

This might or might not be the explanation but somehow it doesn’t matter.  I just wish it would stop raining cats and dogs.

March 24, 2011

A few Definitions

More examples of metaphors, pic:

I have been throwing around the terms idiom, expression etc for a while now and so I figured, it is time to actually define them once and for all, both for my own benefits as well – hopefully – for yours.  The definitions might not be completely exhaustive but I personally find it rather tedious to read through seven bullet points for one term and have forgotten the first definition by the time I read the third anyway.  So let’s focus on the most relevant ones.

Let’s gets started with idiom: an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements.  Examples are: kick the bucket or go with the flow.

Simile: a figure of speech that expresses a resemblance between things of different kinds  and is usually formed with like or as.  Running around like a headless chicken is one example.  “The kid was as quiet as a mouse” is another.

Metaphor: a figure of speech in which an expression is used to refer to something that it does not literally denote in order to suggest a similarity.  The simplest form of metaphor is: “The [first thing] is a [second thing].”  Example: “Their home is their castle.” and another: “The United States have always been a melting pot.”

March 23, 2011

Headless chickens

Frenzied chicken - with head, pic:

Running around like a headless chicken is a very colorful figure of speech for running around frenzied and without a plan.  It implies that the person behaving like the headless chicken is doing whatever she or he is doing very quickly and distractedly and without without thinking carefully about what you are doing

The origin of that expression is pretty obvious: after decapitation poultry sometimes runs around for several minutes in an uncoordinated and frenzied manner.

Another way of saying the same thing is: running around like a chicken with its head cut off.

Here are some examples:

My colleague has been out sick the last week and so I have be running around like a headless chicken trying to do both my own work and his.

She lost her purse at the airport and was running around like a chicken with its head cut off trying to find it.

March 22, 2011


Trekking Antarctica - not a hard requirement for friendship in Germany, but it helps :-), pic:

In Germany when you know somebody for roughly a decade, have spend significant time together doing stuff like walking across Antarctica, studying for midterm and finals together – for the duration of your studies (that would be several years) -building a house together or hosting each others families for extended vacations, you are in each others wills and you would trust your life and that of your loved ones to the other person – then you have made a friend.

Alternatively you can grow up together sharing early memories of the sandbox, the 2nd grade math teacher and your respective first loves.

Everybody else are either colleagues (who in rare cases can become friends – given time) or acquaintances.  That woman you meet three times a week at the playground and talk to about pretty much everything – acquaintance!

In the US you meet somebody twice, exchanged a few friendly words about something other than business, you maybe have a coffee together some day, you might be willing to lend the person your pen for a few minutes  – then you have made a friend.

When I left Germany to go to business school I had maybe 10 really good friends (and lots of acquaintances).  When I started business school a few days later  I had 360 new friends – overnight, most of them I never met before.

Neither one approach to friendship is better than the other.  They are just different, very different and one needs to be aware of.   And the end effect might be just the same: after almost 14 years in the US I don’t have more than 10 really really good friends, German-type friends, the kind whom I entrust my live to.  In Germany you build them up slowly, very slowly; in the US you start big and then pare them down coming out at approximately the same number.

Just so you know.

March 21, 2011

Red tape

Drowning in red tape, pic:

Red tape is an expression used in English to describe excessive regulation that are often redundant or bureaucratic and hinder action or decision-making.  The term is often used in context with governmental, state or local regulations but can also be applied to other organizations like corporations.

The term is derisive and always implies excessive regulation as well as a lot of hair splitting or foot dragging.

Here is an example:

“We want to build an extension to our house.  You wouldn’t believe the red tape involved in getting the building permits.”

The origin of the term is somewhat obscure but there is a theory.  Normally I do not bother with obscure theories about expressions but this one is actually quite interesting: Back in the 16th century Henry VIII wanted to get his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled to marry Anne Boleyn.  Pope Clement wasn’t to thrilled with the idea so Henri besieged him with numerous petitions all rolled up and bound with the traditional red string.

Sounds like a good explanations to me.

March 20, 2011


Sego Lily, Utah's State flower - pretty, pic:

No there is so much to say about guns and America that I am not sure where to start – or at least I did not know where to start until today, when the State of Utah made this easy for me.  The legislature in Utah has today (or yesterday it does not matter) decided to add a gun to the symbols of Utah.  A John M. Browning-designed M1911 pistol to be precise.

To all of you that don’t know there guns (like me) I googled the darn thing and found that it is a single-action, semi-automatics, magazine-fed, and recoil-operated handgun chambered for the .45 ACP cartridge


M1911 Pistol, Utah's state gun - crazy, tasteless, pic:

So with a terrible shooting in Arizona – committed by an unstable young man with a semi-automatic weapon – the neighboring state of Utah had nothing better to do than – as the first state in the US – adding a weapon to its state symbols; right along with the Sego Lily, the Rocky Mountain Elk, the cherry, and the Blue Spruce.


I am jaded by now so the only question I really ask myself is “which state will be next?”

March 19, 2011


Samantha, Sex and the City's famous cougar, Pic: http://truestarmag. /2010/07/19/cubs-vs-the-cougars/

…and I am not talking about mountain lions, pumas or in general felines that go by the Latin name Puma concolor.

Of course, those beautiful animals are called cougars but in American slang the term as of recent refers to older women who date (much) younger men.  Two conditions must be met for a woman to be called a cougar:

  • she has to be at least 35 years old (I personally find that way to young to be called a cougar but it seems to be the standard definition, if there is such a thing) and
  • the guy has to be significantly younger

So 35 year old woman dating or hooking up with  a 30 year old man – not a cougar

A 45 year old dating/hooking up with a 28 year old: most definitely one.

A cougar dating site puts the required age difference at at least 10 years for the younger cougars and at 15 for the 50 plus age range.

Another characteristic is that a cougar goes out to find a guy, she is “hunting” vs. being the one who is being “hunted” by the guy.

The term is fairly new and stems from a 2001 book by Valerie Gibson, called “Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men.”  Famous cougars include:  Demi Moore, Samantha in Sex and the City, Madonna, and Elizabeth Taylor