Showing posts with label phrases. Show all posts
Showing posts with label phrases. Show all posts

20 August 2014

In praise of phrase

by Robert Lopresti

Back in July I wrote about some new uses of words.  Since then I've noticed some phrases that I want to talk about, and most of them, oddly enough, were coming out of my own mouth.

For starters, I recently called an HMO office and got a recorded message that started something like this:  "Thank you for calling XXX. Payment for all services is due at the time of the appointment.  We take cash, check, or credit card.  If this is a life-threatening emergency, please hang up and dial 911--"

I thought about the order of those remarks and said: "Well, that's nailing your flag to the mast."

Jack Crawford statue
Jack Crawford monument
photo credit: Craigy144, Wikipedia
Which it is, but where does that phrase come from?  (It is sometimes given as nailing your colors (or colours) to the mast, colors being a nautical word for flag.)

It turns out to be a very specific flag, and a very specific mast. In 1797 the English navy fought the Dutch at the Battle of Camperdown.   The Dutch were the most powerful naval force in Europe at the time and they set out to prove it.  Admiral Adam Duncan was leading the British forces from the ship Venerable.  Its mast was shot down, taking the admiral's flag.  Since lowering your flag is a sign of surrender both sides watched to see what would happen next.

A sailor named Jack Crawford promptly climbed up what was left of the mast and nailed the flag to the top.  With this bit of daring for inspiration the English went on to win.  By the time the ship reached port Crawford was a hero.  (And like far too many war heroes, he drank himself to death.)

The phrase has two meanings: Crawford's, which is refusal to surrender, and mine, which means, showing your true principles.

And speaking of principles, one of mine is that you shouldn't claim someone said something they didn't.  Doesn't sound controversial, but all over the web you will find bogus quotations.  

Not long ago I saw a picture on Facebook that showed an unflattering shot of Oprah Winfrey, with a pretty dumb quote attributed to her.  Next to her is a flattering photo of Dr. Ben Carson with a witty reply to her comment.  It was set up as if this had been a genuine conversation, but was it?

My immediate reaction: "I don't carry any water for Oprah, but that sounds awfully pat."

You can guess where this is going, right?  To carry water for means to perform menial or unpleasant tasks for someone, presumably because you agree with them on some principle or political point.  It seems to date back to the seventies and is assumed to be based on the water boy, one of the lowest ranked of a team's staff.

But what about the word pat?  It has many meanings, of course, but the Oxford English Dictionary says that by the 1580s it already meant fitting, readily, opportunely. 

Which is close to the way I meant it, but not quite.  Merriam-Webster nails it: suspiciously appropriate.
photo credit: Nancy W Beach (own work)
[CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

Now, here is a pop quiz.  Please fill in the missing word of each phrase:

1.  I don't care how the argument is settled.  I don't have a dog in that ________.

2.  He said I was good for my age, which I took as a _______-handed compliment.

If you said you don't have a dog in that race you are in the majority, according to Google.  127,000 uses of that phrase appear in the Great All-knowing Search Engine.  118,000 uses prefer  fight, which is the way I have always heard it.  I can't help thinking that race is a later euphemism.

As for the compliment, if you said back-handed the Googleocracy supports you.  There are 678,000 examples, compared to to 398,000 for left-handed.
Personally  I prefer left-handed and I am nailing my flag to the mast, southpaw style.

29 April 2014

Cutting Edge

by David Dean

I've been in a writing slump for several months now.  The following narrative may account for this unwelcome condition:

Certain phrases get used a lot.  They tend to go in and out of fashion with the passage of time and different generations, then pop up again.  "Cutting Edge" is one such phrase.  Others are "Groundbreaking", and "Edgy".  There are many more, and I'm sure you can think of them without my help.  Lately, specifically in the case of the aforementioned examples, I've been left wondering what they hell they actually mean.

What caused this seismic tremor within my consciousness was an event that I was wholly unprepared for--Miley Cyrus grew up.  I was happily ignorant of this important, and "groundbreaking," event until a typical morning some months ago.  In fact, I was only vaguely aware that such a person actually existed.  I think I had been under the impression that she was a character on a popular sitcom.   

Settling down in front of the television with my coffee and bowl of porridge, I found myself swept up into a debate that was hotly raging on the "Today Show."  Robin had left it on as she prepared to dress for work.  If only she hadn't.

Over the next several minutes, my bloodshot orbs were treated to footage of a scantily clad young woman grinding against various persons and stuffed animals, while using a large, foam finger in a lascivious manner.  I was informed that she was "twerking".  She may have been singing, as well, I'm not sure.  Apparently, she had appeared on a music program the previous evening and set the world afire!

While I was still pondering the stuffed animal imagery, trying to grasp its deeper significance, the staff of the show discussed the merits and meaning of young Miley's performance.  "I was in."  This is another currently popular phrase, though I may be misusing it.  Riveted by the cultural upheaval occurring before my very eyes, I was treated to the spectacle of seemingly mature adults (the men were wearing suits) tossing words like "cutting edge," and "edgy," at one another like soapy loofas.  Experts on music and Hollywood were interviewed, as well!  This was important!  My oatmeal went cold.

This was no "flash in the pan," either.  The rest of the broadcast day (which is now endless) carried the debate to other networks and cable outlets.  More experts were consulted.  Some pronounced it "performance art."  Others pooh-poohed this as weak-minded, insisting that we had collectively witnessed the "coming out" of Miley's long-suppressed sexuality.  I felt torn and didn't know which way to go on this issue.  Words failed me, adjectives became stuck in my throat.  Until I came to terms with this phenomenon (also a very popular word when describing celebrities), I could not consider myself a modern man.  No one "had my back."

In my defense, my only experience with performance art such as Miley's, had been confined to bachelor party outings.  Of course, my role when patronizing these "gentlemen's clubs" was always to be the voice of restraint.  "Anyone for a cup of coffee?" I might suggest, when the drinking got a little out of hand.  Or, "Hey, save some of those ones for the poor box, boys!"  Many of the dancers (or performance artists, if you will) were very cutting edge.  And though it pains me to say it, there were some who could have given Miley a run for her money and left her in the dust. 

Fortunately for me, the furor over this very important issue faded before any reporters made it to my front door and demanded my opinion.  I remain happily obscure, if still trying to come to terms with what has happened.  Now, when I see a book or movie review that features those much sullied descriptors, I back quietly away--the book remains on the shelf, the film unseen.  How can I risk it?  What if that "edgy" new thriller features a giant foam finger as the killer's calling card, or that "groundbreaking" film has people "twerking" all over the place?  What if all these overused adjectives actually mask yet another tired, hackneyed rehash of what's been done before and better?

It's enough to make me beat the stuffing out of some huge teddy bear.

Fortunately, since I wrote this piece, Skidmore College has added a new course to their curriculum: The Sociology of Miley Cyrus".  It was about time someone did.