Category Archives: Phrases

What is the Meaning of the Ides of March?

atkins-bookshelf-phrasesIn the ancient Roman calendar, before the Christian Era, every month had three named days: the Calends (or Kalends), the first day of the month when accounts were due; the Nones, the fifth or seventh day of the month; and the Ides, the middle of the month (between the 13th to 15th day). There was nothing particularly significant about the ides of January, the ides of February, and so forth.

All that changed in 1599 when William Shakespeare wrote The Tragedy of Julius Ceasar. In Act 1, Scene 2, in a public place on March 15th, 44 BC, a soothsayer among the crowd approaches Caesar and calls out: “Caesar!… Beware the ides of March.” Caesar is not sure he has heard the man correctly, so Brutus repeats it: “A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.”  The soothsayer repeats the line, warning that the Roman leader’s life is in danger. But Caesar immediately dismisses him: “He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass.” As we all know, Caesar should have heeded the soothsayer’s warning. In a scene filled with brutality and treachery, Caesar is surrounded by an angry mob of senators who walk up to him and stab him to death. He is stabbed a total of 23 times. As his life slips away, a feeble Caesar turns to his closest friend and ally, Marcus Junius Brutus, and utters the famous line, “Et tu, Brute?” (you too, Brutus?), signifying the ultimate betrayal.

So from that point on, thanks to Shakespeare’s dramatic genius, the phrase “Beware the Ides of March” being linked to Caesar’s barbarous assassination, imbued upon March 15 a rather ominous and nefarious connotation that has been passed down through the centuries. However, Tom Frail, senior editor of Smithsonian magazine, notes that March 15th lives in infamy beyond Casear’s murder. He cites several events in history that occurred on that same fateful day that were filled with villainy or mortalities:

Raid on Southern England, March 15, 1360: The French raided a town in southern England and began a two-day spree of murder, rape, and pillage. King Edward III initiated a pillaging spree in France in retaliation.

Cyclone strikes Samoa, March 15, 1889: A cyclone strikes six warships that were at barber in Apia, Samoa. More than 200 sailors were killed.

Czar Nicholas II abdicates throne, March 15, 1917: Czar Nicholas II or Russia is forced to abdicate his royal throne (ending a dynasty of 304 years). A few months later, he and his family are executed.

Blizzard in Great Plains, March 15, 1941: A devastating blizzard, with 60-MPH winds, struck the northern Great Plains, killing more than 66 people.

Depletion of ozone layer, March 15, 1988: NASA reported that the ozone layer over the Northern Hemisphere has been depleted three times faster than had been predicted.

Outbreak of SARS, March 15, 2003: WHO reported a breakout of Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in China, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Read related posts: The Buck Stops Here
Clothes Make the Man
Hoist with His Own Petard

For further reading: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare


What is the Term for Repeated Phrase?

atkins-bookshelf-phrasesA common rhetorical device used by poets, writers, and public speakers (especially pastors) is anaphora, defined as the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a sentence or clause. Anaphora is derived from the Latin and Greek word anaphora, meaning “reference” and literally “a carrying back.” The anaphora establishes rhythm, but more importantly, it underscores an important idea. Anaphoras are often found in hymns and prayers; however the most famous anaphoras is found in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on August 28, 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The speech was heard by a crowd of over 250,000 people who came from all over the country to participate in the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs.

The speech contains 1,667 words, however the best known words are contained in the anaphoral phrase “I have a dream,” used nine times in an improvised section of the speech (thanks to a shout out by legendary gospel singer Mahlia Jackson, known as “The Queen of Gospel”) that highlights the contrast between what the world is now, and what it can be:

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”2

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.” (Italics added)

A few lines later, as he approaches the speech’s conclusion, King returns to the anaphora, this time using “Let freedom ring” ten times:

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:
“My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that: Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

Read related post: Why “I Have a Dream” Speech Endures
The Wisdom of Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King and the Suicide Letter

The Gettysburg Address

For further reading: Words That Shook The World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events by Richard Greene (2002)



Resume Euphemisms

atkins-bookshelf-phrasesEach year, millions of Americans enter the workforce — many straight out of college, of course, but many rejoin the business world after a hiatus — moving on from misspent youth, trying a dubious career that didn’t pan out (you know how judgmental employers can be), or raising a family. In most cases, entering the workforce requires writing a compelling resume. And nothing inspires creativity like having to write a resume and promoting your greatest assets — with a bit of embellishment. Susan Ireland, the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Perfect Resume observes, “It’s most important that a resume be honest. However, being honest does not mean ‘telling all.'” Recruiters agree. Judi Wunderlich, co-founder of a talent and recruitment firm in Chicago, adds: “Honesty is usually the best policy, but you’ve got to be careful not to hit them in the face with it.” So why write “stay-at-home parent” when you can write “child advocate.” Lying is too strong a word; you could call these necessary embellishments “resume white lies,” but let’s use a kinder, gentler term — like “resume euphemisms.” So if you are writing a resume, here are some creative resume euphemisms you can use.

Ran a failed business: “experienced entrepreneur”

Got fired: “advocate for the working class”

In between jobs: “self-employed”

Haven’t had a job in a long time: “consultant” or “freelancer”

Raised a family: “child advocate” or “expert problem solver” or “expert trouble shooter” (and not complete give-aways like “domestic engineer” or “household manager”)

Drug dealer: “pharmaceutical rep”

Stripper: “stage performer”

Drug mule: “transporter” or “commodity relocator”

Worked at a web company: “Internet pioneer”

Grew vegetables in your backyard: “small farm owner”

Helped your children with their homework: “tutor” or “success coach”

Actually completed your children’s homework: “perpetual student” or “fast learner”

Shopaholic: “consumer market researcher” or “product specialist”

Party animal: “social network expert” or “event coordinator”

Reads all junk mail: “direct mail marketing expert”

Dropped out of college: “learned by experience” or “learned by doing”

Had a string of unrelated jobs: “business maverick”

Drunkard: “wine industry rep” or “beer rep”

Keeps a daily diary: “unpublished author”

Filed for bankruptcy: “fiscal realist” or “presidential candidate”

Little League coach: “experienced team player”

Trash collector: “environmental services technician”

Failed at several jobs: “extensive experience” or “explores alternative ideas”

Coached track team: “proven track record”

Watches TV all night and sleeps in late: “dependable”

What other resume euphemisms can you suggest?

Read related posts: Best Job Interview Tips
Job Interview Questions at Apple
How Much Math Do We Really Need?
What is the Toughest Job in the World?
How to Make Ethical Decisions
Traits of Great Leaders

For further reading: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Perfect Resume by Susan Ireland (2010)

Who is the “Person From Porlock”?

atkins-bookshelf-phrasesThe phrase “person from Porlock” (also known as the “man from Porlock” or simply “Porlock”) is a literary allusion that refers to an unwanted intruder who interrupts creative work or more precisely, a flash of inspiration, to the point that the work cannot be completed. Porluck also can mean an evasion or excuse not to work. Poet Robert Pinsky cites the telephone as “the perfect Porlockian escape.” He admits that when he is writing and receives a phone call from another writer, he is eager to take a break, engaging in “mutual Porlockism.”

The phrase has its origins in an incident that occurred to the famous Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1797 while living in Nether Stowey, a small town in southwest England. Coleridge had taken opium while reading about Emperor of China Kubla Khan’s palace, Xanadu. While in an opium-induced dream, Coleridge conceived a poem consisting of over 200 lines. When he awoke, he began furiously writing his poem, Kubla Khan, that begins with the famous line: “In Kubla Khan /  A stately pleasure dome decree…” Unfortunately, he was in interrupted by a visitor, a person from Porlock, who was there to conduct some business (some scholars believe it was Coleridge’s drug dealer, a doctor who supplied him with laudanum).

Coleridge, writing in the third person, elaborates on the incident: “On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!”

Alas, Kubla Khan remain unfinished, consisting of only 54 lines. Damn Porluck! Consequently, Coleridge decided not to publish the work. From time to time he read it to friends at private readings. In 1816, Lord Byron encouraged Coleridge to publish the poem. And it’s a good thing he did, since critics now regard Kubla Khan one of Coleridges greatest poems, alongside Christabel and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

A copy of Coleridge’s manuscript is on exhibit at the British museum, located in London, England. Cinephiles will instantly recognize that Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan is quoted in Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane, as the camera pans along the spectacular estate of Charles Foster Kane in the opening sequence.

Read related posts: Clothes Make the Man
Rhadamanthine Oath
The Sword of Damocles
Hoist with His Own Petard
To Cut the Gordian Knot

For further reading:

Notable Words of the 2016 Election

atkins bookshelf wordsCertainly, the 2016 presidential election has been one of the most mean-spirited, divisive, and offensive in the nation’s recent history. But politics is a double-edged sword: it is as annoying as it is fascinating, but in a schadenfreund way. Who can resist the swamp of misery that presidential candidates slog through for over a year? The never-ending exchange of insults, name-calling, finger-pointing, temper tantrums, the spinning of intricate web of lies, sensational sound bites, and so forth. The attention that these two dueling candidates have drawn is unprecedented. To get a sense of the scale, consider that most presidential debates are watched by 60-70 million viewers. However, the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, on September 26, was watched by over 84 million viewers — the most watched debate in the history of the country. Hence, voters are carefully noting how the candidates behave, what they believe, and what they say. Regardless of who wins the election, the acrimonious 2016 campaign has impacted the lexicon of the world. The editors at Merriam Webster and the Oxford English Dictionaries noted there were several surges in word lookups right after the debates and during breaking news cycles throughout the 2016 election. Here are some of the words and phrases that colored the 2016 presidential election:

alt-right: Shortened form of alternative right, a political movement that combines right-wing ideologies with racialized nationalism

anchor baby: a child born to American parents that are not citizens

basket of deplorables: large number of people who are bad (presumably because they are racist, sexist, or xenophobic)

big league: major, important; however, Trump uses it as an adverb, to mean completely or “big time”

bigly: 1. with great force or violently  2. boastfully or proudly. However, Trump uses it to mean completely or “big time”

braggadocious: archaic term for arrogant or boastful

cuckservative: an insulting term for mainstream conservatives

demagogue: a political leader who seeks support by appealing to emotions and prejudices or making false claims rather than by using rational arguments

disavow: to disown, to disclaim knowledge of or responsibility for something

healther: people who believe that Clinton is hiding a grave illness

juggernaut: a large, destructive force

loser: a person who has lost something; however, Trump uses it for anyone who disagrees with him

malarkey: nonsense; meaningless talk

misognyist: a person who hates women

oleaginous: having the nature of oil, unctuous, smarmy

pussyfoot: to avoid making a definite decision due to doubt or fear

Pyrrhic victory: a victory won at too great a cost

stop and frisk: a law that allows a police officer stop and pat down a person based on suspicion 

trumpery: attractive articles of little worth; showy but worthless

xenophobic: fearful of foreigners

yuge: the way Trump pronounces “huge”

Real related posts: There’s a Word for That: Trumpery
What Rhymes with Orange?
The Most Mispronounced Words
Words with Letters in Alphabetical Order
Difficult Tongue Twisters
Word Oddities: Fun with Vowels100 Words Almost Everyone Mispronounces

The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations

For further reading:

What is the “Big Lie”?

atkins-bookshelf-phrasesThe current presidential race is perhaps one of the most tumultuous, hostile, and divisive in American history. Brooks Simpson, a presidential historian at Arizona State University expressed it this way: “We’ve had divisive elections before — one ended up in a civil war — that’s been truly divisive, in a different way, but we’ve never had such a level of nastiness between two major-party candidates.” Not only do the two candidates despise one another, neither one is particularly liked by the voters. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll conducted in September 2016 revealed that most Americans believe that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the worst candidates that have been nominated in the past 40 years. 45% of Americans believe that Trump is the worst Republican nominee; while 22% believe that Clinton is the worst Democratic nominee. Moreover, a New York Times/CBS News Poll conducted in early November indicated that 8 out of 10 voters stated that the presidential campaign has left them repulsed rather than excited.

Needless to say, there is a lot of enmity to go around. Voters are fed up with the candidates’ bad behavior that includes not only relentless vitriolic mudslinging but also a tidal wave of lies — little lies and big lies — that are keeping fact-checkers working overtime, gasping for air, and worse — drowning the electorate. Several polls show that the majority of voters perceive both candidates as dishonest. However, it is clear that both candidates have an intuitive understanding of the power of the big lie, an integral part of their political playbook. So what exactly is the “big lie”?

The “big lie” is a term coined in 1925 by the poster boy of really bad (actually, evil) behavior, Adolf Hitler. The big lie is a very effective propaganda technique that essentially states that the bigger the lie, the better it works. Specifically, the big lie is a lie that is so big, that most people could not imagine that the someone would have the audacity to fabricate such a bold falsehood or to distort the truth so horribly. Stated another way, the big lie is the lie that is too big to fail. Hitler explains the principle of the big lie in his autobiography, Mein Kampf (translated from the German, “My Struggle”) that was published in two volumes in 1925 and 1926:

“All this was inspired by the principle — which is quite true within itself — that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.”  From Volume 1, Chapter X, translated by James Murphy. (Emphasis added)

The previous paragraph could have as easily been an excerpt from Niccolo Machiavelli’s seminal work, Il Principe, best known as The Prince, published in 1532. Lies were as much a part of 16th century politics as they were in the mid-20th century. But it was the audacity of Hitler and his devoted associate Joseph Goebbels (Reich Minister of Propaganda), to use the big lie to fan the flames of anti-Semitism in Germany to create the horrific conflagration of the Holocaust. Moreover, Goebbels added a nuance to the concept of the big lie 16 years after Hitler introduced it. In an article entitled Aus Churchills Lügenfabrik (“From Churchill’s Lie Factory”) published in the January 1941 edition of Die Zeit one Beispiel, Goebbels wrote:

“The essential English leadership secret does not depend on particular intelligence. Rather, it depends on a remarkably stupid thick-headedness. The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.” (Emphasis added)

Of course, big lies play a very large role in the political world of the 21st century, as they are amplified and disseminated in milliseconds thanks to the omnipresent internet. With social media, the big lie can be repeated endlessly in a single news cycle. One keen student of human nature, Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, has been fascinated by the persuasive power of modern politicians. “Psychology is the only necessary skill for running for president,” Adams notes, “[and] Trump knows psychology.” Since Trump knows that people are essentially irrational, Adams believes, he appeals directly to their emotions, not their rational gray matter. Adams writes, “If you see voters as rational, you’ll be a terrible politician. People are not wired to be rational. Our brains simply evolved to keep us alive. Brains did not evolve to give us truth. Brains merely give us movies in our minds that keeps us sane and motivated. But none of it is rational or true, except maybe sometimes by coincidence… There are plenty of important facts Trump does not know. But the reason he doesn’t know those facts is – in part – because he knows facts don’t matter. They never have and they never will. So he ignores them — right in front of you.”

Almost six decades earlier, Senator John F. Kennedy weighed in on the matter in an essay, entitled “A Force that Has Changed the Political Scene” that appeared in TV Guide on November 14, 1959. Kennedy recognized that television as a campaign tool was a double edged sword; he wrote: “Honesty, vigor, compassion, intelligence—the presence or lack of these of other qualities make up what is called the candidate’s ‘image.’ My own conviction is that these images or impressions are likely to be uncannily correct.” Unfortunately, he notes, television can easily be misused for manipulation, exploitation and gimmicks; he writes “It can be abused by demigods, by appeals to emotions and prejudice and ignorance.” Kennedy encourages viewers/voters to critically evaluate what they see on television: “It is in your power to perceive deception, to shut off gimmickry, to reward honesty, to demand legislation where needed. Without your approval, no TV show is worthwhile and no politician can exist.”

Read related posts: What is the Word for Two Bad Choices?
Why Can’t Politicians Get Along?
What is the Barnum Effect?

Clothes Make the Man
Rhadamanthine Oath
The Sword of Damocles
Hoist with His Own Petard
To Cut the Gordian Knot

For further reading:

What is the Birthday Paradox?

atkins bookshelf triviaThe birthday paradox (also known as the birthday problem) is the  probability that in a room of 23 strangers, there is a 50% (50.7% to be precise) chance of two people having the same birthday. In a room of 75 people that probability increases to 99.9%. The statistical oddity was first discovered by mathematician Richard von Mises in 1939.

This statistical oddity is categorized as a paradox because is counter-intuitive. In general, people use division rather than the compounding power of exponents to solve problems of probability. For example, to figure out what the chances are to toss a coin and get 10 heads in a row, the average person calculates this way: If getting one head is 50%, then getting two heads is 50% divided by two (25%); therefore, getting ten heads in a row must be 50% divided by 10 (5%). But the proper way to calculate this problem is through exponents: .50 to the power of 10, which equals .001.

There is a rather simple formula (see for further reading) to determine the chances of two people having the same birthday, but the key is using the power of  exponents. But the simplest proof is as a “parlor trick” next time you are at an event of several dozen people. Impress attendees with your mathematical genius.

Read related posts: How Many Music Genres Exist?
Famous Duos
Famous Last Words

Ten Interesting Facts About the Human Body
How Fast is the Earth Moving?
What if Superman Punched You?
What is the Value of a Human Life?
Fastest Man in the World

For further reading: Don’t You Believe It by Herb Reich (2010)

%d bloggers like this: