Category Archives: Phrases

Amusing Musings on Language

alex atkins bookshelf wordsAs word lover Richard Lederer pointed out in one of his books, the English language is crazy. Lederer observes, “to explore the paradoxes and vagaries of English, we find that hot dogs can be cold, darkrooms can be lit, homework can be done in school, nightmares can take place in broad daylight while morning sickness and daydreaming can take place at night, tomboys are girls and midwives can be men, hours — especially happy hours and rush hours — often last longer than sixty minutes, quicksand works very slowly, boxing rings are square, silverware and glasses can be made of plastic and tablecloths of paper… and most bathrooms don’t have any baths in them.” You get the idea.

Lederer’s book inspired Josh White Jr.’s song “English is Crazy” (most people are familiar with folk singer Pete Seeger’s version, plays on banjo). Of course, Lederer’s waggish observations are not lost on comedians who mine the vast English lexicon for words and phrases that make you scratch your head and utter “WTF.” Two of the most brilliant comedians who placed the English language under the comedy microscope are George Carlin and Stephen Wright. Here are some of the most amusing musings on the English language, many from Carlin and Wright.

Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.

How can a fat chance and slim chance be the same thing?

I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, “Where is the self-help section?” She said that if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.

If a deaf kid swears, does his mother wash his hands with soap?

If a turtle loses its shell is it naked or homeless?

If con is the opposite of pro, is congress the opposite of progress?

If flying is so safe, why is the airport called ‘terminal’?

If people can have triplets and quadruplets why not singlets and doublets?

If vegetarians eat vegetables, what do humanitarians eat?

I went to a restaurant that “serves breakfast at any time” so I ordered French toast during the Renaissance.

Is Atheism a non-prophet organization?

Is it true that cannibals don’t eat clowns because they taste funny?

Isn’t it a bit unnerving that doctors call what they do “practice?”

I saw a sign that said “Coming soon — a 24-hour restaurant.” Why would they open and close it so quickly?

I went to a general store. They wouldn’t let me buy anything specifically.

The reason the mainstream is thought of as a stream is because of its shallowness.

What’s another word for thesaurus?

Where do forest rangers go to “get away from it all?”

Why are there braille signs at the drive-through windows at the bank?

Why is that when stars are out, they’re visible, but when the lights are out, they’re invisible?

Why are they called apartments when they are all stuck together?

Why are boxing rings square?

Why do we drive on a parkway but park in a driveway?

Why is it that night falls but never breaks and day breaks but never falls?

Why don’t you ever see the headline, “Psychic Wins Lottery”?

Why is “abbreviated” such a long word?

Why is lemon juice made with artificial flavor and dishwashing liquid made with real lemons?

Why is the man who invests all your money called a broker?

Why is the time of day with the slowest traffic called rush hour?

Why isn’t phonetics spelled phonetically?

Would a fly that loses its wings be called a “walk?”

Read related posts: The English Language is Crazy
The Wisdom of Steven Wright
The Wisdom of George Carlin
Top Ten Puns

For further reading: Brain Droppings by George Carlin
Crazy English: The Ultimate Joy Ride Through Our Languageby Richard Lederer
Lederer on Language: A Celebration of English, Good Grammar, and Wordplay by Richard Lederer

What is a Malaphor?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsA malaphor is a mixed idiom or mixed metaphor (or to use the more formal term, catachresis). It is a portmanteau word formed by combining malapropism (the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding word; for example “butt naked” rather than “buck naked” or “for all intensive purposes” rather than “for all intents and purposes” ) and metaphor (a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable; for example: “walking on thin ice”). A malapropism is also known as an eggcorn, a word coined by Geoffrey Pullum, a linguist (based on the misuse of “egg corn” instead of “acorn”). Most often, people muddle idioms in speech and since spellcheckers don’t catch these pesky things, they slip into text and print. Here are some common malaphors sure to delight:

A loose tongue spoils the broth.

Don’t judge a book before it’s hatched.

Every cloud has a silver spoon in its mouth.

From now on, I’m watching everything you do with a fine-tuned comb.

Going to hell in a hen basket.

He is a little green behind the ears.

He received a decease and desist order.

He was watching me like I was a hawk.

He’s a wolf in cheap clothing.

He’s burning the midnight oil from both ends.

He’s like a duck out of water.

He’s not the one with his ass in a noose.

I can read him like the back of my book.

I have a lot of black sheep in my closet.

I hope he gets his curve ball straightened out.

I shot the wind out of his saddle.

It sticks out like a sore throat.

It will be a walk in the cake.

It’s all moth-eared.

It’s as easy as falling off a piece of cake.

It’s like looking for a needle in a hayride.

It’s not rocket surgery.

It’s time to grab the bull by the tail and look him in the eye.

It’s time to step up to the plate and lay your cards on the table.

I wouldn’t be caught dead there with a ten-foot pole.

I wouldn’t eat that with a ten-foot pole.

I’ll get it by hook or ladder.

People are dying like hotcakes.

Take a flying hike.

That train has left the frying pan.

The crutch of the matter.

The fan is gonna hit the roof.

These hemorrhoids are a real pain in the neck.

They’re diabolically opposed.

Until the cows come home to roost.

Until the pigs freeze over.

We could stand here and talk until the cows turn blue.

We have to get all our ducks on the same page.

We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.

You can’t change the spots on an old dog.

You can’t teach a leopard new spots.

You can’t go in there cold turkey with egg on your face.

You could have knocked me over with a fender.

Read related posts: Words with Letters in Alphabetical Order
What is the Longest Word in English Language?
Word Oddities: Fun with Vowels

What is an Abecedarian Insult?
Difficult Tongue Twisters
Rare Anatomy Words
What Rhymes with Orange?

For further reading: Going to Hell in a Hen Basket: An Illustrated Dictionary of Modern Malapropisms by Robert Rubin

What is the Pinocchio Effect?

alex atkins bookshelf phrasesThere are so many lies coming out of Washington D.C. — each day alternative facts, fake news, misrepresentations, and misstatements are colliding with one another at such a dizzying pace, like atoms colliding, resulting in a spectacular explosion of bullshit that blocks out even the tiniest glimpse of reality. Even seasoned White House correspondents are scrambling for different ways of referring to all this bullshit by using different euphemisms like balderdash, baloney, booty chatter, bull honky, bunk, canard, cock and bull story, codswallop, concoction, crock, falsehood, fib, fiction, fish story, flapdoodle, hogwash, hokum, hooey, horse manure, inveracity, jiggery-pokery, malarkey, misrepresentation, misstatement, moonshine, piffle, pish posh, poppycock, prevarication, prevarication, rubbish, stretcher, tall tale, twaddle, untruth, whopper. Whew! All of this lying would even make Pinocchio’s little wooden head spin.

Speaking of Pinocchio — when discussing lies and lying, psychologists refer to the Pinocchio effect. No, the Pinocchio effect does not refer to the lengthening of the nose described in the famous children’s novel, The Adventures of Pinocchio (1881) by Carlo Collodi (otherwise most politicians could not fit through standard doorways without turning sideways). In science, the Pinocchio effect describes the increase in temperature around the nose and in the orbital muscle in the corner of the eye when a person lies. In a pioneering study conducted in 2012, researchers at the University of Granada, Emilio Gómez Milán and Elvira Salazar López, used thermographic cameras to measure temperature on the face of human subjects. When a person performs considerable mental effort (eg., being interrogated or lying), the overall temperature of his or her face drops (except around the nose and corner of the eyes); however, when a person experiences anxiety, overall face temperature rises. The researchers elaborate: “When we lie about our feelings, the temperature around our nose raises and a brain element called insula is activated. The insula is a component of the brain reward system, and it only activates when we experience real feelings (called qualias). The insula is involved in the detection and regulation of body temperature. Therefore, there is a strong negative correlation between insula activity and temperature increase: the more active the insule (the greater the feeling) the lower the temperature change, and vice versa.”

Read related posts: What is the Barnum Effect?
There’s A Word for That: Trumpery
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What are the Most Common Lies on Social Media?
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For further reading:

Phrases That Cannot Be Translated Literally

alex atkins bookshelf phrases“Most of the world’s languages have phrases or sentences that cannot be understood literally,” writes lexicographer Richard Spears. “Even if you know all the words in a phrase and understand all the grammar… the meaning may still be elusive. A phrase or sentence of this type is said to be idiomatic.” American English, being so idiomatic, causes a lot of confusion for second language learners. Imagine their horror when they hear that someone is “trying to bury the hatchet” with another person; or a person states “I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse.” The actual meaning of those phrases is lost in translation; of course, English speakers know they have nothing to do with hatchets or horses. But how is an English language learner supposed to know that?

The English language, however, does not have a monopoly on phrases that when translated literally seem, well idiotic. Just ask the translators involved with the Open Translation Project, who translate TED Talks into over 100 languages. They were asked to share their favorite idiomatic phrases, or phrases that cannot be translated literally. Use at your own peril (idiom followed by literal translation, followed by actual meaning):

German Idioms
Idiom: Tomaten auf den Augen haben.
Translated literally: “You have tomatoes on your eyes.”
Actual Meaning: “You are not seeing what everyone else can see. It refers to real objects, though — not abstract meanings.”

Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof.
“I only understand the train station.”
“I don’t understand a thing about what that person is saying.’”

Die Katze im Sack kaufen.
“To buy a cat in a sack.”
That a buyer purchased something without inspecting it first.

French Idioms 
Avaler des couleuvres.
“To swallow grass snakes.”
“It means being so insulted that you’re not able to reply.” 

Sauter du coq à l’âne.
“To jump from the cock to the donkey.”
“It means to keep changing topics without logic in a conversation.” 

Se regarder en chiens de faïence.
“To look at each other like earthenware dogs.”
“Basically, to look at each other coldly, with distrust.” 

Les carottes sont cuites!
“The carrots are cooked!”
“The situation can’t be changed.”

Swedish Idioms
Det är ingen ko på isen
“There’s no cow on the ice.”
“There’s no need to worry. 

Att glida in på en räkmacka
“To slide in on a shrimp sandwich.”
“somebody who didn’t have to work to get where they are.”

Det föll mellan stolarna
“It fell between chairs.”
“It’s an excuse you use when a person was supposed to do something, and forgot to do it.”

Russian Idioms
Галопом по Европам
“Galloping across Europe.”
“To do something hastily, haphazardly.”

На воре и шапка горит
“The thief has a burning hat.”
“He has an uneasy conscience that betrays itself.”

Хоть кол на голове теши
“You can sharpen with an ax on top of this head.”
“He’s a very stubborn person.”

The idiom: брать/взять себя в руки
“To take oneself in one’s hands.”
“to pull yourself together.”

Portuguese Idioms
Quem não se comunica se trumbica
“He who doesn’t communicate, gets his fingers burnt.”
“He who doesn’t communicate gets into trouble.”’

Quem não tem cão caça com gato
“He who doesn’t have a dog hunts with a cat.”
“You make the most of what you’ve got.” Basically, you do what you need to do, with what the resources you have. 

Empurrar com a barriga
“To push something with your belly.”
“To keep postponing an important chore.”

Pagar o pato
“Pay the duck.”
“To take the blame for something you did not do.”

Polish Idioms
Słoń nastąpił ci na ucho?
“Did an elephant stomp on your ear?”
 “You have no ear for music.”

Bułka z masłem.
“It’s a roll with butter.”
“It’s really easy.”

Z choinki się urwałaś?
“Did you fall from a Christmas tree?”
“You are not well informed, and it shows.”

Read related posts: Words Related to Trump
Resume Euphemisms
What Rhymes with Orange?
The Most Mispronounced Words
Words with Letters in Alphabetical Order
Difficult Tongue Twisters
Word Oddities: Fun with Vowels
The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations

For further reading:

Euphemisms for Death

alex atkins bookshelf wordsThere is so much death in Shakespeare’s plays. Perhaps the Bard could have softened the blow of death by using something a bit lighter. What if Hamlet had said, “For in that sleep when thou hast been permanently out of print what dreams may come/ When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, \ Must give us pause.” Or “For in that sleep when thou art basting the formaldehyde turkey what dreams may come…” There are so many euphemisms for “death’ — surely the Bard could have used any of these colorful expressions:

Angels carried him/her away
Assume room temperature

Ate it
At peace

At rest
Baste the formaldehyde turkey
Become living-challenged
Beyond the grave

Beyond the veil
Bite the dust
Bite the big one
Blow someone’s brains out
Born asleep
Bought the farm

Breathe one’s last
Brown bread
Buy the farm
Cash in one’s chips
Checking out the grass from underneath

Come to a sticky end
Counting worms
Crossed over

Crossed the Jordan
Crossing the river Styx

Curtains/final curtain
Dead as a dodo
Dead as a doornail
Death by Misadventure

Depart this life
Destroyed/to be destroyed
Die with one’s boots on
Didn’t make it
Done for
Drop dead
Drop like flies

Fading away
Fall off one’s perch

Food for worms
Free one’s horses
Gave/give up the ghost
Go to a better place
Go over the Big Ridge
Go bung
Go for a Burton
Go to Davy Jones’s locker
Go to the big gig in the sky
Go home in a box
Go out with one’s boots on/with a bang/in style
Go to, or head for, the last roundup
Go to one’s reward
Go to one’s watery grave
Go to a Texas cakewalk
Go to the happy hunting ground

Go the way of all flesh
Go west
The Grim Reaper
Hand in one’s dinner pail
Have bought it
Have one foot in the grave
Hitching a ride in the hearse

Hop on the last rattler
Hop the twig
In Abraham’s bosom
Join the choir invisible
Join the great majority
Juggling halos

Justifiable Homicide
Kick/kicked the bucket
Kick the calendar
Killed In Action (KIA)
King of Terrors
Kiss that arse goodbye
Live on a farm (upstate)
Living impaired

Lose one’s life
Make the ultimate sacrifice
Meet one’s maker
Murder Death Kill (MDK)
Not long for this world
Not with us anymore
Off on a boat
Off the hooks
On one’s deathbed
On one’s last legs
One’s hour has come
One’s number is up
On the heavenly shores

Pass away
Pass in one’s alley
Pay the ultimate price
Paying a debt to nature

Peg out
Permanently out of print

Pop one’s clogs
Promoted to Glory
Push up daisies
Put down/put to sleep
Put one to the sword
Rainbow Bridge
Ride the pale horse
Riding the hearse

Send one to Eternity or to the Promised Land
Sent/go to the farm
Shuffle off this mortal coil
Six feet under
Sleeps/sleeping with the fishes
Snuff it
Struck down
Swimming with concrete shoes
Take/taking a dirt nap
Take a last bow
Take the last train to glory.
Take one’s life
Top yourself
Traded to the angels
Turn up one’s toes

Until one’s dying day
Up and die
Wearing cement boots

Wearing a pine overcoat (i.e. a wooden coffin)
Wearing a toe tag

Winning one for the reaper
Wiped out…way up..
With one’s last breath
Worm food
Yield up the ghost

Read related posts: Synonyms for Said
Synonyms for Bullshit

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Best English Dictionary

For further reading:

Phrases and Idioms Related to Eggs

There are many phrases in English that use the literal and metaphorical concept of the egg. Everyone is familiar with the idiom “don’t put your eggs in one basket” — but don’t tell that to the editors of dictionaries (presumably all good eggs), who have literally put all their words into one dictionary. Eggsactly. Since you can’t make a list without turning some pages, here are some common and rare egg-related idioms phrases found by thumbing through the dictionary:


A bad egg: a bad or dishonest person

A curate’s egg: something that is partly good and bad

A good egg: an agreeable or pleasant person

As alike on eggs: synonym of “peas in a pod”; resembling one another

As sure as eggs is eggs (often shortened to “safe as eggs”): definitely

Better an egg today than a hen tomorrow: synonym of “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” It is better to have a sure thing now rather than the possibility of more later

Butter-and-egg man: a prosperous businessman from a small town; a farmer who spends money lavishly when visiting the big city

Chicken and egg: a situation in which it is difficult or impossible to say which of two things existed first and which caused the other one

Egg on one’s face: humiliation; appearing ridiculous or foolish

Nest egg: money saved for an emergency or retirement

To egg on: to encourage

To kill the goose that lays the golden egg: to destroy the reliable source of one’s income

To lay an egg: to fail horribly, especially in front of an audience

To put all one’s eggs in one basket: to risk everything on the success of a single venture

Walk on eggshells: to walk, speak, or act very cautiously

You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs: one cannot accomplish something without adverse effects elsewhere

Read related posts: Words Related to Trump
Resume Euphemisms
What Rhymes with Orange?
The Most Mispronounced Words
Words with Letters in Alphabetical Order
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Word Oddities: Fun with Vowels

The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations

For further reading:

Words Related to Trump

atkins bookshelf wordsIn a short period of time, President Donald Trump and his daily tweets — many filled with ad hominem attacks, accusations, and alternative views and facts — has baffled, exasperated, and outraged both parties, political pundits, not to mention people across the nation and around the globe. But a review of all the Trump-related words leads one to the inevitable conclusion that the man is simply living up to his name. And even more interestingly (or disturbingly, depending on your point of view), Trump is trying to out trump Trump. Take a look at the list of trump words and you be the judge.

trump (noun): a trumpet or trumpet blast

trump (verb): to beat someone by doing or saying something

trumps: the suit having the rank above the others in a particular hand

trump card: a valuable resource that can only be used once, especially as a surprise, in order to gain a distinct advantage 

trump something up: to invent a false accusation

trumped-up: false or fabricated

trumpery: something that is of little worth or quality; something that is fraudulent

trumpet (noun): a brass musical instrument with a flared bell and a loud, penetrating tone

trumpet (verb): to proclaim loudly or widely

trumpet call: a rousing summons to take action

Individually or taken as a whole, the aforementioned words and phrases are apt descriptions of Trump. But there is something oddly familiar about Trump, as if he stepped out of a Dickens novel. Indeed, the man is so overwhelmingly Dickensian — a jumble of odd characteristics (the large frame with small hands, the jutting eyebrows, steely eyes, the pursed lips revealing clenched overbleached teeth, orange complexion, and the dramatic combover that turns into a golden jagged sail at the slightest breeze), idiosyncrasies, distinctive hand gestures, and cadence that provide great fodder for parody and ridicule by comedians, editorial cartoonists, and pundits. And just like some of Dickens’ greatest characters (think Fagin, Scrooge, Havisham, Marley, Pickwick, Podsnap, and Uriah Heep), Trump, through his actions and words, has unwittingly defined his own word — Trumpian. The word will undoubtedly endure far longer than his rocky and controversial administration.

Trumpian: resembling the the style, rhetoric, and philosophy of Donald Trump; a person who possesses some or all of the following traits: avaricious, belligerent, boastful, bombastic, capricious, demagogic, dictatorial, hypocritical, impulsive, intimidating, misogynistic, narcissistic, perfidious, petulant, pretentious, reckless, self-righteous, self-destructive, thin-skinned, undisciplined, untrustworthy, vain, and vengeful

Related words: Trumpish, Trumpesque

Read related posts: There’s a Word for That: Trumpery
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Thomas Jefferson the Inventor
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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
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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
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How Much Math Do We Really Need?
What is the Toughest Job in the World?
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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 Xanadu did 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
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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
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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.

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Fastest Man in the World

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

What is the Barnum Effect?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureAlthough he may have never said it, the well-known quotation, “There’s a sucker born every minute” is often associated with P. T Barnum, the founder of the legendary Barnum & Bailey Circus. In the context of this quote, psychologists refer to the Barnum effect as the gullibility of people reading descriptions of themselves (eg, their personality, their history, or their future). In reality, these descriptions are so general and vague that they actually apply to many other people. In other words, they have universal validity; or in the words of German psychologist O. Bobertag, universalscharakteristik. The Barnum effect partly explains why people believe in astrology, aura reading, palm reading, fortune telling, and graphology (the analysis of handwriting). 

More formally, the Barnum effect is known as the Forer effect, after psychologist Bertram Forer. In 1948, Forer had his students take a psychology test that was to be the basis of a unique personality profile for each student. Each student actually received the exact same personality profile, drawn from an astrology book; however each student believed that the descriptions accurately described who they were. Here is the content of the personality profile, often referred to as Barnum statements:

  1. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
  2. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
  3. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
  4. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
  5. Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you.
  6. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.
  7. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
  8. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.
  9. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
  10. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
  11. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
  12. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.
  13. Security is one of your major goals in life.

Read related posts: What is the Reminiscence Bump?
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For further reading: “The Fallacy of Personal Validation: A Classroom Demonstration of Gullibility” by Bertram Forer

Unwritten Rules of Life

atkins bookshelf triviaSociety is circumscribed by laws, ordinances, codes, and rules that regulate what a person can and can’t do. The world and universe reveal an order that can be understood by scientific and mathematical laws, principles, and named effects — mostly named after legendary scientists. For example, every one is familiar with Newton’s Three Laws of Motion, especially the third one: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. As important and accurate as these laws and principles are, they do not shed much light on how life really is and how humans behave in the real world. For that, we need to turn to the unwritten rules of life, mostly written by obscure people like Ed Murphy who formulated Murphy’s law: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Parenthetically, it is difficult to determine who coined Murphy’s Law first, but the phrase is often attributed to Captain Ed Murphy, a development engineer at Wright Field Aircraft Lab during the late 1940s.

Below are some notable unwritten rules of life:

Ackley’s Axiom: The degree of technical competence is inversely proportional to the level of management. 

Bressler’s Law:  There is no crisis to which academics will not respond with a seminar.

Brian’s Law: The longer you wait to write a thank-you note, the longer it must be.

Brigg’s Law: A spilled drink flows in the direction of the most expensive object.

Lance’s Law: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Miller’s Law: The quality of food in restaurants is inversely proportional to the number of signed celebrity photos on the wall.

Parkinson’s Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

Revisionist Rule: The easiest way to change history is to become a historian.

Reynold’s Law: It’s just as easy to make a big mistake as a small one.

Rinser’s Law: Traffic increases in direct proportion to the urgency of your schedule.

The First Law of Travel: No matter how many rooms there are in a motel, the guest who starts up his car at 5:00 am is always parked under your window.

Read related posts: How Many Music Genres Exist?
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Ten Interesting Facts About the Human Body
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Fastest Man in the World

For further reading: The Official Rules by Paul Dickson (2013)
Unwritten Laws: The Unofficial Rules of Life by Hugh Rawson (1997)

Words Related to How We Process Words

atkins bookshelf wordsThe human brain, with its processing speed of 2.2 billion megaflops utilizing parallel computing (100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses), is constantly processing stimuli to interpret the world. In order to process information more quickly, the human brain is designed to find meaning in patterns — in short, the brain is a pattern-recognizing supercomputer. Psychologists use the term apophenia or patternicity to describe the human tendency to perceive connections between or meaningful patterns within meaningless noise or random information. A common example of this, in the context of vision, is the pareidolia — the phenomenon of seeing a familiar pattern where it doesn’t exist. For example, seeing cloud formations that look like animals, seeing a face on the surface of Mars, or the face of a religious icon in a slice of toast.

When it comes to speech perception, as with vision, the brain is hardwired to look for patterns — many times listening for what it expects to hear rather than what is actually said, especially if the the words are not pronounced clearly. The brain immediately substitutes common words and phrases to fill in these sound gaps, making sense out of nonsense. Here are words that are related to how we process words.

Mondegreen: a misheard or misinterpreted lyric that yields a new meaning. For example, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band cover of “Blinded by the Light” that includes the lyric “wrapped up like a deuce” that is misheard as “wrapped up like a douche.”

Malapropism: the use of an incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound, resulting in a nonsensical statement. For example, “a vast suppository of information” when the correct phrase is “a vast repository of information”

Eggcorn: an idiosyncratic substitution of a word or phrase for a word or words that sound very similar. For example, “for all intensive purposes” rather than “for all intents and purposes” or “old-timer’s disease” rather than “Alzheimer’s disease.”

Spoonerism: an error in speech when consonants, vowels, or morphemes are switched between two words in a phrase. For example, “The weight of rages will press hard upon the employer” rather than “the rate of wages will press hard upon the employer.”

Freudian slip (also: slip of the tongue, parapraxis): an unintentional mistake in speech that reveals a person’s unconscious motives, desires, or attitudes. For example saying “I’m mad you’re here” when you meant to say “I’m glad you’re here.”

Mumpsimus: the practice of mispronouncing a word or phrase, even after they have been corrected. Also refers to the person who continues the practice. For example, you correct some that the proper phrase is “for all intents and purposes” but they continue to use the incorrect form “for all intensive purposes.”

Hobson-Jobson: a word from a foreign language is homophonically translated into one’s language. For example, the word cockroach from the Spanish word cucaracha.

Read related posts: What Rhymes with Orange?
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For further reading:

Animal Idioms in the Workplace

atkins-bookshelf-phrasesIn the Darwinian dog-eat-dog workplace, certain situations naturally call for colorful metaphors that feature animals  — everything from a tiny fly to the enormous elephant. Ironically, man’s best friend, the dog, is the most maligned of all the animals referenced in these idioms. Here are some animal idioms that are commonly used during business meetings and around water coolers.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush: having something for certain is better than the possibility of getting something better

A cuckoo in the nest: a problem that grows quickly and crowds out everything else; a person that is part of the group but is different and often disliked

A dead duck: a failure

A dog and pony show: a presentation to get people to support a project or secure a contract for goods or services

A fly in the ointment: someone or something that spoils a situation that could have been successful or pleasant, or reduces the value of something

A pig in a poke (or “buy a pig in a poke”): a deal or offer that is foolishly accepted without being examined first.

A pig in a python: a sharp statistical increase, represented as a bulge, in an otherwise level pattern

Albatross around one’s neck: a past action that causes a person problems and stops them from being successful

Barking up the wrong tree: to make the wrong choice or ask the wrong person

Bird’s eye view: a consideration of a problem or situation from a comprehensive perspective

Boiling frog syndrome: a company that fails to recognize gradual market change

Dog eat dog: people will do anything to succeed, even if it harms other people

The early bird catches the worm: the person who arrives first has the best chance for success

Elephant in the room: an issue which everyone in a meeting knows is a problem, but no one wants to mention

Let the cat out of the bag: to disclose a secret

Let sleeping dogs lie: to leave something alone if it might cause trouble

Like a fish out of water: to be uncomfortable in a particular situation

Lipstick on a pig: an attempt to put a favorable spin on a negative story or situation

Moose on the table: an issue which everyone in a meeting knows is a problem, but no one wants to address

Pigs might fly (or when pigs fly): the unlikeliness of something happening or to mock a person’s credulity

Prairie dogging: popping one’s head above an office cubicle to spy on colleagues

Red herring: a deliberate misleading and diverting of attention from the real issue

Seagull manager: a manager who files in, makes a lot of noise, shits over everything, and then leaves

Shoot the puppy: to do something ruthless, but necessary

Something is fishy: something is suspicious

To cry wolf: to raise a false alarm about something

To have bigger fish to fry: to have more important things to accomplish

To kill two birds with one stone: to solve two problems at once

To open a can of worms: to do something that exposes a very difficult issue or problem

To put the cart before the horse: To do things in the wrong order

To screw the pooch: to make a serious mistake

White elephant: a burdensome possession that creates more trouble than it is worth

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink: you can give a person an opportunity but cannot force them to take it

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For further reading: The Wonder of Whiffling and Other Extraordinary Words in the English Language by Adam Jacot de Boinod (2009)

Words Invented by Book Lovers

atkins bookshelf wordsPowell’s Books, located in Portland Oregon, is the largest independent bookstore in the world. The store, founded in 1971 by Walter Powell, occupies an entire city block, containing 70,000 square feet of retail floor space, with an inventory of more than one million new, used, and rare books. Its nickname is very appropriate: the City of Books. In short, this store is every bibliophile’s idea of heaven. Powell’s Books owns five locations, that combined have an inventory of over four million books.

But Powell’s offers more than just an incredible selection of books on its website. If you happen to stumble upon it, the bookstore’s blog features a real treasure: Readerly Terms. Readerly Terms are witty made-up words (neologisms, to be precise) and phrases related to reading that are submitted by book lovers. Here are some selections that every book lover should know:

Ambuliterate: proficient in the act of reading while walking.

Fictionanigans: acts of mischief so well executed that they could only have been performed by fictional characters.

Biblio sapiens: a species characterized by complex thinking and an advanced love of books.

Printerior decoration: markings or doodles found inside a used book.

Proseur: one who reads books, or pretends to read books, for appearance’s sake.

Readirect: to constantly bring a conversation back to the books one is reading.

Ubookquitous: pertaining to a book one seems to encounter everywhere.

Wordigo: the feeling of sissiness brought on by the complexity of an author’s prose.

Worm’s eye view: an intimate and detailed understanding of a book’s contents.

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For further reading:

What is the Word for Two Bad Choices?

atkins-bookshelf-phrasesEvery four years, Americans seem to face the same inevitable dilemma: in a two-party system, voters have to choose between a Democratic candidate and a Republican candidate for President. In 2016, it was Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump; in 2020, it was Joseph Biden vs Donald Trump. See the pattern emerging here? Two bad choices. The problem is magnified exponentially in a highly polarized political environment that rises to cult-like fanaticism that paints one candidate as a hero and the other as a demon — and vice versa. Imagine a collective eye-roll here. Since neither candidate is ideal, what is the voter supposed to do? Although your existential voting crisis is beyond the scope of this post, let us address the other question that comes up surrounding this crisis: what is the word when you are faced with two bad choices?

Other than the most obvious cynical response (“OMG — we are so hopelessly fucked!”),  there are actually several phrases that describe this very specific dilemma. Regardless of your political affiliation, any of these will work:

Cornelian dilemma (also spelled Cornellian)
A dilemma where a person must choose between two courses of action that either of which will have a harmful effect on themselves or others. The phrase is named after Pierre Corneille, a French dramatist. In his play, Le Cid (1636), Rodrigue, the protagonist, must choose between seeking revenge and losing his beloved or forego revenge and losing his honor.

Between Scylla and Charybdis
A dilemma where a person must choose between two evils. The phrase is derived from Greek mythology. In Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, Odysseus had to sail through at the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the Italian mainland, each occupied by mythical sea monsters. Charybdis, was a dangerous whirlpool, lived off the coast of Sicily, while Scylla, a six-headed sea monster, lived on the Italian side of the strait. Odysseus had to choose between two monsters, ultimately deciding to pass by Scylla, sacrificing a few sailors, as opposed to passing by Charybdis, and losing his entire ship and crew. Incidentally, the words are pronounced “silla” (rhymes with villa) and “KA rib dis.”

Between the devil and the deep blue sea
A dilemma where a person must choose between two undesirable situations or outcomes. The term, of nautical origin, refers to a person facing death either burning in hell, the home of the devil, or drowning at the bottom of the sea. The phrase first appears in Robert Monro’s His Expedition with the Worthy Scots Regiment Called Mac-Keyes (1637).

Between a rock and a hard place
A dilemma where a person must choose between two very unpleasant choices. The earliest printed use of the phrase occurs in Dialect Notes V (1921), a publication of the American Dialect Society: “To be between a rock and a hard place… to be bankrupt. Common in Arizona in recent panics.” The recent panics refer to the choice that copper mineworkers in Bisbee Arizona, who were trying to unionize for better conditions, had to choose between low pay and harsh work at the mines or unemployment and poverty.

The lesser of two evils
A dilemma that presents a choice between two unfavorable, harmful or bad options. Although the phrase originated as a proverb among the ancient Greeks, it was popularized by Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous poem Troilus and Criseyde (Troilus and Cressida) written in Middle English in the mid 1830s.

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t
A dilemma where it is impossible to do the right thing, because either option will result in undesirable outcomes. The original phrase, “You’ll be damned if you do — and damned if you don’t” appeared in American evangelist Lorenzo Dow’s Reflections on the Love of God published in 1836. Dow was criticizing preachers who “make the Bible clash and contradict itself.”

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

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The Origin of Nike’s “Just Do It” Slogan

atkins-bookshelf-phrases“The frightening and most difficult thing about being what somebody calls a creative person is that you have absolutely no idea where any of your thoughts come from, really. And especially, you don’t have any idea about where they’re gonna come from tomorrow.” This insight from advertising legend Hal Riney introduces viewers to the world of America’s greatest copy writers, at the heart of Doug Pray’s riveting documentary, Art & Copy (2009).

One of the most fascinating stories comes from Dan Wieden, co-founder of Wieden & Kennedy, one of Nike’s earliest ad agencies. One day by chance, Wieden came across a story of the execution of Gary Gilmore whose final words would inspire a slogan that is considered one of the best advertising slogans of the 20th century.

Gary Mark Gilmore was a very troubled, violent habitual offender from a dysfunctional home and abusive father. He had a long rap sheet — cons, petty theft, auto theft, assault and robbery, and armed robbery, to name a few. Not surprisingly, he served a number of short prison sentences. But eventually his violent behavior progressed to murder — in July 1976, Gilmore murdered two men in Utah over two days in July 1976. In October 1976, a jury convicted Gilmore of the double homicide and recommended the death penalty. The ACLU, against Gilmore’s wishes, intervened several times to receive stays of execution. But Gilmore demanded his execution: ” I would like them all — including that group of reverends and rabbis from Salt Lake City — to butt out. This is my life and this is my death. It’s been sanctioned by the courts that I die and I accept that.” Fortunately for Gilmore, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the death penalty statutes in a 1976 decision (Gregg v. Georgia), paving the way for Gilmore’s execution, at the age of 36. On January 17, 1977, Gilmore was taken to an abandoned cannery behind the Utah State Prison. He sat strapped on a chair in front of firing squad hidden behind a curtain. The firing squad was comprised of five local police officers with rifles aimed at the prisoner. Following tradition, a prison official asked if Gilmore had any final words. Without any hesitation, the defiant and determined Gilmore said, “Let’s do it.”

It was that phrase that instantly struck Wieden, when he read the article some time in 1988. Those three words evoked passionate determination and focus. “I like the ‘do it’ part of it,” Wieden explained. “None of us really paid that much attention. We thought, ‘Yeah. That’d work.” Wieden and his team simply replaced “let’s” with “just” and the rest is advertising history. The “Just Do It” campaign was launched in 1988, increasing Nike’s sales from $877 million to $9.2 billion in worldwide sales. 

Read related posts: Top Slogans of All Time
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For further reading: Art & Copy, directed by Doug Pray  (2009)

Contradictory Proverbs

atkins-bookshelf-phrasesMost people are familiar with Newton’s third law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Sir Isaac Newton could have easily been talking about proverbs. Certainly, for every proverb that promotes a certain concept, there is another that states its exact opposite. It’s no way to win an argument, since both summarize conventional wisdom — albeit from totally different perspectives. Here are some popular contradictory proverbs.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Out of sight, out of mind.

Actions speak louder than words.
The pen is mightier than the sword.

Clothes makes the man.
Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Great minds think alike.
Fools never differ.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
Don’t beat your head against a stone wall.

It’s better to be safe than sorry.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Like attracts like.
Opposites attract.

Look before you leap.
He who hesitates is lost.

Many hands make light work.
Too many cooks spoil the broth.

Silence is golden.
The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Two is company; three is a crowd.
The more, the merrier.

You’re never too old to learn.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Read related posts: Clothes Make the Man
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The O. J. Simpson Trial and the Chewbacca Defense

atkins-bookshelf-phrasesTwenty years later, the O.J. Simpson trial once again captivated America. Based on Jeffrey Tobin’s bestseller, The Run of His Life, FX’s 10-part series, The People v. O.J. Simpson, provided fascinating behind-the-scenes details of the legal teams, O.J., his family, the jury members, and other key players that viewers of the original trial always wondered about. Although the series is not a documentary, it does provide unique insights into the legal strategies that led to O.J. Simpson’s surprising acquittal for two murders in October 1995 that sent shockwaves through the nation that still reverberate today.

When watching the series one thing becomes clear: Johnny Cochran’s strategy for defending O.J. Simpson was masterful. By playing the race card and focusing on the leather gloves and repeating that famous phrase: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” Cochran brilliantly sidestepped piles of damning evidence to cast a cloud of confusion over the jury members. This rhetorical device, in which a logical yet entirely unrelated argument is put forward to cloud the relevant issues, is known as ignoratio elenchi (translated from the Latin, it means “an ignoring of refutation” or “ignoring the issue”). Aristotle identified this relevance fallacy, commonly known as “missing the point,” in Organon, one of his six works on logic. 

Fast forward to 1998. Central Comedy’s hilarious animated sitcom, South Park, featured an episode satirizing Cochran’s famous defense. In the episode, titled “Chef Aid,” Chef is sued by a major record company for harassment because Chef is seeking authorship credit for the hit song “Stinky Britches.” Chef’s attorney, Gerald Broflovski, presents a solid case with convincing factual evidence. During closing arguments, Cochran resorts to ignoratio elenchi by introducing Chewbacca, the feisty furry Wookiee warrior from the Star Wars movies, as evidence. WTF? Although Cochran’s new closing line lacks the alliteration and rhyme of the famous line from the O.J. trial, it does have its intended effect on the jury — Chef loses the case. Here is an excerpt from the animated trial:

Cochran: “[Ladies] and gentlemen of this supposed jury, I have one final thing I want you to consider. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Chewbacca. Chewbacca is a Wookiee from the planet Kashyyyk. But Chewbacca lives on the planet Endor. Now think about it; that does not make sense!

Broflovski: “Damn it! He’s using the Chewbacca defense!”

Cochran: “Why would a Wookiee — an 8-foot-tall Wookiee —  want to live on Endor, with a bunch of 2-foot-tall Ewoks? That does not make sense! But more important, you have to ask yourself: What does this have to do with this case? Nothing! Ladies and gentlemen, it has nothing to do with this case! It does not make sense! Look at me — I’m a lawyer defending a major record company, and I’m talkin’ about Chewbacca! Does that make sense? Ladies and gentlemen, I am not making any sense! None of this makes sense! And so you have to remember, when you’re in that jury room deliberatin’ and conjugatin’ the Emancipation Proclamation, does it make sense? No! Ladies and gentlemen of this supposed jury, it does not make sense! If Chewbacca lives on Endor, you must acquit! The defense rests.”

It didn’t take long after the episode aired (October 7, 1998) for the “Chewbacca defense” to find its way into the English lexicon as a slang term for the more pretentious ignoratio elenchi. Thanks Chewy. The jury is dismissed.

Read related posts: Why are People Fascinated by Making a Murderer?
Why are People Watch The Batchelor?
The Most Common Logical Fallacies
Why Do Some New Words Last and Others Fade?

For further reading: Word Drops by Paul Anthony Jones (2016)
Thank You for Arguing by Jay Heinrichs (2013)
An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi (2014)

Most Famous Movie Quotations

atkins-bookshelf-moviesMovies provide a shared experience on an unprecedented scale, uniting people all around the world as they are moved or inspired by the same respective stories. The late Roger Ebert observed, “Movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” The greatest films that endure not only provide a shared experience, they also color our language with useful phrases that evoke the film and succinctly express certain emotions, situations, or complex issues. The list of the most famous movie quotations reads more like a list of the most common cinematic catchphrases. Some of them are so well-known that they are used by people who have never even seen the particular film — or are not even aware that it came from a film.

In 2005, the American Film Institute (AFI) asked a jury of 1,500 film artists, historians, and critic to select the most memorable American movie quotations of all time. The AFI published the list of top 100 movie quotations of all time in June, 2005. Here are the top 25 movie quotations:

1. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” – Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, Gone with the Wind (1939))

2. “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” – Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone, The Godfather (1972)

3. “I coulda been a contender.” – Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy, On the Waterfront (1954)

4. “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” – Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, The Wizard of Oz (1939)

5. “Here’s looking at you, kid.” – Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, Casablanca (1942)

6. “Go ahead, make my day.” – Clint Eastwood as Harry Callahan, Sudden Impact (1983)

7. “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” – Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard (1950)

8. “May the Force be with you.” – Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Star Wars (1977)

9. “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” – Bette Davis as Margo Channing (All About Eve, 1950)

10. “You talkin’ to me?” – Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver (1976)

11. “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” – Strother Martin as Captain, Cool Hand Luke (1967)

12. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” – Robert Duvall as Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore, Apocalypse Now (1979)

13. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” – Ali MacGraw as Jennifer Cavilleri Barrett, Love Story (1970)

14. “The stuff that dreams are made of.” – Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon (1941)

15. “E.T. phone home.” – Pat Welsh as E.T., E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

16. “They call me Mister Tibbs!” – Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs, In the Heat of the Night (1967)

17. “Rosebud.” – Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane, Citizen Kane (1941)

18. “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”, James Cagney as Arthur Jarrett, White Heat (1949)

19. “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” – Peter Finch as Howard Beale, Network (1976)

20. “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” – Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, Casablanca (1942)

21. “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” – Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

22. “Bond. James Bond.” – Sean Connery, James Bond as Dr. No (1962)

23. “There’s no place like home.” – Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, The Wizard of Oz (1939)

24. “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small.” – Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard (1950)

25. “Show me the money!” – Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Rod Tidwell, Jerry Maguire (1996)




Read related posts: Famous Love Quotes from the Movies
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For further reading:

Hair of the Dog

atkins-bookshelf-phrasesDefinition: Most commonly refers to curing a hangover with another alcoholic drink. In general, it means the particular thing that caused the malady is the best means of relief or cure.

Variations: the hair of the dog that bit you/me

Origin: Ordering “hair of the dog” from a bartender paints quite a memorable picture. The story behind this phrase is a curious tale indeed (pun intended).

Curing a malady with its cause is nothing new. In ancient times, the “Father of Western medicine,” Hippocrates (460-370 BC) advocated similia similibus curantor meaning “like cures like” to treat certain ailments. Romans who drank excessive amounts of wine at Bacchic toga parties presumably visited Hippocrates the next day, whining about their horrible hangovers. The good doctor simply prescribed drinking more wine.

Let’s fast forward to northern Syria, to the ancient port city of Ugarit (now Ras Shamra) in the period between 2000 and 100o BC. Perhaps in a state of inebriation rivaling those of the rowdy Romans (or perhaps rabies-induced dementia), the people of Ugarit believed that the cure for a hangover involved the placement of hair from a dog. Ugarit was home to many extensive libraries. Modern excavations in the area uncovered hundreds of clay tablets, including many important mythological test, written in Sumerian, Hurrian, Akkadian and Ugartic. One tablet (‘Ilu On A Toot) contains the first recorded use of “hair of the dog.” The text describes how the god ‘ilu, treats a horrible hangover by applying a salve of plant, hair of dog, and olive oil, to his forehead.

Like a pernicious STD, this unusual but effective remedy must have passed on from drunkard to drunkard, in bars all across the Middle East and Europe, landing on the shores of Great Britain. The phrase must have been used all the way up to the 1500s, when it finally made its way into print. The Oxford English Dictionary notes the first written usage in poet and writer John Heywood’s entertaining collection of proverbs (The Proverbs of John Heywood) published in 1546: “I pray three let me and my fellow have a hair of the dog that bit us last night.”

Incidentally, the cure for the bite of a rabid dog is described in great detail in Sir John and Mary Kedermister’s beautiful illuminated 500-page manuscript, Pharmacopolium or a booke of Medicine, (essentially, an encyclopedia of herbal remedies) published in 1630. The treatment “for the biting of madd dogg” is ““Take Liver, lightes and hearte of the dogg and boyle them very drye, and let the partie eate some of it, and beate some of it to powder and lett him drincke of it, until three Changes of the moone be past; and fill the wound with the Hayre of the Dogg until the ranckling of the Sore bee past, then annoynt it with Sallett oyle to get out the Haire, Then you must applie some good Salve unto it to heale it.”

Over time, the expression was shortened from “hair of the dog that bit you” to simply “hair of the dog.” The expression was included in Ebenezer Brewer’s seminal Dictionary of Phrase and Fable in 1898.




Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Seventeenth Edition
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable 19th Edition

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

For further reading: Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable by John Ayto
Ritual and Cult at Ugarit by Dennis Pardee (2002)

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