August 8, 2013

up the ante

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:55 pm by Feng

up the ante – literally, it means to increase the amount of money each person must risk in a card game or other activity involving the risk of losing money[freedict]

There is a trend that internet-security ferms are encouraging companies to fight back against computer hackers, by tracing back to the hackers’ servers and then hacking them. However, some people in the industry warn this may lead to trouble, “It’s a foolish strategy to up the ante when you don’t know who you are attacking”

February 22, 2013

hat tip

Posted in Idioms at 12:04 am by Feng

hat tip – used as an acknowledgement that someone has brought a piece of information to the writer’s attention, or provided the inspiration for a piece of writing [oxforddict], also see [urbandict]

On the Big Band Theory, Shelton decided to play revenge to Kripke, a colleague of his who had humiliated Shelton publicly over a radio show. He discreetly put a large amount of chemicals above the tiles of the ceiling in Kripke’s lab and also installed web cameras to capture how the prank would work. He then invited Raj and Leonard to watch the webcam at home.

“Here comes Kripke,” Raj pointed at the webcam with excitement. However, he also found that Kripke was accompanied by the president of the university and the research directors in a guided tour. However, it was too late to stop the prank. The university president and directors, together with Kripke, were humiliated by encountering a sudden downpour of chemical foams dropping from the ceiling. Leonard was shocked and scared. He however tried to comfort Shelton: “At least they don’t know it’s you”. However, the prank didn’t finish yet. After the downpour of chemicals, there sounded a pre-recording of Shelton’s voice as if he were speaking to Kripke: “What you have seen is a classic prank from the malevalent mind of Shelton Cooper.” The voice continued: “Also a hat tip to Raj and Leonard for their encouragement and support in this enterprise.” Raj and Leonard were embarrassed but found no where to hide.

February 5, 2013

go bananas

Posted in Idioms at 12:14 am by Feng

go bananas – to go crazy; to become very angry or emotional [freedict]

I learned this phrase from an instructor in a training course that I attended today. I wondered why the expression “going bananas” has anything to do with craziness. It seems some else also asked the same question. One possible explanation is related to how monkeys can become super-excited when they are given bananas.

January 31, 2013

straw man argument

Posted in Idioms at 12:34 am by Feng

straw man argument – is a type of argument and is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position [wiki]

In an academic debate, I pointed out the insecurity of a newly proposed cryptographic protocol. To support my argument, I compared the protocol with a similar but well-known scheme. However, the protocol designer was not happy and criticized me of making a “straw man argument“. I found it an interesting expression – one creates a straw man as a superficial replacement of a real target and attacks it instead to claim an easy victory. That’s interesting. But after learning what this phrase means, I am sure I was not making a straw man argument.

January 30, 2013

cop a feel

Posted in slangs at 12:18 am by Feng

cop a feel – to touch someone’s body without their permission [thefreedict] (also see [urbandict])

This is an informal (and rude) phrase. On The Big Bang Theory, Raj complains to Amy that he feels lonely because no girls wants to talk to him. Amy shares the sympathy. “No guys wants to look at me”, she sighs, “Sometimes I have to pretend my left hand wants to cop a feel…. And I let it”.

January 24, 2013


Posted in slangs at 10:15 pm by Feng

pants – adjective. British slang. Not good; total crap; nonsense; rubbish; bad [urbandict]

Someone bought some take-away food for lunch. The package looked attractively nice, but after removing the package, she found the food not that great. “Hum..”, she said with a grunt: “The lunch is pants!”

flight risk

Posted in Idioms at 12:52 am by Feng

flight risk – A person who appears ready to leave a job or relationship, presumably for a better opportunity elsewhere [urbandict]

On the Big Bang Theory, Bernadette asked Amy if she and Sheldon would get married someday. “Yes, of course”, Amy replied affirmatively, but then she whispered to Bernadette, “But don’t tell Sheldon. He is still a flight risk.” I also found a good explanation of this phrase here.

January 23, 2013

third wheel

Posted in Idioms at 1:19 am by Feng

third wheel – someone who is in a situation where they are not really needed or are ignored by other people [thefreedict]

When you are hanging out with two other people who are a couple, you may sometimes feel awkward and extra. In Chinese, we usually use the phrase “a light bulb” to refer to the third person, implying that he/she does nothing but to serve to shine the other two. An equivalent English expression is “a third wheel”. On The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon invited Raj to come along for a date he had with Amy. Halfway through the dinner, Raj left. He later said to Leonard: “I didn’t want to be a third wheel.” If you image a bicycle, you can see that having a third wheel will probably do more messing up than any good.

January 18, 2013


Posted in verb at 1:26 am by Feng

catatonic – having catatonia, a syndrome characterized by muscular rigidity and mental stupor [dictionary]

On The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon mocks at Raj: “You are afraid of women and bugs, so a ladybug must render you catatonic“.

January 17, 2013

cat burglar

Posted in Idioms at 12:58 am by Feng

cat burglar – A burglar who is especially skilled at stealthy or undetected entry of a premises [thefreedict]

In one episode of The Big Bang Theory, Raj and Howard found that Shelton always disappeared at 2:45 pm, so they decided to find out where did Shelton go. They secretly followed Shelton to a quiet corner and saw he locked himself in a room. Later at night, Raj and Howard came back with lock-picking tools; they were curious to know what was in the room. Raj was excited about this secretive operation. “Look at us,” he said to Howard, “Sneaking around in the middle of the night, like a couple of cat burglars.” But Howard disagreed: “I think we are more like Ninjas.”

January 11, 2013


Posted in verb at 1:24 am by Feng

wimp – a weak, ineffectual, timid person. []

Sometimes, people opened the window in the kitchen to let in fresh air, but a lady sitting near the kitch couldn’t stand the freezing temperature, so she left a note, warning people not to do it. A colleague added a “wimp” to the note. When I first saw this note, I didn’t know what “wimp” meant. After looking it up, I found it a hilarious joke. The lady has been wanting to find out who wrote it. It feels to me that the sense of humor is pretty English; that might help narrow down the suspects :)


January 9, 2013

catch a break

Posted in Idioms at 12:47 am by Feng

catch a break – get lucky [idiomQuest]

On The Big Bang Theory, Leonard finally got a chance to kiss Penny. While the two were kissing, Raj and Howard rushed to find Leonard and tell him that Sheldon had disappeared and that they should set off to look for him. “Boy, you can’t catch a break, can you?” Leonard said to himself before being dragged away by Raj and Howard.

January 8, 2013

reek of

Posted in Idioms at 12:42 am by Feng

reek of  – to have the stench or smell of something [thefreedict]

On Big Bang Theory, Leonard, Sheldon, Raj and Howard returned home from a scientific excursion to the South Pole. Leonard went to the next door say hi to Penny. Raj and Howard started to confess to Sheldon that they tampered with data to make Sheldon believe that the experiment was successful so he could stop. Sheldon went angry: “You tampered with my experiment!” He asked: “Did Leonard know about this? He is my best friend. Surely he didn’t.” “Actually it was his idea”, replied Howard. “Of course it was”, Sheldon shouted, “The whole plan reeks of Leonard.” Note that the idiom “reek of” usually expresses a negative feeling; be careful to only use it in the correct context.

January 4, 2013


Posted in Idioms at 11:45 pm by Feng

kick-ass: really fine; excellent; cool [dictionary]. Sometimes, it is also spelt as kickass (see [urbandictionary])

This year, two lecturers created a new undergraduate module on cryptography. The student feedback has been generally positive. One (anonymous) student wrote a comment in the module evaluation: “Overall I would say both lecturers were kickass...” At first, I thought it must be a negative word, but I realized I was wrong as the student went on to write: “They took a subject I knew almost nothing about to start with, and not only nurtured my interest, but made the process of learning fun and challenging through the courseworks.”A good compliment and a very cool idiom!

December 26, 2012

Hail Mary

Posted in slangs at 7:28 pm by Feng

Hail Mary – (American football Slang) a very long high pass into the end zone, made in the final seconds of a half or of a game [thefreedict]. Also used as “Hail Mary pass” [wikipedia].

On the Homehand, Saul went to visit a jailed terrorist Aileen, hoping she could help identify an unknown terrorist in a picture. When Carrie told Quinn, another CIA agent, about this, Quinn was not impressed. “Rattle a chick that has been locked up for months?” he said with a scorn. “It’s a Hail Mary.”  Said Carrie.

I was wondering why Hail Mary, a religious term, was used to refer to a last-ditch attempt. Apparently, the slang was originally from a football game in 1975. With two seconds left on the game clock, Roger Staubauk threw a long pass to Drew Person, his fellow team mate, who caught the ball in the end zone to beat the Vikings. According to wikipedia, after the game, Roger recalled: “I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.” This phrase became popular since then.

October 27, 2012

lies, damned lies, and statistics

Posted in proverb at 11:09 pm by Feng

lies, damned lies, and statistics – a phrase to complain the misuse of statistics to support weak arguments [wikipedia]

I learned this phrase from a professor in our school who was digging some historic reports published by the school in the past and collecting some statistics.

Apparently this phrase was popularized by Mark Twain in his autobiography: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

At first, I didn’t quite understand what it means. I thought that was an unfair prejudice against statistics, a well-established branch of science. But then I realized it was expressed in the context of complaining the “misuse” of statistics. That makes sense.

This article, titled “Lies, damn lies, and statistics about red light jumping”,  gives a good example about the usage of the phrase.  Statistics show that “57% of UK cyclists jump red lights”. However, it turned out that the statistics were collected based on random users over the Internet filling some on-line surveys. A further breakdown of “57%” shows that in fact, only 1.9% cyclists confessed to red light jumping; another 11.8% did so “sometimes” while 24.6% did “rarely”, and 19.1% had done so once or twice.  Hence, the claim “57% of UK cyclists jump red lights” is ridiculously wrong and is highly misleading. When reading up to this point, I couldn’t help saying to myself: “lies, damned lies, and statistics“.

September 14, 2012

shy bairns get nowt

Posted in Idioms at 10:54 pm by Feng

shy bairns get nowt – shy babies get nothing. [wikitionary]

If you’re too  shy or don’t ask, you will not get what you want. This is a popular phrase used in Newcastle and nearby areas in the UK. I learned it today from a local PhD student and liked it very much. The phrase is intuitive to understand and speaks a lot of common sense. With some practice, it will make you sound like a native Georidie!

June 23, 2012

set the cat among the pigeons

Posted in Idioms at 10:54 pm by Feng

put/set the cat among the pigeons – to do or say something that causes trouble and makes a lot of people angry or worried [thefreedictionary]

This is an interesting expression that I learned from Scheneier’s blog. Prince Philip once made some remark over a radio interview against banning guns. He said to the interviewer off-air afterwards: “That will really set the cat among the pigeons, won’t it?” It is mainly a British idiom.

May 25, 2012

all fur coat and no knickers

Posted in slangs at 12:05 am by Feng

all fur coat and no knickers: superficially elegant and beautiful but actually sleazy [wikitionary]

I recently attended a seminar where the speaker talked big visions of future work but there was no real content in the talk. I said to a colleague that I felt like eating a gigantic burger without finding any beef. She told me the alternative English expression is: all fur coat and no knickers.

September 8, 2011

the sharpest pencil in the pack

Posted in Idioms at 11:03 am by Feng

the sharpest pencil in the pack — the smartest

In a seminar, the speaker wasn’t impressed by the programming capability of some developers. He referred to them as “not the sharpest pencil the pack“.

June 7, 2011

have ducks in a row

Posted in Idioms at 11:55 pm by Feng

have ducks in a row — to organize things well [thefreedict]

On a romantic comedy movie “A Lot Like Love”, Oliver (played by Aston Kutcher) bumped into a pretty girl Emily (by Amanda Peet) on the airplane to New York. When asked about his future plan, Oliver said: “I’m trying to have my ducks in a row — job, house, car, and a beautiful wife …”

March 8, 2011

buckle down

Posted in Idioms at 9:13 pm by Feng

buckle down – to set to work with vigor; concentrate on one’s work [dict]

On the “Big bang theory”, Raj starts to work for Sheldon. To spice up a conversation, Raj tries to make some jokes. But Sheldon doesn’t like it and thinks that’s a waste of time. Raj rubs his hands and says: “OK. Let’s buckle down and work”.

March 6, 2011

drown one’s sorrows

Posted in Idioms at 10:13 pm by Feng

drown one’s sorrows — Drink liquor to escape one’s unhappiness [dict]

A guy was disappointed by the Manchester United defeat to Liverpool today. He said: “I’m going home now to drown my sorrows“.

January 29, 2011

bust someone’s hump

Posted in Idioms at 11:17 am by Feng

bust someone’s hump – to work very hard on something [urbandict]

On the Armoured, one guy speaks of how his parents worked hard to support the family: “They busted their humps to make a living.”

January 9, 2011


Posted in verb at 8:18 pm by Feng

also-ran – to refer to a loser in a competition [answers]

As the European and USA universities are feeling the pinch from the government funding cut, Brazil is steadily increasing the investment on education and research. From the economist, “Brazil is no longer a scientific also-ran“. This phrase came from horse racing, and it refers to a horse that didn’t make it to the first three winning positions. The names of those horses are usually published alongside the winners, but in a block under the heading “Also Ran”.

January 8, 2011

Let the cat out of the bag

Posted in Idioms at 2:38 pm by Feng

Let the cat out of bag – to disclose a secret [thefreedict]

Armoured (2009) is a rather boring movie. It is about a group of security guards conspiring to jack a shield-armoured trunk loaded with 42 million dollars cash. But the plan goes wrong from moment one guard kills a homeless who witnesses the robbery. The rest movie is about them trying to cover it up and the whole thing getting more messed. After the homeless is killed, one guard shouts: “There is no way turning back. The cat’s out of the bag now.” By comparison, Takers (2010) is a much more entertaining movie on the similar theme of trunk robbery.

January 4, 2011

make one’s skin crawl

Posted in Idioms at 8:09 pm by Feng

make one’s skin crawl – to cause goose bumps on the skin as response to fear or frightening [thefreedict]

On Two and a Half Men, Alan accidentally burned down his girlfriend Lindsay’s house . He tried to comfort her: “It’s not that bad. At least people are safe. And we still have each other”. Lindsay turned face and said: “You make my skin crawl.” This is another expression of giving someone “goose bumps“.

December 29, 2010

play chicken

Posted in Idioms at 11:12 am by Feng

play chicken – If children or young people play chicken, they do something that is dangerous in order to see who is frightened first. [Americanidioms]

On a TV program, an international affair expert commented on the current tense situation between North and South Korea: “They are playing chicken.”  This is dangerous as playing chicken will eventually escalate to war! As I searched for this phrase, I found a related phrase called “play chicken in traffic“, which refers to several dangerous games on the road to test who is the most courageous. In one game, two cars speed toward each other and the one who first swerves is the looser. See this for more detail.

December 22, 2010


Posted in verb at 11:01 pm by Feng

gelivable – being cool and impressive, and “ungelivable” means the opposite  [yahoo]

This is a newly invented Chinglish word, but is getting increasingly popular across Internet in China. This word is derived from “geili”, which is used in the dialect in the northern part of China and literally means to “give power”. Some “smart” person invented the “gelivable” adjective that combines the Chinese native “geili” and also the English “-able” suffix in a strange way. Suddenly, the word appears everywhere on Chinese websites.

I don’t think native English speakers can understand this. Even for me, it took me a while to figure out what’s going on. Whoever came up with this word has reasons to brag about his/her mastering Chinese and English. But, to me, the word looks rather silly – or maybe, that’s exactly why it becomes the vogue.

December 17, 2010


Posted in verb at 9:49 pm by Feng

taterhead – Someone who is either mentally handicapped or just plain dumb [urbandict]

On “Two and a Half Men”, Berta couldn’t believe Jake had a girlfriend: “That taterhead has a girlfriend?” It makes sense if you know that “tater” refers to “potato”.

December 16, 2010


Posted in verb at 12:57 am by Feng

stickler – a person who insists on something unyieldingly [dict]

On “Two and a Half Men”, Alan saw two girls sneaking out of Jake’s room. He was paranoid about Jake hosting an orgy. “Not to be a stickler,” Charlie tried to correct Alan, “It takes more than three to be an orgy.”

October 12, 2010


Posted in slangs at 2:14 pm by Feng

naff –  ( Brit) inferior; in poor taste [dict]

Someone bought a new piece of hardware from QNAP. But, after fiddling with the installation for two weeks, he still couldn’t get it running. “That QNAP company should re-brand itself to Q-naff“, he joked. If you know what “naff” means, you know it’s a pun.

September 6, 2010

mumbo jumbo

Posted in Idioms at 9:23 am by Feng

mumbo jumbo (or mumbo-jumbo) – meaningless or unnecessarily complicated language [dict][wiki]

A guy wasn’t impressed by the lengthy presentation by the Human Resource department. “It has over fifty slides”, he complained, “of which fifty percent repeat the same HR mumbo-jumbo.”

August 25, 2010

dumb as a butt

Posted in slangs at 2:53 pm by Feng

dumb as a butt — I didn’t find an on-line reference for this phrase, but the meaning is quite intuitive if you know that “butt” is a slang word for “buttocks” (see [answers])

Security and usability are two sometimes opposing concepts. Security people are keen to make the system as most secure as possible, and wouldn’t care much about usability. The X509 certificate in the browser is a classic example of failure in understanding usability. One opinion is that if the user clicks the wrong button to accept the rogue certificate, doesn’t read the certificate carefully or ignores the expiry warning, then he is the one to blame for the security breach. A colleague comments on this opinion as “dumb as a  butt“. It’s an interesting expression.

May 17, 2010

pass muster

Posted in Idioms at 10:48 pm by Feng

pass muster – to meet the required standard [UseEnglish]

From the book Cryptography Engineering, “In short, DES does not pass muster any more.”  The DES is an out-dated encryption standard that had been serving the security world for nearly 20 years. Its design is simple and elegant, but the security strength is considered weak from today’s standard. The original meaning of “muster” refers to an assembly of troops ready for inspection. Naturally, “not passing muster” means failing to pass the inspection. We often say “muster the courage”, the use of the word “muster” can be  traced to the same military root.

May 16, 2010


Posted in verb at 4:22 pm by Feng

wrongheaded – stubborn in adherence to wrong opinion or principles [W-M]. Can also be spelt as wrong-headed.

In an academic debate, I pointed out some problems of a cryptographic algorithm. Some people agree with me, but some don’t. One person described me as “wrong-headed” in my opinions.  I found it funny because I never heard of this phrase before.

May 10, 2010

belt and braces

Posted in Idioms at 10:45 pm by Feng

belt and braces – using more than one method to make sure that something is safe or sure to happen [thefreedict]

In the security industry, we learn to become paranoid. Several colleagues were discussing a software vulnerability and some countermeasures. They decided to implement all of them just to be safe. “Belt-and-braces may look silly”, as one of them explained, “It makes very sure that your trousers will not fall onto the floor.”

This is chiefly a British idiom. The American version is “belt and suspenders” (see [urbandict]). Look at these Google images, and you will know that if someone wear both belt and suspenders (or braces), that will look silly indeed.

April 23, 2010

sharpen up

Posted in verb at 10:57 pm by Feng

sharpen up – to become sharp (see sharpen)

To sharpen up your skills is to improve the skills. Sometimes, this phrase is also used to prod someone to be smarter. This funny video clip tells a story about needing to “sharpen up“. I almost fell on the floor when watching it.

April 20, 2010

cash not ash

Posted in Fun at 2:08 pm by Feng

I like the English people’s sense of humour.

Earlier this year, the Iceland population held a referendum, which with overwhelming majority decided to refuse paying the England and Netherlands the loss of savings following the collapse of  the IceSave bank. Some English reader commented on the recent volcano eruption in IceLand: “Dear  Iceland, we asked you to send cash not ash.” I don’t know who first wrote this, but it has be widely circulated on the twitter.

April 19, 2010

be zapped of energy

Posted in verb at 11:08 pm by Feng

be zapped of energy – be very tired (see zap)

Lately, I’ve been engaging in a boring project. I feel zapped of energy.

March 30, 2010

take stock of

Posted in Idioms at 8:36 am by Feng

take stock of – To make an estimate or appraisal, as of resources or of oneself [theefreedict]

To take stock of is to think about something carefully before making a decision. If you find your work boring, it’s perhaps the time to stand back and take stock of your career.

March 19, 2010

double talk

Posted in Idioms at 6:56 pm by Feng

double talk – Deliberately ambiguous and evasive language [dict]

Sometimes, you ask someone a specific question, but he avoids to give you a straight answer. For example, he may say “well, yes and no …” In that case, he gives you double-talk. Considering “yes” and “no” as double answers can help memorize this phrase.

March 18, 2010

full of hot air

Posted in Idioms at 8:51 pm by Feng

full of hot air – full of non-sense [dict]

Although he seems eloquent, he is full of hot air. This phrase reminds me of the steamer – it spouts hot air, but has nothing concrete in it.

March 17, 2010

power nap

Posted in Idioms at 8:56 pm by Feng

power nap – a brief refreshing sleep, often during the workday [dict][wiki]

This is a short nap (typically 15 -30 min) before entering the deep sleep. Sometimes, people might think the longer it takes to nap at noon, the more refreshing one would feel when he wakes up. This is actually not true. If you enter the deep sleep and wake up in the middle, you may feel even more tired.

While I’m looking up this phrase on wikipedia, I learned another phrase “caffeine nap”.  A study shows that one gets the best rest if he takes a cup of coffee, then followed by a power nap. Well, I am not sure that is true – never tried.

March 15, 2010

the ball is in your court

Posted in Idioms at 8:48 pm by Feng

the ball is in your court – it’s up to you to decide or take the next step [UseEnglish]

If you play tennis with someone, and the ball is in your court, then it’s your turn to hit it back. That is of course the literary meaning of the idiom. If someone tells you “the ball is in your court“, it’s time for you to take action now.

in cahoots with

Posted in Idioms at 12:21 am by Feng

in cahoots with — Questionable collaboration; secret partnership [answers]

From the news, after gaining a moral high ground in defying search censorship against Chinese government, Google is now working in cahoots with the America’s spooks: National Security Agency.

August 27, 2009

spruce up

Posted in Idioms at 2:07 pm by Feng

spruce up – to make neat and trime [dict]

From BBC, Shanghai finally decides to “spruce up its image”. It’s long been an international amusement to see many obscure English translations in China. I recall there was a newly opened shop painting “service not found” as the English translation for its Chinese name. Presumably, someone typed the Chinese characters into an on-line tanslation service and it happend that the webiste was down.

August 24, 2009

dry run

Posted in Idioms at 9:57 pm by Feng

dry run – A trial exercise or rehearsal [dict]

On “two and a half men”, Alan was depressed after his wife Kandi deserted him. He curled up on bed, not speaking to anyone. When his son, Jake, came in, Alan mumbled that he was taking a nap. “I’m getting old, Jake,” Alan said, “Old people nap. It’s like a dry run for death.”

August 21, 2009

it takes a village to raise a child

Posted in proverb at 9:47 am by Feng

it takes a village to raise a child –  It takes many people to teach a child all that he or she should know [UseEnglish]

Many Americans learned this phrase from Hillary Clinton who chose it in the title of her book. This phrase is alleged to come from an African proverb. It highlights the importance of the  social environement for a child’s growth and development. Interestingly, some people wrote an article to dispute this old wisdom by claiming that parents play more important roles in fostering a child. But I think he is only nit-picking and the arugment misses the point.

August 17, 2009

pull the wool over someone’s eyes

Posted in Idioms at 2:30 pm by Feng

pull the wool over someone’s eyes – to deceive someone [answers]

It is difficult to pull the wool over his eyes” is a jocular way to say “it is difficult to cheat him”. The word “wool” relates to the wig that the judge wears in court. Pulling the wool blinds the judge’s eyes so that he is unable to see the facts in a trial.

May 20, 2009

sink in

Posted in Idioms at 8:55 am by Feng

sink in – to penetrate the mind [dict]

This is an entertaining news from BBC. A woman didn’t feel well, but she went to see a doctor and was told she had been 20 weeks pregrant. Thirteen days later, she gave birth to twins. Of course, this is all good news (though surprising) to the family. “It took a while to sink in that I was pregnant in the first place”, she said during an interview, “and took a bit longer to sink in there was (were) two of them.”

April 21, 2009

too many chiefs and not enough Indians

Posted in Idioms at 1:52 pm by Feng

too many chiefs and not enough Indians – too many bosses, and not enough people to do the work [thefreedict]

“In the old days,” someone said, “The HR recuritment policy in my company was flexible. I once hired a guy who didn’t even have a degree, but he was really good at programming. And he never complained doing the chore. Now, the company enforces a strict recruitment policy to ensure only recruiting very good people. But, the problem is that we end up with too many chiefs and not enough Indians.”

April 15, 2009

can’t have one’s cake and eat it

Posted in Idioms at 5:11 pm by Feng

can’t have one’s cake and eat it – can’t have things both ways [thefreedict]

I discovered some useful shortcuts in Visual Studio and told a colleague. Unfortunately, the shortcuts didn’t work for him because they conflicted with the emacs program that he was using. “That’s pity,” he said, “But you can’t have butter and the money of the butter”.  He is French so he was literally translating a French idiom. The English eqivalent is: You can’t have your cake and eat it.

There is also a similar saying in Chinese: you can’t have the fish and the bear palm paw at the same time (see here and here).

April 9, 2009


Posted in Idioms at 11:35 am by Feng

namby-pamby – lacking in character, directness, or moral or emotional strength [dict]

Someone brought in some computer hardware that he used nearly 30 years ago. The hardware looks very bulky, by today’s standard. The memory controller is heavy enough to knock a person out. “It is real hardware,” he says, ” Very solid-built, not like the the namby-pamby stuff you guys are using today.”

April 8, 2009

wade through treacle

Posted in verb at 8:15 pm by Feng

wade through treacle – to make one’s way slowly or laboriously. See [wade through] and [treacle]

A colleague used it as an example to explain English is such a tricky language. He was once talking to some non-native English speakers and used the expression “wade through treacle” , but found no one understood it.  In fact, once you know what treacle is, the meaning of this phrase is very intuitive – Just think of yourself walking in syrup.

April 7, 2009

that ship has sailed

Posted in Idioms at 9:18 am by Feng

that ship has sailed – A particular opportunity has passed you by [UsingEnglish]

On the ‘two and a half men’, Alan is splitting up with Kandi. It seems Kandi has a better lawyer and will get everything, but Alan still fights to get at least the dog. Charlie, his brother, tries to enlighten him: “Just give her everything. When all of this is settled down, you get one thing that you value most and that you cannot put a price on…” “Dignity?” Alan asks. “Oh, stop it,” Charlies continues, “That ship has sailed… The thing you get is freedom!”

April 6, 2009

break wind

Posted in Idioms at 9:06 am by Feng

break wind – to expel intestinal gas (an euphemism for fart) [dict]

This is hilarious. A football player was given a yellow card for breaking wind while another player was taking the penalty (see BBC news). The referee explained that was “an ungentlemanly conduct”.

April 3, 2009

gaz factory

Posted in verb at 4:36 pm by Feng

gaz factory – literally translaited from a French phrase “usine a gaz” which refers to a system or machine that is super-complex

Our software build system has a lot of external dependencies and is so complex that whoever works on it must get confused. A French colleague says there is a French term to descibe it –  literally translated as “Gaz Factory“. I don’t speak French, but I like this expression. It is easy to picture such a factory where machines are messed around and with all the noise, gas, smoke in the background. However, he doesn’t know the English equivalent; neither do I (In fact, I don’t know if there is a Chinese equivalent that is as vivid as this). Does anyone know if there is a similar expression in English? Apparently, I’m not the first one who asks this question.

March 27, 2009

the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree

Posted in Idioms at 9:35 am by Feng

the applet doesn’t fall far from the tree – children are like their parents [idiom][wikiAnswer]

On the “Two and a half men”, Judith is Alan’s ex-wife. On Christmas eve, Judith and her boyfriend dropped by at Charlie’s house. The moment Judith saw newly made eggnog, she instantly falled for the alcohol. Alan said to Judith’s boyfriend: “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it?” A similar idiom is “Like father, like son.”

March 26, 2009


Posted in verb at 10:21 am by Feng

whinge – to complain, especially in an annoying and persistent manner [dict]

A colleague was not happy with an arrangment, and he said: “I’ve whinged to the department, but so far no news.” This word is chiefly used in British English.

March 24, 2009

someone’s ass is on the line

Posted in Idioms at 11:39 pm by Feng

someone’s ass is on the line – if someone’s ass in on the line, they will be blamed if things go wrong [freedict]

On “The X files”, Mulder was following a lead to investigate a chemical pollution. He pressed an old man, who was an old friend of Mulder’s father, for more information. The man yelled: “I cannot tell you more. My ass is on the line.”

March 23, 2009

faff about

Posted in slangs at 6:42 pm by Feng

faff about – To waste time on an unproductive activity [wiktionary][urbandict]

Designing a new product is all about balancing trade-offs – how to get the best out of the limited budget. Someone propoosed to add a feature to the product, but was objected by another: “It looks nice but is not essential. I don’t think it is worth one month time faffing about how to implment it.” This phrase is mainly used in the British English (according to wiki). So if you say it to an American, you may get a puzzled look.

March 19, 2009

OKie Dokie

Posted in verb at 2:40 pm by Feng

Okie Dokie – a playful way to say OK [urban]

My British colleagues often like to say “Okie Dokie” instead of “OK”. Perhaps the word “OK” has been so commonly used that it becomes mundane. On the other hand, “OKie Dokie” sounds cheerful and crispy! Sometimes, you may hear “Okie Do” (where -kie is silenced).

March 17, 2009

live in sin

Posted in Idioms at 3:01 pm by Feng

live in sin – Cohabit outside marriage [dict]

During a chitchat, someone mentioned that his mother died when he was young and his father was now living in sin with his girlfriend. Of course, it shouldn’t be interpreted as he hates his dad; this phrase is used in a jocular fashion here. Sometimes the same phrase could be used to mean something serious. The context is important. It also depends on how literal the local customs and views are.

March 15, 2009

love handles

Posted in slangs at 8:30 pm by Feng

love handles – excess fat around the waistline (often used in the plural) [dict]

I wonder why they are called “love handles“, maybe because they provide a soft place to rest one’s hand while one’s arm is around a person. Just maybe, don’t take it too seriously. It helps memorize.

One synonym is “spare tire”, whose meaning is intuitive though less vivid.

March 11, 2009

catch some z’s

Posted in Idioms at 9:14 pm by Feng

catch some z’s – Take a nap; go to sleep [dict]

In comic strips, “zzz” is often used to say someone is sleeping or snoring. Here is one example:

A: Excuse me. I’ve to catch some z’s.

B: I thought you just woke up. You sleepy head.

There are alternative expressions: catch some Zs, cop some Zs and cut some Zs. (see thefreedict)

December 26, 2008

spill the beans

Posted in Idioms at 11:38 pm by Feng

spill the beans – Disclose a secret or reveal something prematurely [dict]

A basic principle in the cryptographic research is that unconditionally trusted third parties do not exist. In other words, no one is absolutely trustworthy – not even the law-enforcement authority.  Here is an example from BBC. The UK police maintain a central criminal database which contains valuable information. However, one cop wanted to make money out of it. He abused his trusted role by contacting the convicted offenders and threatening to spill the beans on their crimes unless he was given “hush money“. Of course, he got what he derserved.

December 17, 2008


Posted in Idioms at 9:07 pm by Feng

willy-nilly – whether one wishes to or not; willingly or unwillingly [dict]

Modern computers have abundant memory such that programmers often write codes in whatever liked style without worrying about the memory usage. However, the case is different with programming smart cards where the available memory is extremely constrained. “When programming for the (Java) smart card,” someone warned, “Don’t create new objects willy-nilly.”

get feet wet

Posted in Idioms at 12:32 am by Feng

get feet wet – to experience something for the first time, especially something that involves taking a risk. [thefreedict]

This is a commonly used idiom. If you have never invested money in the stock market, you can get your feet wet by just buying a few shares.

December 16, 2008

fools rush in where angels fear to tread

Posted in Idioms at 1:59 pm by Feng

fools rush in while where angels fear to tread – This idiom is used where people who are inexperienced or lack knowledge do something that more informed people would avoid. [UsingEnglish][wikipedia]

By the US federal law, a website cannot keep private data of users who are under 13 years old unless with the explicit consent from their parents. This creates a number of technical difficulities in the practical implmentation. (Sony was fined 1 million dollars for not doing it properly). To avoid the trouble, Facebook simply limits memberships to users who are older than 13.

According to Regsiter, there is this new social network website – dubbed Facebook for Kids – due to lauch in a few weeks time. This webiste targets users who are between 7 and 12.  It might start off as a useful idea to create a network that brings together children and parents. But the design of the website is terrible with little regard to security and privacy protection. Security researchers found that anyone could can view the children’s private data on that website. Disappointed by the slack security design, they concuded their finding by a saying: “fools rush in while where angels fear to tread“.

December 11, 2008

ts and cs

Posted in verb at 11:52 am by Feng

ts and cs – terms and conditions

In a meeting, a manager talked about changing the “ts and cs” of our software product license. I was quite puzzled by that and didn’t find this phrase from the dictionary. After the meeting, a guy taught me that it was a common abbreviation for “terms and conditions”.

December 3, 2008

monkey see monkey do

Posted in Idioms at 10:35 pm by Feng

monkey see monkey do – It refers to the learning of a process without an understanding of why it works [wiki]

Our team uses a fairly complex software build system, which often gives strange and confusing error messages. A new comer was assigned to investigate why a particular software package couldn’t be compiled. After struggling for a long time, he finally passed the compiling without errors. His manager, however, was not very impressed. “It works now,” he says, “but I suspect it’s the case of monkey see monkey do.”

December 1, 2008

big cheese

Posted in slangs at 12:49 am by Feng

big cheese – a very important or influential person [dict]

A colleague passed me a paper and asked me: “do you know the second author of this paper?” He continued: “You should know him. He is a professor in Oxford, a big cheese in the field.”

August 27, 2008

What is good for goose is good for gander

Posted in Idioms at 11:06 pm by Feng

What is good for goose is good for gander — The original meaning is that different sexes should be treated the same. The extended meaning is that there should be no doube-standard [UsingEnglish]

It comes from an earlier proverb (nowadays less commonly used): what is source for goose is source for gander [bartleby]. Here is an example (from BBC).

The news says that the current situation in South Ossetia sparks deep worries among western countries for a new cold war with Russia. While almost all western leaders have been condemning Russia, there is a different voice from the former British ambassador to Yugoslavia, Sir Iva Roberts.

He said: “Moscow has acted brutally in Georgia. But when the United States and Britain backed the independence of Kosovo without UN approval, they paved the way for Russia’s ‘defence’ of South Ossetia, and for the current Western humiliation.

What is sauce for the Kosovo goose is sauce for the South Ossetian gander.”

April 14, 2008

knocked up

Posted in slangs at 11:25 pm by Feng

knocked up — pregnant [dict]

On the latest issue of Reader’s Digest, a woman tells a story from her experience — once during rush hour, she was accompanying her very pregnant colleague to cross the street. They dodged cars and ignored the hooting. Then they heard a furious driver shouting: “Hey! You can get knocked down too, you know!”

April 7, 2008

worth one’s salt

Posted in Idioms at 10:05 pm by Feng

worth one’s salt – deserving of one’s wages or salary [dict]

On last night’s BBC TV program, The Real Hustle, Alexis demonstrated a scam in which he conned an unsuspecting girl into becoming an accomplice in a jewelery store robbery. Pretending not sure what jewelery to buy for his wife, Alexis asked a girl sitting outside a jewelery store for a big favor – to try on a necklace. Ready to help, the girl agreed and stepped into the store together with Alexis. Alexis asked for a $5000 necklace, and quickly switched it with a $5 one when no one was watching. He then set off the mobile phone ring, and excused to go outside the shop for better signal. The jeweler assumed the two were together, so she didn’t stop him. Once outside the shop, Alexis quickly drove off. “Any jewelers worth their salt will realize the switch straightway”, he explained in the program, “So you got to get out quickly”. This scam worked as the hustler exploited the dual relationship he had with a newly-met girl, and made the jeweler think they were together.

January 13, 2008

part and parcel

Posted in Idioms at 12:48 am by Feng

part and parcel of something — a necessary part which cannot be avoided [dict]

A lecturer must assume teaching responsibilities even though his real interests lie in doing research. Someone was assigned to teach two courses for the new semester. He said to me with a sigh: “That’s part and parcel of the job”.

October 18, 2007

crank it up a notch

Posted in Idioms at 11:11 pm by Feng

crank it up a notch — increase or intensify a bit (See [crank up] and [notch])

On Friends, Joey envied Chandler and Monica being together. He thought that the two got along because they were friends first. So Joey attempted to hit on Rachel. He said to her: “Since we are friends, maybe you and I can crank it up a notch“. This phrase seems to come from a song called “crank it“.

October 16, 2007

Flattey is like chewing gum.

Posted in Quotes at 10:26 am by Feng

This is from the Reader’s Digest (Oct 2007): “Flattery is like chewing gum. Enjoy it, but don’t swallow it.

October 14, 2007


Posted in verb at 6:12 pm by Feng

attaboy — (informal) from common pronunciation of “that’s the boy!”; used as a cheer of encouragement or approval. [dict]

On “Two and a half man”, this phrase is used frequently in conversations. For example, Charlie’s Mum tends to say “Attaboy” whenever Charlie does something that pleases her. I didn’t get the spelling of this word until today.

October 10, 2007

rake in something

Posted in Idioms at 8:03 pm by Feng

rake in — earn large sums of money [dict]

This article explains a fast way to become rich in Turkey — get married! It says that as a custom in Turkey, if one is invited to a wedding, he/she should usually give $200 to the newlyweds. The president and prime minister of Turkey had taken advantage of this custom by inviting nearly 5000 people to their children’s weddings, “raking in literally $millions from distinguished and wealthy guests”.

September 26, 2007

vote with one’s feet

Posted in Idioms at 4:19 pm by Feng

vote with one’s feet — to show that you do not support something, especially an organization or a product, by not using or not buying it any more [thefreedict]

In the area of security research, there are some standard security solutions that are secure in theory, but suffer from poor usability in practice. Someone commented: “De facto standards often emerge because people vote with their feet rather than following standards”. That is an interesting view.

September 18, 2007

Good good study, day day up

Posted in Fun at 4:46 pm by Feng

Good good study, day day up — Study hard, then you will improve day by day

This phrase — literally translated from Chinese — really cracks me up. It is the legendary saying left by the great leader Chairman Mao. In my childhood, the phrase was painted on campus walls, heard on radio, and said by teachers and parents all the time. Today, it evokes a familiar mint smell that drifts me back into the young and naive age …

September 12, 2007

have it out with someone

Posted in Idioms at 10:46 am by Feng

have it out with someone — settle or discuss something with someone angrily [idiomconnect]

If you organize a debate and call for participation, you may like to have an announcement starting with: “Burning to have it out with someone? Here is your chance … “

September 6, 2007

tap that ass

Posted in slangs at 3:05 pm by Feng

tab tap that ass — a vulgar slang for sex [urbandict].

One night, people in our research group went out to celebrate for someone passing the PhD viva. In the pub, an American guy wanted to make fun of a British chap, who seemed to really hit it off with a girl he just met. The American sent him a text message: “Tab Tap that“. After taking a mouthful of beer, he said to me: “I bet he won’t understand. He is British.” I heard this phrase on some American movies before.

August 24, 2007

bear out

Posted in Idioms at 3:47 pm by Feng

bear out — To prove right or justified; confirm [thefreedict]

This is another way to say “confirm” — for example, the results bears out our claims.

August 22, 2007

not bat an eyelid

Posted in Idioms at 11:54 am by Feng

not bat an eyelid — not show any shock or surprise [thefreedict]

When talking about a new model of phone with a rich set of features, someone said: “I hardly bat an eyelid“. While technologies are advancing fast, so are people’s expectations — today we are no longer easily impressed by claimed “new” things.

June 18, 2007

shoot the breeze

Posted in Idioms at 10:58 am by Feng

shoot the breeze — to have a relaxed conversation [thefreedict] [answers]

On ‘Frasier’, Roz tells Frasier that she has been dumped by Roger. Pouring her a glass of wine, Frasier tries to comfort her: “Let’s sit down, and shoot the breeze for a while”.

June 15, 2007

son of a gun

Posted in slangs at 4:49 pm by Feng

son of a gun — a rascal; a scamp [answers]

On ‘Frasier’, Frasier meets Roz’s family, pretending to be her boyfriend, Roger. The family are delighted to meet “Roger” finally. One of Roz’s relatives greets Frasier: “Hey you, son of a gun.” In some dictionaries, the phrase “son of a gun” is defined as a euphemism for “son of a bitch” (see here). So don’t over use it ;)

June 14, 2007

have no beef with someone

Posted in slangs at 10:33 am by Feng

have no beef with someone — have no quarrel with. “Beef” here has the meaning of “complaint” [answers]

On ‘Rambo: First Blood II’, Rambo found himself in a one man war against the whole police force of a town. From a hill, he jumped upon an army truck and took the driver by surprise.  Just before being kicked out of the truck, the poor diver begged: “Please don’t do that. I have got no beef with you.”

June 12, 2007

buy off

Posted in Idioms at 10:26 am by Feng

buy off — to bribe [dict]

On “Frasier”, Frasier’s father ask Frasier and Niles to walk his dog since he has to go to work. Frasier hates dogs, so he asks Roz: “If you can walk the dog for me, I will pay you 100 dollars”. His brother, Niles, also says to Daphne: “If you do that, I will give you 100 dollars too. Wow, that’s 200 dollars!” Roz immediately slaps Frasier in his face: “I cannot believe you try to buy me off.” And Daphne also slaps Niles: “Me too”.

June 11, 2007

shoot off one’s mouth

Posted in Idioms at 11:10 am by Feng

shoot off one’s mouth — Speak indiscreetly; also, brag or boast [answers]

A guy doesn’t know much about computer security, but he tends to talk a lot to show off his knowledge on the subject. Someone commented: “He is always shooting off his mouth about it.”

June 8, 2007

give someone a nudge

Posted in verb at 12:17 pm by Feng

nudge — a gentle push [dict]

I always bear high appreciation on how efficiently things work in universities. My office desks had recently been replaced with new ones. Bravo! But hold on …

After the contractors fixed up the new furniture, they didn’t bother to take away the junk. They simply stacked the old desks and deserted them in the center of the room. Perhaps, understandably, they had no idea where to throw. I contacted the department store man, who promised to collect those woods immediately. But despite the constant reminder, it has been nearly 3 weeks now — nothing changed. Someone noticed the funny desk “hill” in my office. He said: “I will give the store man a nudge.”

June 6, 2007

a dizzy spell

Posted in Idioms at 10:14 am by Feng

a dizzy spell — A period of physical or mental disorder or distress [answers]

On “Frasier”, Roz set Frasier up on a blind date. After introducing Frasier to a lovely lady, Roz excused herself: “Sorry. I have a dizzy spell. Let me take some rest in the room.”

May 31, 2007

throw someone in at the deep end

Posted in Idioms at 10:31 am by Feng

throw someone in at the deep end — to make someone do something difficult, especially a job, without preparing them for it or giving them any help [thefreedict]

My driving instructor is a nice and brave English old man. Though today was only the second session, he let me take the full control of the wheel on a busy road, and kept giving me instructions: “More gas please! Much faster!”. I dare not speed up as I could not help worrying we might hit someone. My body muscles tense, I tried to follow his instructions, fumbling for the clutch, brake, gas pedal, handbrake, and signal lights. Thanks, God. The instructor finally called for a break.

He handed me a sweet candy. ” You should smile while driving, ” he said to me with a grin, “My training method is to throw you in at the deep end. It’s like throwing you into the deep water so you can learn swimming quickly.” Suddenly, I had the thought: “Why should I be worried? He throws me into this crazy traffic. He should really be one who feels nervous on the seat.” I felt relaxed. Seeing me smile, the old man was excited: “Right! That is what I am talking about.”

May 25, 2007

know of

Posted in Idioms at 10:24 am by Feng

know of someone/something — to have information about someone or something [thefreedict]

On “Frasier”, Niles is chatting with a friend about a legendary connoisseur of wine tasting. When asked whether he knows the person, Niles replies: “I don’t know him. I just know of him.”

May 22, 2007

take the edge off

Posted in Idioms at 10:41 am by Feng

take the edge off — Ease or assuage, make less severe [dict]

On “Frasier”, Frasier is upset with something. His brother, Niles, tries to comfort him: “Have a beer. It really takes the edge off.” Suppose you are sitting just next to a sharp cutting instrument. How will you feel if those pointy edges are blunted or removed?

May 18, 2007

red herring

Posted in Idioms at 10:13 am by Feng

red herring — something intended to divert attention from the real problem or matter at hand; a misleading clue [dict]

The origin of this phrase comes from this story: a hunted fox throws off a hound by dragging a red herring along a wrong trail. The hound follows the strong smell of the herring, and hence loses the quarry. One use of this phrase is seen below (from Economist):

“The bilateral trade imbalance, the target of so many American politicians’ anger, is an economic red herring.”

May 8, 2007

call of nature

Posted in Idioms at 10:29 pm by Feng

call of nature — A need to urinate or defecate [dict]

Sometimes, people may say someone has left to answer the call of nature — it is just an euphemistic way to say that he went to the toilet.

May 4, 2007


Posted in verb at 3:01 pm by Feng

scooch — to move the buttocks over, around or up and down [ODE]

On ‘Friends’, Ross asks people sitting on a bench to move a bit to make a room for his ex-wife. He says: “People, scooch down please?” This is a word primarily used in America, and English people here generally claim that they never heard of this word. “In that situation,” an English lady explains, “we usually say: scoot over or move along.”

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