Category Archives: What’s in a phrase?

What’s the story behind the word…..?

We are all too familiar with the story behind the expression ‘Achilles Heel’.

To refresh your minds, according to Greek mythology, Achilles’ mother held him by the heels to dip him into the River Styx when he was an infant to make him invincible …. The water washed all over his body, all but his heels where his mother held him, thus making the area vulnerable. That was a big ‘boo boo’ alright. He was supposedly killed by a poisoned arrow shot into his heel by Paris. 

Today the expression Achilles’ Heel” refers to someone’s singular weakness that could bring about his downfall.

More interesting stories below….

Blind Justice meaning : .impartiality…… i.e. ‘justice is blind..’

– NO, it is not to denote that justice is so blind that it convicts the innocent. But, Justice, in Greek status, is personified as a female and she is blindfolded so that she cannot see the bribes that are being offered to her. Make no mistake, she is blind but not deaf, o.k? If not she would not be able to hear the cases presented to her……

Kick the bucket meaning – die

There are many theories to this expression but the most popular one alludes to the act of committing suicide by hanging. You see, in order to hang oneself, you need to tie a rope to a beam or an overhead post which is placed high up. To reach it, you have to stand on a bucket or something. After the rope has been put in place, the victim then has to kick the bucket for the suicide to happen….

Love meaning – zero in the scoring system for tennis

How on earth did this word which is universally known as an affection come to mean ‘zero’ in tennis? Well, the term comes from the french word ‘l’oeuf’, meaning ‘egg’. The French use it to designate ‘no score’ or ‘zero’ because an egg looks like a zero.

Moron derogatory word, slang – meaning – someone who is not so intelligent ….

The term is derived from the Greek word ‘moros’ which means dull. This word was arbitratily given to adults with the mental ages of eight to twelve year olds by Dr. Henry H. Goddard (see pic). He decided to split these individuals into 3 IQ levels ‘s and he was looking for a word to describe the highest group …. and he chose ‘moron’ …..

  • Moron : an IQ of 51-70, being superior in one degree to
  • “imbecile” (IQ of 26-50) and superior in two degrees to
  • “idiot” (IQ of 0-25). 

Take note however it was only  a valid descriptor in the psychological community in the early 1900’s. They are not longer applied as Goddard recanted his earlier theory starting from the 1920’s. However, these words have all now passed into common slang use only.

Quarantine – meaning – put into isolation to prevent spread of disease 

This word comes from the Italian word quaranta, meaning ‘forty’. In early days, a ship suspected of being infected with some contagious disease was kept outside of port for forty days hence the birth of the word “quarantine”.

Raining cats & dogs – meaning – heavy rain storm

This expression comes from Norse mythology – in which the cat symbolizes heavy rain, while the dog, an attendant of Odin, the storm god, represents great blasts of wind. It is befitting to use the cat and dog to symbolise the conflicting elements in a storm given the proverbial enmity of cats and dogs.

Red Tape – meaning – Govt delay

This expression comes literally with the use of ‘red tape’ in tying up official papers in Engliand. For centuries, British Government  officials would follow the time consuming custom of tying and untying red tape which bound the dispatch and document cases which inevitably results in unnecessary delay. Apparently, the practice continues, but the tape is now pink. Oh, cut the red tape will you, ..or should I say ‘pink’ tape?

Sabotage – meaning – a deliberate act to destroy or to hinder something

Believe it or not it comes the French word ‘sabot’ for wooden shoe. There are several theories to explain how the the word came to be. One being, during the railway strike of 1910, when workers destroyed the wooden shoes, or sabots, that held rails in place, thus impeding the morning commute.  An alternate definition, if true, would make the origin of the word older by almost a century, i.e. the times of the Industrial Revolution. It is said that powered looms i.e. weaving machines were damaged by angry or disgruntled workers throwing their wooden shoes into the machinery to clog it. This etymology however, is highly suspect and no wooden shoe sabotage is known to have been reported at the time of origin for the word ……………. Whatever it is, a shoe played the lead role all the way for this word, a wooden one at that!!!

Sack i.e.  ‘get the sack’, meaning – terminated from work 

In the olden days, most tradespeople like artisans and mechanics lived on the job. They brought their own tools to work with them in a ‘sack’.  So when the employer wants them discharged, he would probably give him the sack, a broad hint for the workman to pack up his tools and leave. 

TIP meaning – a little something i.e. money, given as a token of appreciation to people working in the service industry.

This is a good one….. Years ago in English inns and taverns, it was customary for the patrons to drop a coin for the benefit of the waiters into a box placed on the wall. On the box was a little sign which said: To Insure Promptness hence the birth of the word tip!

Well, so many more words, so many stories of origin….. some historical, some borrowed from other languages like Latin, Greek, French……some funny. 

Who said learning English wasn’t fun, eh?


Watch out! It’s LOOKISM folks……

Wow, I think a lot of us are still a bit stunned at the shocking revelation by the ceremony’s music director Chen Qigang about the little girl who was just not pretty enough to show up to sing live at the Beijing Olympics Opening ceremony.

The little song bird Yang Pei Yi, who was slated to be a rising star, has buck teeth and a chubby face.

When interviewed by the Beijing People’s Broadcasting Station, music chief Chen said that leaders from various government agencies came to watch the opening ceremony rehearsals in the Bird’s Nest and “…a leader from the Politburo, who gave us his opinion, (said) this has to change”.

So the cuter pig tailed Lin Miaoke came into the picture. She was apparently “flawless in image, internal feelings, and expression”.  Oh, but can she sing? Not good enough obviously. Solution, get Lin Miaoke to lip sync the recording of patriotic song Ode to the Motherland  sung by Yang Pei Yi as China’s national flag was carried into the stadium, a key moment in the three hour ceremony.

In the end ….  What we heard, was the perfect voice of Yang. What we saw, was the perfect face of Lin. Problem solved. 

My two sen worth. There’s a word in the English Language for discrimination or prejudice based on appearance. It’s not widely used but can be found in major English Language dictionaries. The word is  LOOKISM.  The word may be uncommon but sadly, this form of discrimination is NOT so uncommon. Let’s see how lookism is practised as defined by Wikipedia:

  • “Researchers have found that good looking students get higher grades from their teachers than students with an ordinary appearance.
  • … attractive patients receive more personalized care from their doctors.
  • Studies have even shown that handsome criminals receive lighter sentences than less attractive convicts.
  • How much money a person earns may also be influenced by physical beauty. One study found that people low in physical attractiveness earn 5 to 10 percent less than ordinary looking people, who in turn earn 3 to 8 percent less than those who are considered good looking.”

What is beauty? Some people say beauty is all about symmetry. Some say it is youth. The media also strongly promotes beauty as being light on the scales. The whitening cream people will tell you its a fair & white complexion. The list is endless. What happened to – Inner beauty. Grace. Personality. Intelligence. Elegance. Charm. Oh well, you might as well throw it out of the window I guess. Useless, they say. Not so useless, I say.

Universal though lookism may be, the perception of beauty is however a harder subject to tackle. Just how do we discriminate between a beauty and a non beauty. It is not an exact science I’m afraid. It isn’t just about the pursuit of the perfect symmetry or looks. I’m sure if you throw a Twiggy like figure (when she was young) in front of Michelangelo he’d flip in his grave. After all, he is responsible for producing the sculpture of David which is a famous work on symmetry.  If stout figures were desirable during the Victorian Ages, its obviously history. Today, the complete opposite look is desirable. Stick thin figures rule bringing on the onset of eating disorders like bulimia & anorexia.  But then again, our perception of beauty is very much influenced by the media and the entertainment industry. So kudos to brandnames like Dove who have promoted advertisements featuring plus size women and ordinary day to day women.

Beauty is also culturally sensitive. A Polynesian man would view a woman with an ample figure of voluptuous proportions as beautiful, but in other cultures this very same woman could be labled ‘obese’. Or if you throw a bride in front of a tribal man in the Lao Cao region (in Vietnam) with a row of straight, WHITE teeth, he’d say – she’s not beautiful enough. Bring the charcoal – her front teeth need to be blackened. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder indeed!

I’d like to end this blog with a tribute to Little Yang Peiyi, you might not be considered pretty enough to be shown in the Olympics ceremony but hey, you’re beautiful enough in our eyes. You have a beautiful voice and you are beautiful in your own way, buck teeth and all.  Beauty is skin deep but inner beauty lasts forever.

P.S. Here’s a little glossary for those who are not too familiar with 2 expressions with the word beauty in it:

  • Beauty lies/is in the eye of the beholderLiteral meaning. It means that beauty is very much an individual opinion. Different people might have different perceptions of beauty.
  • Beauty is skin deep. – It alludes to the fact that physical beauty is superficial. Outward appearance is not as important as inner beauty.

Making sense of the way we speak…..

I bumped into a friend one day and was invited to join her and her companion, an English lady, for lunch. When my friend & I, both of us being Malaysians, launched animatedly into the controversial topic related to the clearing of land in UK heights near Taman Hijau, we noticed the English lady listening to us very quietly with an amused look on her face…..

Okay….. now this is queer… did we say something offensive? Did we have food stuck on our noses….. ? Was our point of view 180% from hers?  Nope…. she was actually counting…. .What the….?????…….

She admitted that she held a fascination for the unique way we Malaysians spoke….(thanks for the euphemism…you really mean weird, right?)….To prove a point, she was counting the amount of times we used or shall I say “overused” the phrase “at the end of the day” in our conversation …. In the 15 minutes of conversation between the both of us (Malaysians) she claims that we used the phrase at least 10 times. …. (YES, she actually counted). So on average, that’s once every other minute …..ok…that IS rather weird. 

Yes, we Malaysians have always been told that we have a unique brand of English, the most famous being the  punctuation of -lahs at the end of every other sentence. 

Two contributing factors why native speakers find our English quaint is our love for archaic expressions…..and of course our pronunciation or mispronunciations I should say…………

1. Archaic (old fashioned) expressions used by Malaysians that sound quaint to native speakers……

Outstation: (Archaic) We use it to mean that a person is away in another town/state in Malaysia. This word is leftover from the colonial days where British officials get posted to ‘stations’  away from their home stations hence the word ‘outstation’. Malaysians understand it perfectly when used in the modern context, but native speakers would actually find its use puzzling.  They would simply say, “so & so, has gone out of town” or “so & so, is out of town”.

Pail:  (Yup, Archaic). That ubiquitous plastic or metal container that is ever so common in our households is apparently better known as a ‘bucket’ by native speakers. I was told that the word ‘pail’ was very old fashioned by an English tutor from the British Council. I guess its true, after all,  you don’t hear people saying “He/she has kicked the pail”  when someone has died right? They say “he/she has kicked the bucket“! 

Scold: (Surprise, surprise….Archaic too). Native speakers prefer to say ” Do tell him off…..he’s being rude ” or “Give him a telling off”…… Well…here I must compliment Malaysians….such a superfluous amount of words when we can just say “Scold him-lah, he’s so rude!”.

2. We Malaysians have our own brand of pronunciation too…….

Flour: This is  common one. We pronounce ‘flour’ as ‘fl-ah’ when native speakers pronounce it as ‘flower’. Well readers be warned: “Don’t try this at home (i.e. in Malaysia). This stunt should only be performed in front of native speakers only. I do not wish to be held responsible if the shopkeeper looks at you, as if a tongue blister was causing you to speak funny. Worse case scenario, you end up with a bouquet…” 

Forehead: Now this is a real classic. I did not find this out until I was teaching a class about ‘parts of the face’ and an Aussie happened to observe me.  At the end of class, she told me, ‘It’s pronounced as ‘forid‘….’; I said, “Huh, excuse me?”.  She pointed to her forehead and said :”Its pronounced as ‘forid'”. Now, I was insulted and argued, “I’ve NEVER heard such a thing in my life” – ‘forid’….it sounds as if its a medical condition or something like that.   “Check the dictionary!”, she commanded. I did. She was right!  I stand corrected. Forehead is pronounced ‘forid’, not ‘four-head’ as we have always did ever since we learned to speak English. Sigh. ………….

……………….Well, ‘at the end of the day’ you can’t say that Malaysians lack originality in the way we’ve modified the English Language. The important thing is that the ‘purpose’ of the communication was achieved… We would want to be able to understand our jaga kereta boy when he asks us to ‘gostan lagi….yah yah gostan gostan…!’ rather than scratching our heads, to try and understand his incomprehensible rantings…….”Yah Yah, go astern, go astern.…..” ….YIKES… what did he just say??!………….. Crash, bang…….

p.s. Don’t worry…..over use of the expression “at the end of the day” is not a Malaysian thing, it really is a ex-BBGS thing…..if you hear someone punctuating their sentences with “at the end of the day”….do ask if they studied in BBGS before.

Murphy strikes again…….

  • Ever cook for 10 people and the food didn’t quite agree with their palates and you end up eating leftovers for a week… 

  • Ever learn from the above and then cook just a little under the exact portions and they love the food and there isn’t enough to go round….

  • Ever late for an appointment and you hit all the red lights.

  • Ever manage to avoid dog poop throughout your jog and you step on some just before you reach home.

  • Ever leave off washing your car for a month and the day you finally wash it, it rains cats and dogs….

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