Mar 27, 2024

Puzzled about Common Expressions? Welcome to Our World

Opposites attract—sometime in the same paragraph

By Ed Goldman

If you learned English as a second language, you are like unto a god to me. I think ours is one of the most perplexing languages in the galaxy, with its limitless supply of synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, and oxymorons. But what of our everyday expressions? 

  • We like to suggest that people give “short shrift” to an argument or theory. What would happen if we suggested they give “long shrift” to something? Do shrifts come in various sizes?
  • Why is the shortest coffee drink on a Starbucks menu called a Tall?
Edgy Cartoon

Words hurt

  • Why are “short sales” in residential real estate anything but? Why aren’t legal briefs brief?
  • Can a Short Story filled with exaggeration become a Tall Tale?
  • Isn’t every movie or TV show we watch “based on a true story”? It might be a lie, it might be fiction, but it truly starts out as a story.  
  • If your local watering hole doesn’t stock those cool, V-shaped Pilsner glasses, can you still go in and order a “tall one?” 
  • What if you stop in for a “short one” and they’re out of shot glasses?
  • When you order a “gin martini,” aren’t you being redundant? And when you order a “vodka martini,” you aren’t? (Answer: a “martini” was always made with gin. Then James Bond started ordering one with vodka. Talk about an influencer.)
  • Both of these commands are repetitive: (1) Bring it here. (2) Take it there. Why? Because you never bring anything “there” or take anything “here.” Unless you’re talking about meds, in which case you bring them to your mouth to take them.
  • We have, of course, the familiar contradictions—like “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” contrasted with “Out of sight, out of mind.” How about “Everything comes to those who wait”—whereas “Time and tide wait for no man?”
  • I grew up hoping the pen really would be mightier than the sword. But I found that when I was challenged to a fight after school, action spoke louder than words. (Having said that, a guy once stabbed me in the arm with a pen.)
  • I’ve never been sure whether I should look before I leap or hesitate and lose all.
  • What do you declare to the IRS when you have “negative income?” (I used to have “passive” income. Now I have “indifferent” income.)
  • I used to write a column for Comstock’s Magazine called “Working Lunch” for which I interviewed captains and even ensigns of industry. I never proposed changing its title to the oxymoronic “Working Vacation.”
  • When apologizing for something, why do we say, “I clearly misunderstood.” If you’d been clear, you wouldn’t have mis—oh, never mind.
  • Have you ever told a contractor you want an “exact estimate” of what a job will cost?
  • At what point does a takeover become friendly and a company’s layoff policy compassionate?
  • In Sacramento, my home since 1976, City Hall re-designed a skein of downtown streets so that there were Bott stops and bollocks that stopped you and made you turn onto other streets since yours had just gone one-way in the opposite direction. They called this the Traffic Calming Program. No one I’ve ever met experienced calm as a result of this idiot’s delight.
Looking for a Great Gift?
  • Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. However, better safe than sorry. ‘kay.
  • If you want something done right, do it yourself. And yet, if two heads are better than one, perhaps you should grow another head.
  • If the only thing that’s constant is change, who do we also contend that the more things change, the more they stay the same?
  • And finally, while I’ve harped on this before, at what point does “planning” require “pre-planning?” After all, there’s no post-hindsight. If there were, you’d have been able to avoid reading today’s column. Or at least given it short shrift.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).