idiom 129 – „ace in the hole“

Today’s idiom is neither violent, nor bloody. It comes from the world of poker and is used in the following discussion between two  co-workers who are in the middle of some tough negotiations (Verhandlungen):


„Marion, I don’t know if we can get the seller to lower the price any more.“

„Why not? We’re the last company left in talks with these guys!“

„What? The other potential buyers pulled out?“

„Yeah – Robert was out for lunch today and overheard them talking. They’re done.“

„Well, that’s brilliant – why didn’t you tell me?“

„I wanted to leave that fact unknown for as long as possible. It’s our ace in the hole.“

In one form of poker, some of the cards are left face-down (ungedeckt) on the table. These cards are „in the hole.“ Imagine I have the hand shown above, and the ace is hidden. I have no idea that my hand will beat almost any other hand out there, and exactly that is the meaning of „ace in the hole“ – it’s any useful tactic or fact that remains hidden until it is used to the owner’s advantage.

In German, you would use the phrase „Ass im Ärmel,“ although that phrase suggests that playing the ace gives you an unfair advantage.

Idiom 128 – „in one fell swoop“

We’ll continue in our ad-hoc miniseries of idioms with violent origins but not so violent meanings. Allow me set the stage: it’s the end of the month in a small warehouse (Lager) and two co-workers are discussing what must be done in the next few hours:

„Marion, how far along are you in processing those orders that came in from yesterday?“

„I’ve finished more than half. How about you?“

„Well, I still have three aisles (Gänge) to check for the monthly inventory report.“

„Michael, you’ll never finish on time! What about today’s orders?“

„Oh, yeah, well… I guess I should stop doing inventory and get on that!“

„No, don’t bother. I’ll take care of them, and you check those three aisles.

Just finish the monthly inventory in one fell swoop (auf einem Schlag)!“

„You’re right, it’ll go faster that way! Thanks, Marion!“


Sometimes, multi-tasking is necessary. Incoming phone-calls, outgoing e-mails, filling out forms – the more we can do at the same time, the better! However, other times it makes more sense to do one task, from start to finish, all in one go. The task goes by faster and we can concentrate on it better if we do it in one fell swoop.

Today’s idiom should make you think of a bird of prey (Greifvogel) as it swoops, or dives down to catch it’s prey. The first time  in one fell swoop was widely used dates back to 1606, when William Shakespeare used it in his tragedy, Macbeth. Towards the end of the play, the Scottish King orders the killing of his rival’s family. When his rival, MacDuff, finds out his whole family has been killed, he uses several bird metaphors including „in one fell swoop“ to describe how brutal the act was.


Today, the phrase is mostly free of its violent and wild meaning.

We just use it to mean „all at once.“

Idiom 127 – to throw someone under the bus

Today’s idiom is a bit violent, maybe a bit bloody, but very descriptive. All the best idioms are, so pay attention and enjoy the gossip (Klatsch) :


„Why is Karl packing up his things? Has he been fired?“

„You haven’t heard? He’s running his own business on the side… Apparently, he and Michelle started back when we lost that big account in Hartford, three years ago. They picked up the business for a much lower price and have been delivering to the old customer ever since!“

„So how did the news get out?“

„Well, some people say that he was taking too much money, and Michelle got angry.“

„So she threw him under the bus?“

„It appears so…“


In this dialogue, two employees have apparently been caught doing business with former customers. For whatever reason, Michelle told on (petzen) her colleague Karl. When we tell on someone, or rat them out (another good idiom), we can also say that we’ve thrown them under the bus (jemandem in den Rücken fallen). You can imagine two good friends, waiting for the bus. The bus pulls up, and the one friend wants to get in the bus before the other and therefore throws the other friend into the street… maybe even to die! Not a pleasant image!

The origins of this idiom are unclear and even disputed (umstritten). Some give Cyndie Lauper the credit; others claim it comes from emplyees at a famous Mexican restaurant in Denver, Colorado in the 1980s; and still others say the phrase originally comes from the UK political scene even before that. A quick Google search will provide you with the details.


Idiom 126 – to hold a candle

We’re back! After a long, looooong break, it’s time to return to idiom blogging! Here we go:


Two co-workers, Andy and Bill, are talking about the newest member of their sales team, Caryn. She’s in her first week, doing  well, and both Andy and Bill are impressed.

„Hey Bill! How many cold calls did you make in your first week with us? 150, 200?“

„It was 184, and I only closed on 9 sales the whole week. How about you, Andy?“

„For me it was something like 130 calls, and I closed on something like 11 or 12 new customers.“

„How does Caryn do it? It’s Wednesday and she’s already made at least 25 new sales!“

„I dunno, but we can’t hold a candle to her! I hope our manager doesn’t notice…“

Caryn is  a much better saleswoman than Andy. Maybe it’s beginner’s luck or maybe she’s just good with her customers. Either way, she’s much better than either Bill or Andy, who can’t hold a candle to  (ihr das Wasser reichen) Caryn and her sales skills.

The phrase „can’t hold a candle to“ somebody comes from a time when apprentices (Lehrlinge) were expected only to provide light to the older, more experienced tradesmen (Handwerker). If an apprentice was so bad at their job that they couldn’t even hold a candle, then they were useless. We use this phrase to describe how much better someone else is at a skill or a job than we are.

Idiom 125 – off the hook

We had a new delivery of office supplies coming in at the end of week. It was so big, in fact, that I would have needed to re-arrange a lot of the current stock (Bestand) in the storage room.  But there wasn’t any time for that before the delivery; I had other work to finish, and I was getting worried about the time crunch.

Fortunately, our intern (Praktikant/-in) just finished another project and now has plenty of time to re-arrange the storage room. And just like that, I’m off the hook. 


We use this phrase to describe a situation in which we avoided (vermeiden) an unpleasant task, experience, or encounter. There was something we didn’t want to do;  that ’something‘ disappeared and now, we don’t have to do it anymore!

Off the hook is an angling or fishing idiom – a fish, which was „on the hook“ and facing certain death at the hands of the angler, is now free from the hook and back to swimming around happily.

In case you were wondering what we’d say in German, my best guess would be aus dem Schneider sein. I know that this phrase might have more to do with financial problems, but it’s probably the closest in terms of usage.


Thanks for reading this year and happy holidays! We’ll be back in 2017 with plenty more idioms, misused EU English, and other interesting blog entries!

Misused Words & Expressions in EU Publications – Entry #3 – „eventually“

I knew we’d eventually have to hit this point. Sooner or later, we would have to take a moment and think about the word eventual, which is a „false friend“ of the German word eventuell.

For example: this sentence uses the word in question correctly,

After looking for our friends in the park, we eventually found them near the rose garden. (=in the end)

whereas this one does not:

I’m afraid I won’t be home on time tonight, there is an eventual meeting that I should attend. (= potential)

Let’s see what Mr. Gardner has to say about this most misused of English words:

7) Eventual/eventually

Explanation: Eventual means “occurring at some unspecified time in the future”, eventually means “in the end”. However, in EU texts, these words are often used with a meaning akin to “possible” and “possibly”. Thus, the sentence “eventually, the beneficiary provided documentary evidence”, which the author intended to mean something like “if any documentary evidence were necessary/available, the beneficiary provided it”, actually means that it took the beneficiary a long time to do so. In the examples below, “eventual” is used to mean “possible”, whereas its actual meaning would be “in the long term”.

Examples: “They both opposed an eventual imposition of anti-dumping measures as they considered that it could lead to a cessation of imports of the product concerned from the PRC.” AND “The results thus obtained will be taken into consideration by the Commission with regard to an eventual new request for derogation.”

Alternatives: Possible, any, the possibility of. It may sometimes be better to rework the sentence (e.g. eventual claims should be sent to the paying office = if you wish to make a claim, please write to the paying office).

Exercises: Correct or not? You decide! Leave your answers in the comments!

  1. After many years of decreasing ticketing sales, the museum eventually closed.
  2. We would be pleased to answer any eventual questions you could have.
  3. Laura can’t make it to lunch today because her morning appointments are running eventually longer than planned.
  4. My sister wants to study graphic design, with an eventual  career goal in marketing.

Idiom 124 – to butter someone up

„Honestly, Alex, I don’t think that Harold in Purchasing

will like your new billing software concept too much.

You know how old fashioned he is…“

„I know; I’m a bit worried about his reaction myself.

Guess I’ll just have to butter him up.“

„How are you going to do that?

He doesn’t care about praise or anything like that.“

„Yeah, I know. But I heard he’s a big tennis fan and

my dad always gets extra U.S. Open tickets…“

„No way! That’s totally non-compliant!“

„But it might be helpful…“

In this extreme case, one employee wants to butter another colleague up (ihm Honig ums Maul schmieren) by bribing (bestechen) him with tickets to a tennis tournament. But to „butter someone up“ doesn’t always mean to do something illegal. Sometimes it just means doing favors or praising someone consistently, in order to get them to do what you want. It’s a form of persuasion (Überredungskunst) whereby you do something nice for someone, and they do something nice for you in return.

The origins of this metaphor are unclear. Some claim it comes from an ancient Hindu tradition of throwing balls of butter at statues of gods, in a form of sacrifice (Opfer bringen). Others believe that it is a metaphor comparing the physical act of smearing butter on bread to the metaphorical act of „smearing“ compliments on a person like butter. Or peanut butter. Or Nutella?

Misused Words & Expressions in EU Publications – Entry #2 – „to control“

Our second entry in the series on misuse of English in European Union documents take a look at a word that, in Germany, almost all English students and teachers love to hate: CONTROL.

How often have we read (or even written!) sentences that sound like this:

„I controlled your report, and I found a few mistakes.“

„After controlling the meeting minutes, I send them to participants.“

And even: „She was controlled in the tram today, and didn’t have a ticket.“

To non-German speakers, these sentences sound very, very authoritarian. That’s because control is something that comes from power. If you control someone, you force (zwingen!) them to do something!

With that in mind, here’s Jeremy Gardner’s entry on the word „control“ :


Explanation: To control does not usually mean to audit, check or verify and a control is not normally a check or an inspection.

Its most common meaning is “to exercise authoritative or dominating influence over; to direct”. Thus, if we say that “the [European] Commission controlled project X in the Member States”, we do not mean that the Commission audited it, but that the Commission ran it. In combination with a few other terms contained in this list, this misuse can end up sounding quite sinister (e.g. “the Commission’s contract agents were on a mission in the United Kingdom to control execution under Axis II’).

Used as a noun, we do not carry out or perform controls. Controls are more likely to be systems that are in place (passport controls, for example). Hence, we can say that the Court checked to see if the key controls were in place, but not that it carried out controls.

Furthermore, when talking about systems, the best term will often be safeguard. For example, „a number of safeguards are built into the system to ensure that funds are spent correctly“.

 Examples: „Administrative checks must be undertaken on all applications for support and payment claims, and cover all elements that are possible and appropriate to control by administrative means.“

„Apart from the annual review of the reference amount, customs authorities are not obliged to carry out controls after authorization.“

Alternatives: Audit, check, verify, inspect/inspection, safeguard.


Excercises: fill in the blank with the correct word: inspect, look, check, verify

  1. Did you ________ if the warning light is on?

  2. I always ________ the document for mistakes.

  3. After ________ the package for damage, she opened it.

  4. Please ________ whether or not you have activated your account.


Idiom 123 – under the weather

„Hey Nadine, can you mention something quick about the projected sales figures for 2017 in this afternoon’s meeting with the Budgeting Committee?“

„Sorry Alex, but I’m going home after I finish up this e-mail. I’m feeling under the weather and need some rest.“

„Oh no! Okay, then could you send me the figures? I guess I’ll have to do it…“

At this time of year, it’s easy to imagine what we we mean when we talk about feeling under the weather (nicht ganz auf der Höhe sein). We’re not feeling well, we might be getting sick, we might have even had a bit too much to drink the night before and haven’t quite recovered!

There are a few theories about where this idiom came from, and they are all nautical. The first theory stipulates that a ship’s log (Schiffstagebuch) included a column (Spalte) for sick crew members. When this column filled up during times of widespread illness, the names of all additional crew members were listed in the next column, which was often the column for weather. Thus, these sick crew members were listed „under the weather.“

The second theory explains that during times of poor weather and rough seas, crew members who were assigned watch duty on the „weather“ side of the ship, also known as the windward (or in German – Luv) side often became sick after their watch duty was over, as they had been constantly exposed to wind, rain and waves for the duration of their watch.

Which theory do you think makes more sense?

Misused English Words and Expressions in EU Publications – Entry #1 – „actual“

I might be preaching to the choir (offene Türen einrennen) here, but have any of you ever read EU publications and been totally baffled by what you read?

Here’s an example of what I mean: „Evaluating such a unique scheme is a particular challenge for all actors involved. Evaluation modalities have gone through significant changes over recent years“

An easier way to say this could be: „Evaluating this unique scheme is challenging to all involved parties, especially as the evaluation procedure has changed significantly in recent years.“ Does it make more sense now?

Fortunately, there’s an invaluable resource out there, for free, in digital format. It’s (quite descriptively) called Misused English Words & Expressions in EU Publications  and is authored by Jeremy Gardner, who works for the EU Court of Auditors. His website and the 59-page-long .pdf glossary of the misused words and expressions are available at:

I’ll be sharing some of the most useful (for non-EU-employed German speakers) entries from Mr. Gardner’s document, as well as adding a few exercises to each entry for you to try out. Leave your completed exercises, as well as any other thoughts about the Misused Words list in the comments! I’ll get back to you ASAP!



Here we go with:

1) Actual


“Actual” is sometimes used to refer to something that is happening now. However, in English it means “real” or “existing”. Sometimes, native speakers use the word informally to express surprise or give new (or more truthful) information, much like German speakers would use tatsächlich or eigentlich.

Authentic Example:

„This appropriation is intended to cover basic salaries of the staff, as listed in the attached table, based on the actual regulations and on the probable adjustments“. =aktuell

Alternatives: Current, present.

Further Examples of Correct Usage:  

„Dr. Herrmann isn’t in the office today. She’s actually in Cottbus, meeting with some project leaders.“ = tatsächlich

„Could you stop doing that and focus on your actual work instead?“ =eigentlich


Exercises: fill in the blank with the correct word – actual(ly), current(ly), present(ly)

  1. a) We’re all ___________ in the office. Nobody is on vacation.
  2. b) I don’t think that’s the ___________ problem. Henry just didn’t want to go into it.
  3. c) I don’t need to see the figures from the first quarter; I need the ___________ quarterly figures!
  4. d) Are you ___________ going to go to the Halloween party dressed as Donald Trump? You’re absolutely crazy!