I was talking to a friend last weekend about her job as a physiotherapist. She’s worked at the same practice for a few years and was complaining about the high staff turnover (Personalfluktuation) she’d seen recently.
As she’s now one of the most senior (dienstälteste) therapists, she is responsible for training her new colleagues. The trouble is, every month colleagues come and go, and the time she’s spent training is time taken away from her patients!
It’s a classic case of: „If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.“
The idea behind this idiom is simple: if you want highly-motivated and loyal staff, you’ve got to be prepared to shell out (blechen) for it!
The closest German equivalent to „paying peanuts and getting monkeys“ is „Wer billig kauft, kauft zweimal“, although this saying has more to do with consumerism and less to do with payroll!
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.
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!
A conversation among colleagues at lunch:
Dave, are you coming with us to the new gallery after work today?
Oh no! I forgot about that, Abby. I’ll have to take a rain check.
Could we go next week instead?
Well, today’s the opening, so Tom and I will go anyway. But we’ll tell you if it’s worth it!
In this context, to take a rain check means so much as „etwas auf ein andermal verschieben“, it’s just a much more idiomatic way of explaining it than the German equivalent!
This is a rain check:
It used to be sold to spectators at a baseball game when rain or other bad weather stopped play completely, and allowed them to return on another night and watch another game. You might be surprised that the whole game was stopped because of a little rain, because soccer players and other athletes play in some pretty extreme weather.
However, in baseball, the condition of the sandy diamond is very important for play. If it becomes too wet, players running could slip and injure themselves. Therefore, the risk of stopped play becomes very high when the weather is bad. Rain checks became popular in the beginning of the 20th century, mostly because they prevented stadium operators from losing income generated by ticket and food or drink sales during extended periods of bad weather.
Nowadays, we use the phrase to take a rain check to postpone any plans that we’ve made but can’t attend.
Also, don’t be surprised if you see more posts about idioms that have their roots in baseball over the next several weeks. April is the traditional beginning of the baseball season and the sport has given speakers of American English many idioms that are often used in a business setting.
Today’s idiom is best used when gossipping (plaudern) with colleagues, as in:
„Did you hear about the Creative Director? He came into the office late today, smelling of alcohol. About three hours later, his secretary went into his office and and caught him red-handed (kalt erwischt) taking a nap! He had been sleeping the whole morning!“
This idiom has its roots in Scotland from the 1400s and most likely refers to killers, either murderers or poachers (Wilderer) who were found with the blood of their victims on their hands. Today, the idiom has become far less gruesome and we use it to mean being caught in the act of doing something wrong, even if it’s something „harmless“ like sneaking the last piece of chocolate that your wife wanted to eat…
We’re standing in a German discount supermarket on the 31st of December. The store is full; the people have that special panicked look on their faces that you only see before a public holiday. Young men and boys are gathered under a large sign advertising fireworks and filling their bags to the brim with consumer explosives. The fireworks are selling like hotcakes (wie warme Semmel gehen). The metal bin underneath the fireworks sign is soon empty.
This idiom has its roots in American English (AE) from the second half of the 19th century, when it was more commonplace to buy bake goods from a church bake sale than today. A hotcake is an older AE term for a pancake, and who doesn’t love a good stack of pancakes, especially when they are hot? The idiom also makes it clear that the seller doesn’t have to do much of anything to get rid of the goods once they are on sale- everyone wants to buy hotcakes while they are still hot.
Also- for those of you who have only ever eaten the flat, European-style pancakes- here’s an easy recipe I like to use for fluffy, American-style „hotcakes.“ I substitute the baking powder for baking soda (Natron) in equal amounts. It would be perfect for one of those post- Christmas mornings when your whole family is at home for breakfast and very hungry. Enjoy, and happy holidays!
Almost every week, you’ve been accustomed to seeing the Lingua Franca blog take a closer look at one specific idiom- what its history is and what (roughly) its German counterpart could be. Now, you’re up to bat! Take the OxfordWords quiz on American English idioms and let us know in the comments if you were surprised by the meanings (or curious of the use) of these ten interesting idioms…
My company is trying hard to save money. In one attempt to cut costs, we outsourced our IT department to an overseas service provider. But we have had to spend so much time explaining every little detail and dealing with language problems. In the end, it costs us as much as we saved by moving the IT staff off our payroll. It’s swings and roundabouts (gehupft wie gesprungen), really.
This common British idiom comes from the longer phrase: „What you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts“ and is based on a poem by Irish writer Patrick Reginald Chalmers. It conjures the image of two fairground rides – the roundabout (similar to a carousel) and the swing. Both move without any actual change in location, they return to where they started. This image now stands for losses balanced by gains.
I used to smoke 30 cigarettes a day. But when I got sick last winter I decided enough was enough. I stopped smoking overnight and haven’t had a cigarette since. It doesn’t work for everyone, but going cold turkey (kalter Entzug, abrupt) was the best way for me to quit.
This American idiom comes from the earliest 20th century, when it had quite a different meaning. Back then, talking cold turkey meant to talk in a direct and no-nonsense way, i.e. not beating around the bush. From there, we got the cold turkey way of quitting drugs or alcohol: no special program, just simply stopping. In modern English, this is the meaning we kept. Although talking turkey still means speaking in a direct and unprepared way.
We took our new Japanese clients out for a large dinner last night. Because I studied Japanese for 2 years at high-school, it was decided I should make a speech in Japanese after the meal. I was very nervous about it, but fortunately the four glasses of wine I had with dinner gave me all the dutch courage (angetrunkener Mut) I needed.
The most common explanation for this idiom dates back to the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th and 18th centuries. English soldiers claimed that Dutch soldiers needed to drink gin (invented by the Dutch) to give them enough courage to fight. In this sense the term is rather racist, suggesting that the Dutch would only show up for wars if they were drunk.