Vocabulary Quiz #4: Idiomatic Expressions

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Each of these sentences includes an erroneous version of an idiomatic expression based on misunderstanding of the phrase’s meaning. Revise each sentence by using the expression’s standard form.

1. His resignation played a factor in the controversy.

2. She’s simply grasping for straws.

3. His compliment was a real boost in the arm for my confidence.

4. With all do respect, I disagree.

5. That description fits you to a tee.

Answers and Explanations

Original: His resignation played a factor in the controversy.
Correct : His resignation was a factor in the controversy.
Alterna.: His resignation played a role in the controversy.

An action can play a role regarding another action, or it can be a factor, but “played a factor” is a mixed metaphor.

Original: She’s simply grasping for straws.
Correct : She’s simply grasping at straws.

This expression means that one is making a desperate attempt as if trying to get a hold on something substantial but ending up with only straws in one’s hands, not that one is trying to get a hold on straws.

Original: His compliment was a real boost in the arm for my confidence.
Correct : His compliment was a real shot in the arm for my confidence.

One can get a boost from a shot in the arm (if the injection provides energy), but “boost in the arm” doesn’t make sense.

Original: With all do respect, I disagree.
Correct : With all due respect, I disagree.

This expression refers to respect that is due, not “doing” respect, in the sense of demonstrating it.

Original: That description fits you to a tee.
Correct : That description fits you to a T.

This expression, whose origin is uncertain, refers to the letter T (or perhaps something with that shape), not to the spike on which a golf ball is placed or anything else spelled tee.

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9 thoughts on “Vocabulary Quiz #4: Idiomatic Expressions”

  1. Number two struck a chord with me to the extent that I went in search of its origin. The search, with stops in the years 1748 and 1534, ended in 1143. To wit:

    A drowning man will catch at a straw, the proverb well says. ― Samuel Richardson, _Clarissa_ (1748)

    But this will I here say, that I learned of St. Bernard : He that in tribulation turneth himself unto worldly vanities, to get help and comfort by them, fareth like a man that in peril of drowning catcheth whatsoever cometh next to hand, and that holdeth he fast, be it never so simple a stick ; but then that helpeth him not, for that stick he draweth down under the water with him, and there lie they drowned both together. ― Sir Thomas More, _A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation_ (1553)

    To whom shall we liken the men of this generation, whom we see unable to separate themselves, or to be separated, from worldly and fleshly pleasures? They are like people plunged into deep waters and struggling for life. See how they catch at everything that comes near them, though it is but a stick or a straw, and hold it fast, though it cannot be of the least use to them ; and if anyone swims to their help, they will frequently seize them in such a grasp as to drown them with themselves. ― Bernard of Clairvaux (1143)

  2. Some manglings are classic:

    “That was the camel that broke my straw back!”
    – H. Simpson (?)

    “De Nile isn’t the only Queen Cleopatra!”
    – anonymous

  3. Venqax, you were “so close” to these:
    “Denial is a river in Egypt!” and “A river in Egypt is denial (De Nile).”

  4. Some people say “in other words.”
    My father used to continually say “in nother words” or “e nother words”.
    This one is also said “In Noether words,” where Emmy Noether was a great Jewish female mathematician in Germany. She left Nazi Germany in 1934 or 35 to come to America, settling at Bryn Mawr College, a Jewish women’s college in New Jersey, which was the only place that would hire her**.
    Then to make things the worst, some people say, “In no words,” which is completely and totally incorrect.
    A great mathematician like Dr. Noether should have been hired by a university like CalTech, Columbia, GWU, Harvard, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, MIT, Ohio State, Penn State, Princeton, Rutgers, or Yale.
    **Dr. Noether was fighting against both sexism and anti-Semitism in the United States, as was Maria Goeppert Mayer, a physicist who also fled from Nazi Germany. (She married an American chemist who had been studying in Gottingen, and they wisely decided to come HERE.) Dr. Noether died before WW II started, but during the war most of that sexism and anti-Semitism disappeared because America needed all the help that it could get in the Manhattan Project, radar, sonar, radio communications, codebreaking, etc. Dr. Goeppert Mayer spent most of the war working on the Manhattan Project at the Argonne Laboratory near Chicago. Late on, she won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1959 while she and her husband were living in San Diego.

  5. DAW: The sayings they reach for are “De Nile is not just a river in Egypt” and “Cleopatra wasn’t the only Queen of De Nile.” It’s funny because in their manglo-mingling of the two the “idiom” becomes completely meaningless. Similar to, “A stitch in time is a penny earned”.

    Bryn Mawr is in Pennsylvania, BTW, In Bryn Mawr, PA specifically, west of Philadelphia. Not too far from the Jersey border.

  6. Oh, well, the point it the intense kind of sexism and antisemitism that well-educated people in America used to face, and then it was quadrupled for women like Dr. Noether and Dr. Goeppert Mayer.
    I have also read of a pair of Jewish American brothers, both with Ph.D.s in physics, in 1939-41 or so, who were running A LAUNDRY together due to lack of employment elsewhere. Then along came the Manhattan Project. Others got work in radar, sonar, and radio communications.
    I have read of a graduate school in mathematics that had a quota in its Ph.D. program: ONE Jewish graduate student at a time. If he took four years to complete his Ph.D., or to drop out, then so be it.

  7. I always thought that sayings like “De Nile is a river in Egypt,” were just meant for humor anyway. Thus, you can twist them around any way that you want to, as long as they bring humor.

  8. Dr. Noether was unmarried, and as a lone immigrant to America, she had no family here. While she was a Bryn Mawr College, she got sick one November. Her doctor told her that she needed surgery, so she arranged to have this done during the break between semesters that December & January. She did not tell anyone about this, and not even her department head at Bryn Mawr. Then she died during surgery. Her doctor never did tell anyone, so we have no idea of what her illness was or why she died so suddenly. This happened in about 1936, and maybe she went to New Jersey for her operation, though there have been a lot of great hospitals in Philadelphia.

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