Like a ton of bricks

I overheard a colleague tell a second colleague that a third colleague had told the first colleague that the third colleague was going to do something otherwise than by standard procedures. The first colleague then said:

If he does that, I’ll jump on him like a ton of bricks.

My first thought was that bricks don’t jump, even a ton of them. 

At home I first searched for jump ton bricks (without quotation marks), which found no exact uses of the expression in any form, but, not surprisingly, dictionary entries and uses of be/come (down) on sb like a ton of bricks, hit sb like a ton of bricks and jump down sb’s throat. Searching again for “jump on him like a ton of bricks” (with quotation marks for an exact match) found a small number of exact uses, as did most combinations with jumped, me, you, herit, us, them, someone and somebody. I was surprised to find that some people even jump on it like a ton of bricks. 

So I’ll say that jump on sb like a ton of bricks is used, just not very much. Pre-internet, would there have been any way of finding those? 

(Would anyone say “The wall came down on him like a ton of bricks”, or is that too literal?) 


It was cake

I recently discovered the blog Peaks and penguins, by a young Canadian/US couple who lived in South Korea for some years (and maybe still do). They chronicled their explorations of the mountains there, guided by the lists of 100 top mountains by the Korean Forest Service and a commercial hiking wear/gear manufacturer. (80 mountains appear on both lists and 20 are unique to each, so there’s 120 in total, which I think they explored all.) I am half disappointed that I spent so much of the time I was in Korea not exploring mountains and a quarter excited and a quarter daunted that there’s so much for me to do when I go there again (when, when, when?). And that’s just the mountains, not all the other things to do.

One of their early expeditions nearly ended badly: the weather changed, they were short on warm clothing and other provisions, and they lost their way. Fortunately they encountered a Korean hiking group who warmed them up and pointed them in the right direction. They wrote: 

Our descent was cake compared to our trials on the ridge.

Was cake, not was a piece of cake, which is an established idiom.

I haven’t been able to find any equivalent use of “was cake” (in quotation marks for exact match). There are sentences like When was cake first made?, We heard/were told there was cake and And then there was cake. But I can’t say that those bloggers are wrong; it’s very clear what they mean and is a natural shortening (<haha) of the idiom. Maybe people say it or write it in places Google can’t find.

According to Google Ngrams, is/was a piece of cake rose in usage in the mid-1970s. Without context, it’s impossible to tell how many occurrences before and after then were literal usages of the phrase, and how many were idiomatic. I had always assumed that it is/was a piece of cake was, in turn, a shortening of it is/was as easy as eating a piece of cake, but Ngrams shows no particular usage of as easy as eating.

Is/was a piece of cake seems to be used/usable in singular forms: My homework was a piece of cake, ?My exams were pieces of cake, My exams were a piece of cake

“four character reference letters”

A document referred to someone providing

four character reference letters

Microsoft Word’s grammar checker suggested changing that to

four-character references letters

Chengyu are traditional Chinese idiomatic expressions, most of which consist of four hanzi characters. A four-character reference letter might read:

To whom it may concern,
Fred is crouching tiger, hidden dragon
Yours sincerely,
A Manager 

chew/eat the carpet

A discussion on Language Log considered the expression chew/eat the carpet. One definition is, in the words of Oxford Reference, “to lose emotional control, to suffer a temper tantrum”. 

I got thinking about temper tantrum. I would say, simply, tantrum. Temper tantrum has always sounded redundant to me. What other kinds of tantra are there? It also sounds vaguely American. 

Google Ngrams shows that a tantrum is used about 2 to 6 times as often as a temper tantrum in British English, and about 2 to 3 times as often in American English. In other words, a tantrum is the number one choice, but a temper tantrum is a strong alternative, especially in American English. 

It also shows that temper tantrum sprang into being in 1916, and then increased in use in 1923. I can’t find any reason for this. A discussion on English Language and Usage Stack Exchange cites a psychiatric case at Johns Hopkins University in 1918, where it is rendered in scare quotes, which suggests it was new and unusual then. (That discussion is more about the word tantrum (origin unknown) than it is about the expression temper tantrum.)

The other kinds of noun tantra are toddler, morning and childhood ones, all of which have a minuscule usage compared with temper tantrum. (I’m being silly in using tantra as the plural of tantrum. Whatever its origin, it’s not Latin, so the plural is tantrums.)

hues and cries

A document quoted a witness saying that some people were making “hues and cries” in a certain situation. It’s usually make a hue and cry, but hues and cries is used just enough (Google Ngrams and a general Google search) to accept it as standard, if very rare. English has many (linguistic) Siamese twins: two words joined by and or or, which cannot be reversed. We can’t say a cry and hue. In some of these pairs, one word is archaic and is rarely or never used by itself. We can make a cry, but we can’t make a hue, at least not in this meaning. The colour-related hue is unrelated. One news source online deliberately mixes the meanings, talking about the colours of protests around the world.

Merry birthday

I have a friend who habitually writes ‘merry birthday’ on our mutual friends’ Facebook pages (and mine, when it comes around). There’s nothing grammatically or semantically wrong with ‘merry birthday’, but it just sounds so weird. An internet search returns approx 353,000,000 results for ‘happy birthday’ and 2,650,000 for ‘merry birthday’, so it’s by no means unknown, but used less than one percent as much as ‘happy birthday’. Some of those are references to people whose birthday falls near Christmas. (I know two people born on Christmas Day. One is named Christa. I also know a father and daughter born on leap day.)

Google Ngrams shows many results for ‘happy birthday’ and ‘merry Christmas’ (of course). ‘Happy Christmas’ is used about 1/6th as much as ‘merry Christmas’ but ‘merry birthday’ yields only one result.

In the course of my research, I found this short extract (from a movie I watched more than 20 years ago, but didn’t remember this scene). The Wikipedia page for the movie says that the song was written for this movie ‘to avoid potential licensing issues’ (ie paying royalties to Warner/Chappell, at the time – for more information, see here).

(For thoughts about the song in Korean, see here.)

(PS after I posted this, the friend wished me a ‘happy birthday’ this year.)


‘I see,’ said the blind man

Yesterday evening when I got off the train at my local station, an elderly couple, one with a guide dog and the other with a stick, got off the carriage in front of me and headed for the main exit in the middle of the platform, so I was just behind them. Another man with a stick got off the carriage two in front of me and headed towards the elevator or stairs at the rear of the platform. As he passed the couple, one of them recognised him and said hello. He obviously didn’t recognise them, so they said ‘It’s [Fred] and [Wilma]’. Then someone said ‘Long time, no see’ and they continued to chat as I passed them and continued on my way.

I know that many blind people have some residual sight, but I’m perplexed that someone with a dog or stick would be able to recognise someone on a moderately-lit station platform, or that someone who can recognise someone on a moderately-lit station platform would need a dog or stick.

I was (and still am) intrigued. How blind is blind? What residual sight do people have? Is it usual for blind people to be able to recognise someone on a moderately-lit station platform? I messaged a friend of mine who is blind and she didn’t seem even slightly surprised. (Sometimes, after a weekday evening choir practice, she says to me (or someone else) ‘See you on Sunday’.

(For more about ‘I see’, said the blind man, see here.)

dead or alive and alive or dead

The textbook introduced what it called ‘collocation: word pairs’, which were actually two words joined by and or or. As examples and an explanation, it said: “we always say ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ at the beginning of a speech, but never the other way round, and we always say ‘black and white’ not ‘white and black’. That’s simply not true, as Google Ngrams shows. ‘Gentlemen and ladies’ is used (though obviously much less than ‘ladies and gentlemen’) but Ngrams doesn’t show in which contexts. Similarly, ‘white and black’ is used (again, obviously much less than ‘black and white’). If I had written this textbook, I would have written ‘usually’ instead of ‘never’ and ‘always’.

The activity gave sixteen words in two groups of eight, with the ‘first’ and ‘second’ words being randomly placed in the two. My students had no trouble with matching the words, but the interesting discussion was about why English speakers usually put those words in that order.

The two groups were:

pepper bread ice thunder fork quiet bed forwards

knife peace lemon butter lightning salt breakfast backwards

Continue reading

in/on the street(s)

One reading in the textbook, on mega-cities, said that the people of Mexico City ‘live their lives in the street’. One student, obviously thinking about the homeless people around Sydney’s CBD, asked what that meant. The reading goes on to mention taco stands, people meeting and socialising, Mariachi bands and people of all ages dancing in the street. My usual question is ‘Is this a good things or a bad thing?’.

There may be distinctions between living life ‘in the street’, ‘in the streets’, ‘on the street’ and ‘on the streets’. Google Ngrams shows that those four are about equally used. It would be necessary to consult an appropriate corpus to find out which ones are more used to mean ‘party atmosphere’ and which ‘homelessness’ (among other meanings).