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Posted by ESC on November 09, 2003

In Reply to: Anybody to help me out ? posted by pdianek on November 09, 2003

: : : Hello everyone,
: : : I am French, quite fluent in US English after 10 years spent in California. However, I am reading at this time Angels Flight from Michael Connelly, and there are some difficult expressions that I have a hard times to fully understand. Here they are :

: : : -Reach into the deck at any place and still pull the race card.
: : : -We really got our t i t in the wringer this time.
: : : -Those guys didn't do jack before getting the hook.
: : : -They back the tortoise before the hare any day of the week.
: : : -rank and file
: : : -it's your neck of the woods
: : : -sounds like a slam dunk

: : : Thanks for your help, Michael

: : I can help with some:

: : This is an example of a Fossil word in which an old meaning has been preserved in only one or two special sayings. Short shrift is another. In the case of neck the ancestor words in Old Breton (cnoch) and Old High German (hnack) both had a meaning of "hill" or "summit". This sense has been lost in all other uses of the word neck.

: : The tortoise and the hare is a fable, possibly Aesop, where the slow but steady tortoise beats the erractic hare in a race.

: : 'Rank and file' is military in origin, whereby the ordinary soldiers paraded in 'ranks and files'. A bit like columns and rows in a spreadsheet. Thus, ordinary people were charcterised as those that stood in these ranks, etc

: "Reach into the deck at any place and still pull the race card." I'm betting there's a misspelling here -- it would make a great deal more sense if the word were "f-a-c-e" card: reach into the deck of 52 playing cards and pull the face card (knave, queen or king) at any point -- and therefore have a better chance of winning. Also used, of course, metaphorically -- someone who's so lucky in life that they can turn a questionable situation into one that works well for them, quite easily.

: "Sounds like a slam dunk": a term from basketball. A slam dunk is an authoritative shot wherein the player, practically underneath the basket, jumps high and *shoves* the ball down through the net. So, off the court, a slam dunk is a move (in life) that makes it absolutely clear that the person has whatever they're trying.

: "We really got our t i t in the wringer this time": We really got into horrible trouble this time. A t i t is a teat (breast/nipple), and a wringer is the part of what is known as a wringer washer (old-fashioned washing machine) -- some were partly electric, but most manually operated. When the clothes were washed, the operator (my grandmother, in the past) would take a piece of clothing and feed it through the wringer, while turning a crank. The wringer (formed of two wooden rollers placed close together) would squeeze excess water from the article of clothing. (This predates the spin cycle on washers!) To get one's "t i t in the wringer" would obviously be incredibly painful...much as if it were caught in the rollers of a pasta machine, no?

: "Those guys didn't do jack before getting the hook": Those guys didn't do anything (work, pleading for mercy, whatever) before being fired. In old American theater, mainly vaudeville, a bad peformer was occasionally dragged off the stage by someone (unseen) in the wings, using a long wooden cane with a hook/crook (much like a shepherd's crook). "Jack" is short for "jack s h i t" -- meaning "absolutely nothing".

: Colorful language! -- hope this helps.

t i t s/t i t IN A WRINGER -- This expression is notable because it is what Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell said regarding Katharine Graham, The Washington Post publisher, regarding reported of the Watergate story. A wringer is a device on an old-fashioned washer that is used to wring water out of clothes. "The most famous incident of her dry imperturbability was when Carl Bernstein was asking Nixon's attorney-general John Mitchell whether he had control of the funds that financed the Watergate break-in. Mitchell informed Bernstein that, 'All that crap, it's all been denied. If you print that, Katie Graham will get her [obscenity deleted] caught in a wringer.' (Ben) Bradlee ran the quote in full in the paper, with the sole omission of the part of Graham's anatomy that was destined to be entangled. The next day, Mrs. Graham walked up to Bernstein's desk and asked, 'Carl, do you have any more messages for me?'"

NECK OF THE WOODS - From a previous discussion: "Neck" had been used in English since around 1555 to describe a narrow strip of land, usually surrounded by water, based on its resemblance to the neck of an animal. But the Americans were the first to apply "neck" to a narrow stand of woods or, more importantly, to a settlement located in a particular part of the woods. In a country then largely covered by forests, your "neck of the woods" was your home, the first American neighborhood.

RANK AND FILE - Also a labor term to mean the average worker/union member.

RACE CARD/FACE CARD - This could be a play on words. If you'll search under "race card" in the archives, you can access previous discussion including: PLAY THE RACE CARD -- "Safire's New Political Dictionary" by William Safire (Random House, New York, 1993) has a lengthy entry on "card metaphors" used by politicians. "Because of the play of power in card games, the metaphor has been applied to politics for centuries." Mr. Safire doesn't specifically mention "play the race card," but he writes about the use of a related phrase. "When President Carter's National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, picked up a term several Washington columnists were using in 1978 to describe the leverage on the Soviets of a move toward Peking, Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev charged that 'attempts are being made lately in the U.S.A., at a higher level and in a rather cynical form, to play the 'Chinese card' against the USSR.'"