Idioms Gallery
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Language Gallery by Sharon Hahn Darlin

Jul 7, 2010

三人成虎 "truth" in numbers

三 (three) 人 (people) 成 (attain) 虎 (tiger)

Do you remember this Psych 101 conformity experiment? You are shown 4 bars, and you're asked which among the three bars on the right corresponds most closely with the single bar on the left. First, you confidently answer A. When one of your classmates says it's B instead, you think, "he's crazy." When another one answers B again, you pause. When yet another answers B, you start doubting yourself. Then the entire class answers B, and you find it difficult to dispute unanimity. Even when the answer seems crystal clear.

In the story of 三人成虎, there was no tiger. Once upon a time, a worried adviser asked his gullible king whether he would believe it if someone told him a tiger walked into the market. Of course not, the king answered, there are no tigers around here. Well, all it took to sway him was three persuasive fibbers.

Will you be able to resist the truth in numbers?

Jul 6, 2010

密雲不雨 massive portent, unrealized

密 (dense) 雲 (cloud) 不 (not) 雨 (rain)

Dark clouds before rain usually sound ominous, foreboding. Why has rain ever become such a ne
gative word? Ask a farmer praying for it. He would be overjoyed at the sight of gathering rain clouds. Just when will it pour? It hasn't... yet. The clouds are getting fully saturated.

There is hope.
Any minute now.

Jul 5, 2010

亡羊補牢 never too late

亡 (lose) 羊 (sheep) 補 (mend) 牢 (pen)

So, your sheep runs away
owing, supposedly, to some shoddy construction.

What do you do?

Well, don't have a cow, man.
It doesn't spell utter futility, although some people choose to interpret it that way. A similar saying mocks you: fixing the barn after you lose your cow, or just closing the barn door after the cow is gone, why, that's pointless, pointless, pointless.

Really, what seems more foolish than setting out to repair your animal's abode after the ingrate vacates its premises?

Apparently, a lot of good can come out of it. A broken barn could prove to be a break instead.
In other words, you could certainly learn from your mistakes, build things better next time.
Yes, better late than never.


Check out the barn roof .
Under it lives a cow
. Neat!

一石二鳥 two birds with one stone

一 (one) 石 (stone)
二 (two)
鳥 (birds)

Yes, yes, I see the cost-effectiveness of this. But it has always struck me as a cruel idiom.

It appears as if this evil mischief was equally conjured up in the East as well as in the West. I actually don't care to know who thought of it first.

疾風勁草 integrity in adversity

疾 (ill) 風 (wind) 勁 (unyielding) 草 (grass)

The mightiest of mighty winds of this earth may try to break them, but some never do
. Many end up being defeated by just a few trying ordeals. What doesn't kill them makes them very strong grass indeed. Bona fide 疾風勁草.

小貪大失 trifling temptation at a great cost

小 (small) 貪 (desire) 大 (big) 失 (loss)

A la "penny-wise, pound-foolish", this is somewhat close to the feeling you have when you get a parking ticket after trying to save a few quarters. A student risks 小貪大失 when he fails to resist a party night before an all-important exam.

Like contestants on "
Deal or No Deal", people sometimes take a seemingly fair gamble, and sometimes, they win. The prize may not be theirs to begin with, but s
till, it's heartbreaking to watch someone lose everything, even when you have no initial sympathy for their irrational misjudgment.

梅林止渴 a stopgap measure

梅 (plum) 林 (woods) 止 (stop) 渴 (thirst)

Okay. Just a little bit of history. (Bonus fact: My grandmother's family name was
林, and I am partial to forests. Orchards, too.)


This goes back to Jin Dynasty, to an emperor with many names, who allegedly had ten thousand concubines. His rule was 265 - 290.

So anyway, he and his soldiers, on their way to attack Eastern Wu, got lost, wandered around for a while, and ran out of drinking water. So he came up with this bright white lie. "Dear troops, there should be plenty of plum trees that way, and the branches should be bearing plenty of tart fruit." Hearing this, enough saliva formed in the soldiers' mouths to last them long enough to reach their destination. Or so the tale goes.

Fantasy is sometimes used to (seemingly) satisfy an unreachable goal. And even a poor substitute can be surprisingly adequate. Temporarily.

photo by Sharon Hahn Darlin

李下瓜田 leave no room for scandal

李 (plum) 下 (below) 瓜 (melon) 田 (field)

Are you stealing a plum?
No, you are adjusting your hat under a plum tree.

Are you stealing a melon?
Of course not, you are bending down to adjust your shoelaces in a melon field.

Apparently, it's not enough that you have a clear conscience. You may need to be extra cautious sometimes since you may just end up taking the blame for something you have not done.

針小棒大 make a mountain out of a molehill


針 (pin) 小 (small) 棒 (pole) 大 (big)

Have you ever had a scary experience and wanted to show off? " wouldn't believe what happened to me last night... I was walking down this dark alley... "

For entertainment's sake, no one should blame you for turning a toothpick-sized pin into a large baseball bat.

異口同聲 with one voice

異 (different) 口 (mouth)
同 (same) 聲(sound)

Alternate version: 異口同音

Would it be uncontested unanimity?
Complete solidarity?
Forced consensus?
Mindless parroting?
Mocking parody?
Reluctant repetition?
Apathetic agreement?
Harmonious chorus?
Resonant echo?
Tautological iteration?
Collective wisdom?

Whatever it is, you are in concert.
Play me a true tune.

盲人摸象 you don't know the whole story

盲 (blind)
人 (man)
摸 (examine)
象 (elephant)

You are blind. And small.

One of you comes up to a large elephant and touches one of his legs.
Surely, this is a tree trunk!

One holds his squirmy trunk.
Surely, this is a mighty serpent!

One happens upon his ivory tusk.
So smooth, so sharp, surely, this is the latest technology!

Remember (lose) from 亡羊補牢 never too late?
Guess what might be.
You guessed it -

事必歸正 inevitable good ending

事 (event) 必 (must) 歸 (revert) 正 (right)

This is willful optimism.
That things are bound to end up being right, just, lawful, and good.

It's perhaps harder to imagine this scenario amid inevitable greed, inevitable
bubble, inevitable crash, inevitable debt, inevitable bailout, inevitable taxes, inevitable poverty, inevitable recession, inevitable war...

But there are also such things as inevitable bottom, inevitable recovery, inevitable growth, inevitable reward...

... inevitable justice, inevitable peace?

Ultimately, inevitable humanity.
Or else, the world will rightfully go to the dogs.