Idioms Gallery
Blog archive at the bottom of the page.

Language Gallery by Sharon Hahn Darlin

Dec 29, 2008

井底之蛙 frog in a well

井 (well) 底 (under) 之 ('s) 蛙 (frog)

How small is your world view?

Once upon a time, there lived a little frog who was extremely proud of his little world. As far as he was concerned, there was nothing bigger than his little kingdom. He refused to acknowledge there was a whole wide world outside of his little well. (Or the World Wide Web, for that matter.)

That's actually very sweet.

Well, unfortunately, there IS a big world out there.

In fact, we are all frogs in a little well called Earth, you see.
Shall we ask the bigger frogs on, say, the planet Gliese 581 c?

Dec 23, 2008

喋喋不休 incessant twitter

喋 (twitter) 喋 (twitter) 不 (not) 休 (rest)

It certainly has become an age of Twitter.

Non-stop chatter, babble, chirp, twitter.

It is unlikely we will turn back the clock, so we shall do our best to make it an age of weighty, succinct, thought-provoking twitter.

And... isn't that twitter-worthy? (No?)

喋 喋 喋 喋 喋 喋

(Sorry... I'll give it a rest.)

債多不愁 too much debt, so, no worries

債 (debt) 多(much) 不 (not) 愁 (worry)

Too big to fail?
Too many people in the same boat?

What's happened to responsibility?

False hope is insidious. If you nurture that vague hope that someone is somehow going to rescue you, it leads to one's sense of entitlement.

Do we really want to live in a topsy-turvy world where 債多不愁 is actually true?

You incur debt, you pay back that debt.


Dec 22, 2008

風前之塵 dust in the wind

風 (wind) 前 (before) 之 (') 塵 (dust)



風 (wind) 中 (midst) 之 (') 塵 (dust)

I close my eyes, only for a moment, and the moment's gone
All my dreams, pass before my eyes, a curiosity
Dust in the wind, all they are is dust in the wind.
Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do, crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see

Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind

Don't hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away, and all your money won't another minute buy.

Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind
Dust in the wind, everything is dust in the wind.


Dec 21, 2008

芝蘭之交 noble friendship

芝 (herb) 蘭 (orchid) 之 ('s) 交 (association)

A profusion of fragrance accompanies fine friendships.

("immortal fungus" or "spiritual mushroom", Ganoderma lucidum) is revered in the East, and so is orchid.

Do you think such we-are-not-worthy friends are easy to come by?

True friends with whom you may dare to be yourself?

水 (water) 魚 (fish) 之 ('s) 交 (association)

Ultimately, a friend you would die for?

刎 (decapitate) 頸 (neck) 之 ('s) 交 (association)

Dec 17, 2008

惻隱之心 heartfelt pity

Many visceral reasons you cry - the face of an abandoned puppy, a baby calling out for his mommy, little hungry faces in foreign lands and right here in America.

Something bad does randomly happen to good people, and you may find yourself feeling tender pity. Would you rather call it compassion? S
chadenfreude has no place here.
There are 4 perimeters (四端) of ethical feelings
that Mencius claimed resulted from our basic instincts. 仁 (benevolence), 義 (virtue), 禮 (rite), 知 (wisdom).
Some people call these predispositions "sprouts".
is an interesting character which can mean the beginning or the end, the clue or the reason, the sign or the solution, the onset or the limit. (Not quite the alpha and the omega). I am calling it the "perimeter" for now until I think of a better word.

1) 惻隱之心 sympathy for others' hardships
惻 (pity) 隱 (conceal) 之 ('s) 心 (heart)

2) 羞惡之心 embarrassed by one's own lack of rectitude and resentful of others' vice
羞 (embarrassment) 惡 (evil) 之 ('s) 心 (heart)

3) 辭讓之心 humility, willingness to yield
辭 (express) 讓 (concede) 之 ('s) 心 (heart)

4) 是非之心 knowing what's right and wrong
是 (right) 非 (wrong) 之 ('s) 心 (heart)
GM will be filing for bankruptcy, Chrysler is idling its plants for at least a month. What we feel is 惻隱之心, and perhaps all of the feelings above.

Let's hope for a spectacular rebirth.

photo from Cross Country Kitties

Dec 8, 2008

弱肉强食 survival of the fittest

弱 (weak) 肉 (meat) 强 (strong) 食 (feed)

Are we encouraging the survival of the weaklings?

"Corporate Darwinism for Big 3 Auto?

... Consider corporate Darwinism, natural selection, to allow the weakest to fail... "

Did Andrew Carnegie say this?

"Whether the law of competition be benign or not, we must say of it: It is here; we cannot evade it; no substitutes for it have been found; and while the law may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department.”

弱肉强食... + mix in a bit of humanity, and perhaps we'll be fine.

Nov 18, 2008

對牛彈琴 wasted effort

對 (before) 牛 (cow) 彈 (play) 琴 (piano)

can refer to other musical instruments, mostly string instruments

三角琴 grand piano

What do you suppose you are doing? Perhaps you are casting pearls before swine?

Shouldn't you save your zippy zithery music for a being who might relate to you?

Similarly, 牛耳讀經

牛 (cow) 耳 (ear) 讀 (read) 經 (classics)

Classics before cows? Or string theory. Your choice to waste.

Nov 17, 2008

飛蛾赴火 a moth to a flame

飛 (fly) 蛾 (moth) 赴 (approach) 火 (fire)


Thus hath the candle singd the moath...

A moth with a death wish.

“The construction trash was flying through the air in a surreal picture reminiscent of some eerie scene out of Poltergeist, drawn toward the fire by the vacuum, like the proverbial moth to the candle flame." - Santa Barbara Independent

Oct 13, 2008

錦衣玉食 luxurious lifestyle

錦 (silk) 衣 (apparel) 玉 (jade) 食 (food)

The Golden Gate Bridge constantly attracts quite a few show-offs. Sailing the San Francisco Bay last Saturday, among far less outrageously extravagant boats, was Tom Perkins' Maltese Falcon, "the longest privately owned sailboat in the world", while the blue sky was graced by a fleet of nine Canadian Snowbirds effortlessly zipping around, followed by the Blue Angels.

What do Snowbirds and Blue Angels have to do with 錦衣玉食? I am afraid I sneaked in a couple of potential MacGuffins, like Dashiell Hammett's
jewel-encrusted statuette, out of a certain reluctance to head to boring minutiae of luxury apparel and food.

Let's just say
( is king; add a dot, it's jade) in 玉食 refers to round beads, which might resemble glossy, plump, jewel-like grains.

Swathed in silk (rather, fancy synthetic fabric) this clipper yacht is born with several silver spoons in its mouth. Make that carbon fiber masts.

What's its gastronomic pleasure? It gulps huge amounts of air, but of course it does not run entirely by sails. It is a drinker, but let's be nice and call it a sipper, rather than a guzzler.

Now, the plot thickens. Will this falcon fly?

Oct 5, 2008

河流無聲* streams fall silent

*So I've decided to make this comment a full entry.
If is busy,
Here's the original translation on Facebook's PEN Poem Relay group.

"六月" ("June")
by Shi Tao (師濤)
-translation by Sharon Hahn Darlin

所有的日子 The days we own

都繞不過〈六月〉Do not surpass
六月, 我的心臟死了 June, my heart died
我的詩歌死了 My poetry died
我的戀人 My lover
也死在浪漫的血波裡 Also lay dea
d in rippling blood of romance

六月, 烈日燒開皮膚 June, scorching sun burns the skin open
露出傷口的真相 Exposes the truth in the wound
六月, 魚兒離開血紅的海水 June, young fish part the blood-red seawater
游向另一處冬眠之地 Migrate towa
rd another hibernating place
六月, 大地變形, 河流無聲 June, the great earth transforms, streams fall silent
成堆的信劄已無法送到死者手中 Heaps of letters cannot be delivered to the hands of the dead


河 (river) 流 (flow) 無 (nothing) 聲 (sound)

The simplified character for (nothing) =
The simplified character for (sound) =

Oct 3, 2008

响起春雷* reverberation / Of thunder of spring

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶/温家宝) happens to be a poet. (How cool is that?) Contrast Wen's optimistic use of 响起春雷 with;Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring
over distant mountains

-- T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (from "What the Thunder Said")
Unlike The Waste Land, this poem by the Chinese Premier is filled with earnest hope. I couldn't find a good translation, so this woefully inadequate version was done by yours truly.

I look up at the starry sky, it is vast and profound;

Its infinite truth compels my relentless search, pursuit.

I look up at the starry sky, it is dignified and blessed;

Such awe-inspiring justice, I'm filled with fervent love, with reverence.

I look up at the starry sky, it's so free, so tranquil;

Its immense bosom allows my spirit to nestle in repose.

I look up at the starry sky, it is magnificent, brilliant;


Its eternal radiance allows a blaze of hope in my heart, reverberation of spring thunder.

Sep 30, 2008

矯角殺牛 fix the horn and kill the bull

矯 (straighten) 角 (horn) 殺 (kill) 牛 (bull)

So you do end up burning the house to roast the pig, even if burning the house down is the last outcome you expected.

You notice a defect.
You want to fix the unsightly flaw immediately with a one-step remedy.
You don't think it through to get at tough medicine that should cure the fundamental problem.

Your simplistic prescription
ends up killing the animal. Needlessly.

You've killed the bull.


The simplified version of the character
(kill) is 杀.

Sep 24, 2008

蝸角之爭 petty squabble

蝸 (snail) 角 (horn) 之 ('s) 爭 (fight)

The Qi (齊) dynasty broke a pact made with the Wei (魏) dynasty, forcing angry Wei to consider a strike against Qi.

The wise advisors pled for peace.

"Your Highness, do you have any idea how vast the universe is?"

"I'd imagine it's rather vast."

"Do you see the tentacles move on these snails? There is a country on each of them. See this sickly one? The left tentacle went to war with the right tentacle, causing much bloodshed."

"What kind of nonsense is that?"

"As you imagined, Your Highness, the universe is vast beyond our comprehension. All the fights end up being petty."

The king, curiously calmed after hearing this strange story, looked at his own fingers, and lost any desire to go to war.

Sep 23, 2008

蓋世之才 enough talent to cover the world

蓋 (cover) 世 (world) 之 (of) 才 (talent)

"Tara Donovan Among 2008 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Winners

CHICAGO—The MacArthur Foundation has announced the 2008 recipients of its annual "genius grants." Among the 25 honorees are eight professionals in the arts, including the installation artist Tara Donovan; the remainder are scientists and researchers, as well as two physicians and one urban farmer."

Apparently, if you have enough space, hot glue, a bit of imagination and patience to fill up a room with styrofoam cups, plastic straws, toothpicks, paper plates, tape and buttons, you deserve a "genius" grant.

(photo courtesy of the New York Times)
I mean, her work is lovely and all.

There's not enough David Foster Wallaces
(1997 grant recipient) to go around, I guess.

"Is it essentially mimetic, to capture and order a protean reality? Or is it really supposed to be therapeutic in an Aristotelian sense?"

"Irony and cynicism were just what the U.S. hypocrisy of the fifties and sixties called for. That's what made the early postmodernists great artists."

"The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, then what do we do?"

"I don't seem to be able to call myself a writer. And terms like 'postmodernist' or 'surrealist' send me straight to the bathroom, I've got to tell you."

--David Foster Wallace, 1962 - 2008

Sep 22, 2008

以熱治熱 fight fire with fire

以 (with) 熱 (heat) 治 (rule) 熱 (heat)


Whatever happened to glorious, glorious, Persia?

"Iran ready to fight fire with fire -- Tehran Times

Iranian President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad warns that the country will harshly respond to any strike against its nuclear installations."

"A recent study, conducted by the Bipartisan Policy Center and prepared under the guidance of former senators Republican Daniel Coats and Democrat Charles Robb, concluded that a military strike against Iran’s nuclear sites is ‘a feasible option and must remain a last resort’ to halt Tehran’s nuclear development.

The study, however, warned that any strike against Iran ‘could quickly escalate to full-scale war’."

Skillful diplomacy is sorely needed.
How should we put out the fire?

Sep 21, 2008

竭澤而漁 kill the goose that lays the golden egg

竭 (drain) 澤 (pond) 而 (and) 漁 (fish)

Who would be foolish enough to drain the pond to get to the fish?


Newspapers Doomed? --Richard Posner, June 2008

The concern, in short, is that the Internet will kill the goose that lays the golden egg. But this is unlikely. If online viewers want the level of news and opinion that print reporters generate, the Internet news services will hire reporters, defraying the cost out of their online advertising revenues, which will be greater for an Internet news service that attracts additional viewers by offering them richer, newspaper-type fare. Indeed, long after newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post have ceased print publication, their Web sites may be among the leading Internet news services."

The blogs are a big factor here; in the aggregate, they not only are nimbler, but contain a vastly greater body of specialized knowledge, than the newspapers or other conventional media (as Dan Rather learned to his sorrow)."

What's this post, neither fish nor fowl?
Actually, it's just another kettle of fish for my dear readers :)

A more commonly used character for fish:

in (fish) just means
water, a different form of

not only means out of ,
in the as well.

Sep 20, 2008

走馬看山 scratch the surface

走 (run) 馬 (horse) 看 (see) 山 (mountain)

You are running a mile a minute. You are missing all the details. Mais le diable est dans les détails.

Often I turn the TV on and come across "breaking news", as it inevitably shows some burn
ing buildings, wreckage, something horrible straight out of a movie set. These images tend to affect me only when I have invested some time there, whether in person or in my imagination.

"A massive truck bomb destroyed much of Islamabad's most popular hotel this evening, killing at least 40 people, wounding at least 100 and leaving a crater more than 25 feet deep." -- ABC News

In my ideal world, news is preceded by a bit of orientation of the surrounding lands, especially when it happens to be one of the most beautiful places on this planet (equally appealing to lovers and terrorists) before it bombards me with claustrophobic, desensitizing images of carnage.

Sep 18, 2008

危機一髮 crisis in the making

危 (perilous) 機 (machine) 一 (one) 髮 (hair)

Imagine a situation where the entire machinery is hanging by one single hair. It might or might not come crashing down any second. You hold your breath.
危機 is THE famous word for crisis, "consisting of the characters for danger and opportunity".
Well, it's not entirely true, and it's not really false either. does indicate danger, and means "machinery" but it can also mean a "crossroad situation", a "chancy or risky moment".

"The financial crisis has turned the race between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama into an audition for who could best handle a national economic emergency." -- Finance Crisis Is Posing on-the-Fly Tests -- The New York Times

"Both candidates doubtless wish to tackle the crisis. But they cannot, since neither will be in charge until January and the crisis must be tackled immediately. So each is trying to sound as if he would knock some sense into Wall Street, while tut-tutting that the other fellow supported the policies that got America into this mess in the first place." -- The financial crisis and the election, The Economist

Perhaps it's just me, but I don't believe the current economic situation is that dire, 危機一髮 dire.