Idioms Gallery
Blog archive at the bottom of the page.

Language Gallery by Sharon Hahn Darlin

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.

一場春夢 ephemeral dream

一 (one) 場 (field) 春 (spring) 夢 (dream)

南柯一夢 also means an ephemeral dream, and it comes from the story of a man who took a short nap by a tree, dreamed of a flamboyant, prosperous life spanning several decades, only to wake up and discover that he was one of the ants living on the tree branch.

(south) (branch) (one) (dream)

Ma fleur est éphémère...
My flower is ephemeral, said the little prince.


The following are also taken from The Little Prince, but it's quite possible these are not merely ephemeral but lasting truths.

Tu deviens responsable pour toujours de ce que tu as apprivoisé. Tu es responsable de ta rose...
You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose.

C'est le temps que tu as perdu pour ta rose qui fait ta rose si importante.
It is the time you have spent for your rose that makes your rose so important.

Sep 15, 2008

傾家破産 bankruptcy

傾 (tilt) 家 (house) 破 (ruin) 産 (property)

破産 is the word for
傾家破産 is (a bit arcane expression for)
bankruptcy of the entire household.

I believe it's healthy to let things fail.
I believe in new growth.

"A Hellacious Hurricane Hits Lehma
n Brothers." -- Barron's

"It was a brave decision."
-Financial Times

"For all the drama of the weekend, these were the first steps -- but far from the last -- in finding a fundamentally new architecture for the financial world. The titans of Wall Street have, over the past 72 hours, been forced to reckon with the reality that the financial sector they built is, in its current form, too big, uses too much borrowed money and creates too much risk for the broader economy." -- The Washington Post

"The latest drama surrounding Lehman Brothers has noticeably failed to whip up much interest from sovereign wealth funds. Although state-owned Korea Development Bank was initially interested in scooping up the brokerage, the risks were too much even for a firm backed by the South Korean government. And the sale of Merrill Lynch to Bank of America showed that even the presence of Singaporean sovereign fund Temasek--which owns 14.0% of Merrill--could not guarantee a happy ending." -- Forbes

graphic: Michel Balasis

Sep 14, 2008

安貧樂道 happiness despite poverty

安 (peaceful) 貧 (poor) 樂 (happy) 道 (way)

It seems so clear, yet when it comes to money, people are conflicted on their way to beatitude.


"Anybody who thinks money will make you happy, hasn't got money." -- David Geffen


"People who grow rich almost always improve their sex life. More people want to have sex with them. That’s just the way human beings work. Money is power. Power is an aphrodisiac. Money did not make me happy. But it definitely improved my sex life." -- Felix Dennis


The following passage is slightly modified from Pico Iyer's article in Time magazine.

Long before "positive psychology" became a boom in the West, King Jigme (King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, King of Bhutan) suggested that nations be measured by "gross national happiness"; the rich are not always happy, after all, while the happy generally consider themselves rich.


"If we agree that the bottom line of life is happiness, not success, then it makes perfect sense to say that it is the journey that counts, not reaching the destination." - Mihály Csíkszentmihályi


"Blessed are the poor; for they shall inherit the earth.
Better to be poor than b
e a fat man in the eye of a needle." -- Sting

刻畵無鹽 lipstick on a pig

刻 (carve) 畵 (paint) 無 (nothing) 鹽 (salt)

無鹽, Wuyan ("salt-free") was a smart woman who badly wanted to serve in the Qi dynasty imperial court. Alas, she was noted for her exceedingly plain looks. She was eventually spotted by the king under the dim moonlight and became a concubine. Some claim she went on to become a queen, the Ugly Queen.

刻畵無鹽 indicates the futility of comparing fundamentally disparate entities. Some could never hope to be a beauty no matter how much cosmetic makeover she attempts. "However much paint and fix-up, still a Wuyan."


"Yeah, politicians today are all lining up to attack Obama's comment about putting lipstick on a pig. That's right. President Bush called the remarks outrageous. Dick Cheney called them over the line. Joe Lieberman said they're not kosher." --Conan O'Brien


"President Bush now has been drawn into this controversy. But again, you see, I don't think President Bush really understands the issue. Like he said, 'What people do in private is their business, as long as they don't marry the pig.'" --Jay Leno


"Oh, and she's got jokes. She said, 'what's the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.' Also, you can neuter a pitbull." -- Bill Maher.

Sep 12, 2008

美辭麗句 belles lettres

美 (beauty) 辭 (express) 麗 (fine) 句 (phrase)

Such a pretty concept, and yes, it may very well sound as frivolous(?) as "chi-chi boutiques".

This is the age of mass consensus, the age of the hard-working man. Belles lettres can be used to subordinate the pursuit of pure beauty and the sublime, although the subtle mockery is often lost on the earnest denizens of the Orient.

In any case, certain amount of guilt and embarrassment now accompanies cultivation of style and finesse, even when we have the means to pursue it, and a facile way of approaching it seems to be parody and satire.

I wish we could never be ashamed of our belletristic quests. We should not try to disown the more exquisite exploits of our litterae humaniores.

Sep 11, 2008

倒行逆施 against the tide of history

倒 (invert) 行 (do) 逆 (oppose) 施 (bestow)

The world spends way too much time and energy, post-9/11, arguing over arbitrary borders,
demarcations, partitions, barriers, fences, walls.

Will the day ever come when a presidential candidate could proclaim, "there is not a liberal Earth and a conservative Earth -- there is the United States of Earth. There is not a Black Earth and a White Earth and Latino Earth and Asian Earth -- there's the United States of Earth."

倒行逆施 is normally used in the negative sense - for chastising the reversal of the natural or "proper" flow of things.

With pigheaded idealism and forgetfulness of history, I ask, so, what do you mean by natural and proper?

In the topsy-turvy world of Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad's black is good and true, and white is evil and false.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Or vice versa. If there are such things as good and evil.

Sep 8, 2008

着眼大局 着手小局 look far ahead, then take small steps

着 (move) 眼 (eye) 大 (big) 局 (situation)
着 (move) 手 (hand) 小 (small) 局 (position)

It is often quoted during Go (
囲碁, 바둑, 圍棋), an ancient board game.

Read the big picture, give it some distance, assess the whole situation correctly with clear eyes, and then take small careful steps to accomplish your eventual goal. One tiny, successful, sure step at a time.

Mr. Carlyle might have had a slightly different take on our undertaking:

"Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance but to do what lies clearly at hand." - Thomas Carlyle

That sounds myopic. In any case, good luck with what lies clearly at hand.

先公後私 for the public good

先 (first) 公 (public) 後 (later) 私 (private)

"I have nothing but contempt for the kind of governor who is afraid, for whatever reason, to follow the course that he knows is best for the State; and as for the man who sets private friendship above the public welfare - I have no use for him either.
" - Sophocles

"Nearly all legislation involves a weighing of public needs as against private desires; and likewise a weighing of relative social values.
" - Louis D. Brandeis

"I made my mistakes, but in all my years of public life, I have never profited from public service. I've earned every cent. And in all of my years in public life I have never obstructed justice. And I think, too, that I can say that in my years of public life that I welcome this kind of examination because people have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook. I've earned everything I've got.
" - Richard M. Nixon

Sep 3, 2008

矛盾撞着 contradiction

矛(spear) 盾 (shield) 撞 (collide) 着 (settle)

A vendor is trying to hawk invincible spears and shields at the same time. In praising both items -spears which would pierce any shield and shields which would block any spear- he is presented with this paradox, "what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?"

These entities cannot exist in the same universe.

With such a vivid image, 矛盾 (spear-shield) has become a commonly used word meaning

Isn't it incomparably awesome?

(自家撞着 is used to note self-contradiction)

Sep 1, 2008

龍頭蛇尾 strong start, feeble finish

龍 (dragon) 頭 (head) 蛇 (snake) 尾 (tail)

So, is it "the mother of all storms" as the New Orleans Mayor warned his citizens it was going to be? Predicted by some to be bigger than the destructive Category 5 Hurricane Katrina, "mighty" Hurricane Gustav has fizzled to a mere Category 1 storm.

For the
residents who picked up and left, well, forced evacuation was all for naught, it seems.

徒勞無功 (all for naught).

(submit) (labor) (nothing) (achieve)