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Idioms to Infinity

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  • When Jamie lost his job, he and Sharon had to put on hold their plans to buy a larger house.

Jamie and Sharon must wait to buy a larger house because they can’t afford it. They’re putting their plans on hold the way a person on the phone might put a caller on hold and thereby “ask” that person to wait. Another way to use “on hold” is in reference to a purchase. A person who puts something on hold at a store is asking the store staff to retain the item until such time in the future as the customer may decide to purchase it.  (A related expression is “hold on”, which can be used to tell someone to wait – “Hold on!” – or to indicate that someone is metaphorically retaining something, as in, “Out of sheer stubbornness, Bill held on to many old-fashioned ideas that his friends and family no longer subscribed to.”)

  • It’s hard to know where Tim’s real interests lie; he always has a lot of projects on the back burner.

The word “burner” refers to the heated part of a stovetop; it’s what you cook food on. A “back burner” is a burner at the back of a stove – typically, where food that takes awhile to cook (e.g. rice) is placed, while other, more fast-cooking foods (e.g. meats) are cooked on front burners. A person who has a lot of projects on the back burner has a lot of projects that are developing (cooking, becoming ready) but will not be ready immediately. In this case, the implication is that Tim is currently pursuing certain activities but may be developing other activities on the side that will eventually take precedence over those he is now involved with.

  • Noticing that the president of the company looked disappointed, the project manager reassured her that she would be more than satisfied once the new initiative was finally up and running.

The president of the company is not happy with the progress made on a particular project, which is not yet finished. The phrase “up and running” implies “set up” and “operating” or “working”. For instance, a machine that is fully assembled, or set up, runs or operates smoothly (or should). In this case, the project manager is reassuring the president of the company that she will be satisfied with the project in question once it is complete and operational.

  • Tina was always eager to restart old arguments, but Max was content to let bygones be bygones.

Something that is “bygone” belongs to the past. Tina is not content to move on from old arguments (and let them belong to the past). Max, on the other hand, recognizes old arguments for exactly what they are (old arguments, bygone) and, therefore, “lets bygones be bygones”.

  • The criminal justice system exists to ensure that criminals pay for their misdeeds.

The expression “pay for” is often used in reference to people who unfairly take advantage of other people or a system. The key here is take, as the logic of “pay for” is premised on the assumption that people should pay for what they take.

  • Manuel wanted to accept Liu’s invitation to get drinks after work, but he had to take a raincheck when his boss asked him to stay late.

Think of it this way: A friend asks you to play basketball on some nearby courts. You agree, but then it starts to rain. You tell your friend you’d love to go, but you don’t want to get your new shoes wet. You write your friend a note that says, “Good for one game of basketball at a later date.” You give the note to your friend, and the two of you agree to play hoops next week. In this story, you write your friend a note in the same way you would write a check (giving him the right, here, to a game, instead of cash; but observe that both the note and check hold out of the promise of something at a later date). The note (check) is written for a later date, because the rain made it undesirable to play right now. A raincheck is a promise to accept an invitation at a later date. Manuel can’t get drinks with Liu today, but by giving him a raincheck, he is promising to get drinks with Liu sometime.

  • Both casual and indecisive, Natalie and Carol often decided to play it by ear when they got together.

Natalie and Carol make up their plans as they go along, based on whatever sounds good at the moment. This is, in some ways, similar to improvising music – making up tunes according to whatever feels right at the time of playing.

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