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  The Write Way 

Friday 1 June 2001

Making a Silk Purse ...



Ever heard that expression, making a silk purse from a sow's ear? Well, I can personally attest to the fact that it's possible. You should see our front garden now ... wow! Last week, I mentioned that we were having some work done and despite a couple of hiccups, it's turned out a treat!

After the paving was finished, we eagerly anticipated the arrival of the fencing contractor - the company rang to say he would be starting at 8.30 the next morning (three days earlier than expected).

Are you surprised to hear that 8.30 came and went without a sign of either fence or contractor? Of course you're not - you've done all this yourself, haven't you?

Come 10 o'clock I was getting a tad twitchy, so I rang to find out what was happening - just as the van pulled up outside - so I'd established my credentials as one of those "difficult" customers.

The fellow unloaded the fence and all his gear, got his natty little post-hole digger fired up, drove up and down over the remnants of our front verge, and all was right with the world.

For a few minutes.

It was the silence that first indicated that something was amiss - that and the face at my office window and the polite, "Yagoddaminit?" I was invited out to survey the problems posed by the footings of our original fence ... lurking just under the ground were two rows of bricks and a trough of cement 500 cm deep. This was no job for a post-hole digger ... this was a job for ... a jack-hammer.

An hour later, the jack-hammer arrived.

Of course by this time it was well and truly past time for Smoko ... and then we needed cement for the fence posts, which meant another trip to the landscape suppliers ... and then ... well, it was Friday and everyone knows that you knock off early on Fridays ... sigh.

He didn't return as promised on Saturday morning (things to do, people to see, places to go etc), but he did come back on Sunday morning to finish the jack-hammering ... and the fence.

Despite the hassles, our fencer was worth his salt. The fence looks great, the paving looks great and I've already spent most of our children's inheritance on some palms for the new garden!

It's a funny expression, isn't it? To say that someone "was worth his salt." It means to be competent in a given job. The following explanation of the origin of this expression comes from a terrific Idiom site I found here

Today salt is inexpensive and universally available, but that wasn't always the case. Salt has been a valuable commodity in many cultures throughout history.

Salt is sodium chloride. It can be obtained from mines or the oceans. Today salt is commonly mined from large deposits left by dried salt lakes. Modern mining and transportation methods have made salt an inexpensive commodity.

Salt is an effective food preservative and before refrigeration was widely available, the demand for salt as a preservative was much greater. The human body requires salt for the regulation of fluid balance. Salt used as a seasoning adds to the taste of many foods.

Because of salt's high value, it was used as a method of exchange. Roman soldiers received a salt allowance as part of their pay. In fact the word "salary" is derived from the Latin "salarium" meaning "of salt".

To say that someone is "worth his salt" is to say they have earned their pay.

Fascinating! I love finding out where these terms originate. Here are some more, from the same site; some of them are new to me (especially the "dead as a door nail" one.).

Back handed compliment - A compliment that also insults or puts down at the same time.

"They gave me a backhanded compliment when they said I was smart for a girl."

Back-handed is synonymous with left-handed. For example in tennis, a backhand stroke is a strike by a right-handed player from the left side of the body.

The left side of the body has always been deemed sinister. The Latin word for left is sinister. Hence, back-handed means round-about, indirect, or devious.

Bouched up - Substandard; messed up; make a shamble of

NB This has been corrupted to "botched up" and its derivative "bodgy job" for something that is sub-standard.

"Man, you really bouched up that project. Now the company will have to start all over, costing double and missing all of our deadlines."

Sir Thomas Bouch designed a bridge that was built at the Tay estuary at Dundee in Scotland. It was supposed to be the greatest structure built in Victorian Britain. The building of the Tay rail bridge culminated in him being knighted. The Tay bridge was nearly two miles long, consisting of 85 spans and at the time (1879) was the longest bridge in the world.

One stormy night, only 19 months after the bridge was declared safe by the Board of Trade and opened to traffic in the summer of 1878, the wind caused some of its spans to collapse. A train and 6 carriages and 75 souls were lost that night ranking it as the worst accident caused by structural failure in the history of England. Sir Thomas Bouch died only 10 months after the failure.

Can't hold a candle to - to be far less competent or have far less skills than someone else.

"When it comes to performance, Corvette can't hold a candle to Porsche."

Before electric lights, someone performing a task in the dark needed a helper to hold a candle to provide light while the task was performed. Much as a helper might hold a flashlight today.

Holding the candle is of course the less challenging role. Someone who is not even qualified to hold the candle is much less competent than the person performing the actual task.

Cold turkey - to quit something abruptly

"You will not lose weight until you give up chocolate, and I suggest you go cold turkey."

The expression originates from the goose bumps and palor which accompany withdrawal from narcotics or tobacco. One's skin resembles that of a plucked, cold turkey....

Dead as a door nail -to be dead, with no chance for recovery.

"You might as well junk that car, the engine is dead as a door nail."

Nails were once hand tooled and costly. When an aging cabin or barn was torn down the valuable nails would be salvaged so they could be reused in later construction.

When building a door however, carpenters often drove the nail through then bent it over the other end so it couldn't work its way out during the repeated opening and closing of the door. When it came time to salvage the building, these door nails were considered useless, or "dead" because of the way they were bent.


Now you can impress your friends at parties not just with your sparkling wit, but also with your erudition.

Apparently, last week's discussion of pavers raised a few eyebrows among US subscribers:

"In the US, a 'paver' would be one who paves (as opposed, I assume, to
 the material being used to pave). Imagine my chuckles when you
said, 'The pavers were to be laid "first thing Monday" ...' :> Lots of
Americans would love to sign up for that job!"

Terie Garrison (US)

And caused some eyes to roll heavenwards in sympathy: 

"Your garden story comes at the instant that the builders are (supposedly)
coming to renovate my newly rented premises to turn it into a bookshop.
"In any case, it has been two years of struggle in which there has been no
end of people coming around, looking things over and then, over a beverage
of one sort or another in the nearest local - my round, of course - tell me
why I cannot do what I want to do until a dozen other things are done first.

"One of those dozen things is always predicated by those doing what they are
doing not doing it.

"Many say that if I ran repeatedly against a wall using my head as a
battering ram, followed by emptying my wallet of its contents into the
toilet, I would achieve the same ends.

"It is nice to see someone else is an optimist in these ever so cynical
times. Things will be finished quite soon. We both know that, and we both
knew it some time ago, and having a flat crown to the head has its own

Frank Sirett (Canet de Mar, Spain)

Following a suggestion from Camilla, I've changed the format of the Never-Ending Story. Now you can read the entire sorry tale, from the beginning, on site, then click over to add your chapter. Each week, I'll transfer the latest entries to the website, so there'll be a logical (and I use the term loosely) development of the plot. It's certainly a rollicking story - even Elvis has made an appearance! 

The best part about this is that everyone who has contributed has kept to the spirit of the tale. When (not "if" but "when") you add to this, please remember to list your city/town and country - it's shaping up to be a very international affair. (You have the choice to put your email address / URL as well - this is entirely your decision.)

Feel free to make a contribution now.

This week's quiz:

Try matching these idioms with their meanings:

all thumbs act slowly or reluctantly
bite the hand that feeds one give something of great value
cold feet a hidden fault or weakness in an esteemed person
drag one's feet/heels clumsy, have difficulty fixing things or working with one's hands
feet of clay sell or give by trickery
give one's right arm go fast, hurry
grease one's palm turn against or hurt a helper or supporter, repay kindness with wrong
palm off obedient to someone, controlled by someone
shake a leg bribe someone
under one's thumb a loss of courage or nerve

After much painstaking research, I've discovered a little-known fact about artist, Vincent Van Gogh ... apparently he had many famous relatives:

Among them were:

His obnoxious brother, Please Gogh

His dizzy aunt, Verti Gogh

The brother who ate prunes, Gotta Gogh

The brother who worked at a convenience store, Stop'n Gogh

The grandfather from Yugoslavia, U. Gogh

The brother who bleached his clothes white, Hue Gogh

The cousin from Illinois, Chica Gogh

His magician uncle, Wherediddy Gogh

His Mexican cousin, Amee Gogh

The Mexican cousin's American half-brother, Grin Gogh

The nephew who drove a stagecoach, Wellsfar Gogh

The ballroom dancing aunt, Tan Gogh

The bird lover uncle, Flamin Gogh

His nephew, psychoanalyst E. Gogh

The fruit loving cousin, Man Gogh

An aunt who taught positive thinking, Wayto Gogh

The little bouncy nephew, Poe Gogh

A sister who loved disco, Go Gogh

His Italian uncle, Day Gogh

And his niece who travels the country in a van, Winnie Bay Gogh.

Bet you didn't know that, did you? (Thanks to Eric for sending these!)

Last week's quiz:

Try your hand at simplifying these expressions - choose the appropriate word from the list to express each of the terms below: optimistic, virtually, annoyed, promptly, consensus, opportunity, dread, humane, typical, defy, must, proves

cautiously optimistic optimistic
consensus of opinion consensus
fear and trembling dread
fly in the face of defy
for all intents and purposes virtually
goes to show proves
in a timely fashion promptly
it is imperative that must
kinder and gentler humane
par for the course typical
sick and tired annoyed
window of opportunity opportunity

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Word of the Week: Alektorophobia n. Fear of chickens

What can I say?

Tautology of the week: affluent rich ... is there any other kind? 

This week's Latin phrase ties in nicely with the Word of the Week:

Ad praesens ova cras pullis sunt meliora. (Eggs today are better than chickens tomorrow.)

ad prye-sens OH-wah kras POOl-is soont may-LEE-oh-rah.

And I have to apologise to all the purists for my humungous error in the pronunciation guide last week - Johnny was the first to spot it:

"I took a one year course Latin in high school. So I don't remember much, but
I think my teacher told me the "v" pronounce like a "w" in Latin. The word
"vivere" is supposed to read like "wiwere" (wi-WER-ray). Am I right or I
really slept through high school?:-)
Anyway, I love your newsletter.


I know it's no excuse to say that there are no Romans around to pick up the mistakes ... everyone has heard the phrase Vini, vedi, vici and knows that school children use it to describe their enemies as "weenie, weedy and weaky."

Last week's CORRECT-ish pronunciation guide:

Visne scire quod credam? Credo Elvem ipsum etiam vivere. (You know what I think? I think Elvis is alive.)

WIS-nay SKI-ray kwod KRAY-dam? KRAY-doh EL-wem IP-soom AY-tee-am wi-WER-ray.

P.S. It's not just V that doesn't exist in Latin; J and Y are also conspicuous by their absence.

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