Monday, March 1, 2021

One Swallow Does Not Make A Summer (My Eng #6)

This is part of a running series about English idioms - less about language, more about life itself. Previously, we covered 'missing the woods for the trees', 'the elephant in the room', 'practising what you preach', blowing hot and cold' and 'no smoke without fire'.

On the last occasion, we explored on looking out for signs of impending crisis. So that we can brace ourselves in advance. Make the necessary preparations. Or take precautionary steps to avoid falling into the port-hole altogether.

And yet, we mustn't also be overly cautious. Paranoia can be paralysing. We can't be jumping at shadows (another idiom!). As much as need to be on guard against the unexpected, we can't get too ahead of ourselves and lose sight of the woods for the trees (this idiom already covered previously!).

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That's where the less-famous counter-idiom to 'no smoke without fire' come into play: one swallow does not make a swallow.

To non-avian lovers or non-science geeks, this idiom may seem rather cryptic. The starting point of comprehension is the migratory pattern of swallows - flying from one place to another over great cross-country expanse to seek out warmer climate as the chill of winter beckons. So when one see a flock of birds in the skies, it's often a reliable sign of the change of seasons.

But the idiom warns against making such presumptions too quickly. Seeing a single swallow does not necessarily mean that summer is coming. Maybe it got lost. Or cast away from its community (birds can be meanies too!). Or maybe it just got bored and brave enough to venture away far from home in search of adventure.

Everyday, our observant eye and social radar are trained to catch something amiss. People behaving strangely. A long silence when a response is required. And yet, there may be very simple explanations for irregularities. The person of whom you suspect of being wayward may simply be caught with something urgent, and uncontactable due to a dead phone battery.

* * *

In short, be careful not to jump to conclusions based on sketchy information.

Your co-worker habitually missing from his desk? Maybe his line of work requires him to be on site or out of office. Don't assume people are skiving simply because they're not visible.

Your boyfriend acting rather cold and detached whole week? Maybe he's just going through a tough time at work, and doesn't feel like talking about it. Don't assume that silence signifies guilt.

So next time you gaze into the skies and spot a lonely swallow, don't immediately panic. For one swallow does not make a summer. A single exceptional event does not mean that the entire sky is falling down.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

No Smoke Without Fire (MY Eng #5)

This is part of a running series about English idioms - less about language, more about life itself. Previously, we covered 'missing the woods for the trees', 'the elephant in the room', 'practising what you preach' and blowing hot and cold'.

You can see grey wisps. You can smell something burning. But you don't feel any real heat. Nor see any orange cloud. No reason to panic?

Of course not! Chances are, there's a fire raging somewhere, beyond your sight. Flee, you fool! Sound the alarm! Save yourself!

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When someone says that 'there's no smoke without fire', what they mean is that they sense something is going terribly wrong. They may not be sure exactly what, but they have a rough feel that something is out of place. Signs. Clues. Symptoms.

Take health. Your body feels warmer than usual. You're feeling lethargic. Mucus is flowing uncontrollably out of your nose. Most of us already know when the flu hits even before going to a doctor.

Of course, the phrase typically is used more in the social context. Problems at work. Relationship drama. Strain in a friendship. When someone behaves strangely. Or isn't quite the same person as before.

Also, it's easier to pick out hints off human behaviour. Lack of eye contact. Weak and unconvincing smile. A long outburst on Twitter. Emotions are hard to bottle up. Anger, sadness, happiness - they're all written on our faces.

* * *

To avoid being burned by human combustion, it's best to develop a good heat-detection system.

Loud noises coming from the bosses' office? Then better not bring up your long-awaited promotion during lunch later.

Your boyfriend's favourite football team lost a derby last night? Then better not bug him to go shopping later.

Ultimately, many conflicts can be easily avoided if we become more aware of our surroundings. Anticipate fire by the smell of smoke. Because there's no smoke without fire.


Thursday, February 11, 2021

Blowing Hot And Cold (MY Eng #4)

This is part of a running series about English idioms - less about language, more about life itself. Previously, we covered 'missing the woods for the trees', 'the elephant in the room' and 'practising what you preach'.

This one's a favourite among lawyers, especially in Malaysia. Not a day passes without the phrase being uttered in a courtroom or two. It's a strong play on emotions. It's a way to demonise the other side as the 'bad guy'. It's an ace up one's sleeves when the deck stacked is against you.

When played right, it's a killer winning argument. A game-ending knockout punch. Just as long you time it well of course.

* * *

Calling someone out as 'blowing hot and cold' is to accuse them of being inconsistent. Going back on their word. Contradicting their earlier position.

A simple example is when a seller promises to deliver something that you urgently need by next week and after paying for it, the seller says that the delivery can only made in a month's time. Or your boss verbally agreeing to let you off for an entire week from Christmas to New year, only to reject your leave application on the system. How rude!

Of course, sometimes people have good reasons to go back on their word. A change of circumstances. Force majeure. Assumptions that both parties once shared no longer holding true.

That's why the idiom can come across as rather over-used and tedious. It's a strong allegation that should be sparingly invoked when absolutely called for. Wrongly accusing others of lying is as bad -if not worse - as lying.

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So is 'blowing hot and cold' just a fancier way of desribing a 'lie'? Sort of. Not a bald-face lie perhaps, but more of a misleading misrepresentation.

Why do people blow hot and cold on a daily basis? Sometimes they're just merely being fickle. Or not careful with their choice of words. Or just being plain forgetful.

To avoid flip-flopping, be sure to think before you speak. Say what you mean, mean what you say. Have a clear mind.

Above all, only blow where you can flow!