Winning English - Mastering Idioms, Slang, and Cultural References

More aphorisms • If it ain't broke • If you can't beat 'em • Ignorance is bliss • No news is good news • Rome wasn't built in a day • Do as the Romans do • Power corrupts • Ends justify the means

Hello, everyone! I’m back from vacation. Thank you for your understanding while I took a break. Among other sights, we visited the Grand Canyon in the US state of Arizona. Let me share one photo:

It was a beautiful vista. It took my breath away!

“It took my breath away” is a common saying people use when they see beautiful sights in nature. It can be used to describe canyons, sunsets, and sometimes people.

Okay, it’s time to get back to learning! (Wait, you already started! 😁)

Today I have another batch of aphorisms and adages. Recall from my previous post on this topic that there are many other words for these sayings, but they are all the same. They are short statements intended to tell a truth about the world or teach a moral lesson about how to behave.

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Two classic aphorisms

As I’ve mentioned before, there are many, many aphorisms. But some are very common.

Here’s one: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. You might notice right away that this saying has a couple of grammatical problems. One, “ain’t” is a slang way of saying “isn’t” or “is not”, and while “ain’t” is commonly used, it’s not universally accepted as proper English. Two, “broke” should actually be “broken”. “To fix”, by the way, is an informal way to say “to repair”. When you put all of these word choices together, this aphorism has a folksy, everyday feeling to it.

Okay, fine, but what does it mean? “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a warning against trying to improve something that already works well enough. Suppose a consultant comes to your workplace and suggests you build a brand new inventory system. There’s nothing wrong with your current system. However, the consultant tells you a new system will be better. You might respond, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Your system isn’t broken. But the suggested “fix” or repair might, in fact, break it.

Here’s another common aphorism: If you can’t beat them, join them. This one might be a bit easier to understand. “To beat” means to conquer or to defeat. In this saying, “you can’t beat them” means you are admitting that you cannot defeat your enemy. Then what should you do? Well, it might be easier to join your enemy’s side of the fight! Note that this saying often uses a folksy, slang way to say the word “them”, which is ‘em - leaving off the “th”. Said that way, it would be, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

Lacking information

It’s tempting to think that it would be good to know everything that is happening in the world. After all, more information is usually good, right? But sometimes we just don’t want to know what’s going on. English has a couple of sayings for that.

First, ignorance is bliss. “Ignorance” is when we don’t know something. It’s not the same as being stupid, which is when a person is not intelligent. Ignorance just means we don’t have all the information. “Bliss”, meanwhile, is extreme happiness. Put this saying together and “ignorance is bliss” means that sometimes we are happier not knowing information.

For example, if you have or have ever had teenage children, sometimes you don’t want to know everything that they are doing and saying. They make mistakes, after all. But it’s likely they’ll be okay in the long run, and it’s easier on you not to know everything.

A similar aphorism is no news is good news. This saying makes an assumption, which is that, if something goes wrong, you’ll probably hear about it. That’s the way the daily news that you read, watch, or listen to usually works. You only hear about the bad things because they are unusual. Think of your teenager, again. He or she is going out at night for the first time with his or her friends. You start to get nervous as the evening goes on, so you force yourself to say, “Well, no news is good news, I guess.”

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Rome and more Rome

It can be hard to avoid the influence of the Roman Empire on English. As I’ve discussed in a previous post, the Roman language - Latin - had a big impact. But Rome also shows up in common English aphorisms, too.

For example, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Ancient Rome was a major, extensive city and empire, of course. But it took hundreds of years to grow to that size. That’s the way it usually is with huge undertakings. You won’t succeed overnight. It will take a long time to build.

Also, we’ve all had that experience of being in an unfamiliar and strange place. We feel nervous. We feel like everyone can tell we’re not from there. Well, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. This saying recommends that we adopt the behaviors and styles of where we are in order to blend in and feel more comfortable.

Power and its ends

Speaking of the Romans, they were often associated with a sense of power and command, much like all empires throughout history. But giving people power can cause a lot of trouble. The English historian and writer Lord Acton wrote what is probably the most famous quote in the English language about this problem:

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The language in this quote might be a bit tricky. “Absolute power” here means no one can challenge or question the authority of the leader. “Absolutely” here means “for certain” or “without a doubt”. And “to be corrupted” means to become bad or evil.

So when we say, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, it means that every single human - when given all the power in society - will turn bad. It’s just in our nature. And this is also why many governmental systems avoid giving any one person unlimited power.

After all, look what happened to the Galactic Republic in Star Wars:

I have one more saying involving power and morality - the ends justify the means.

“Ends” is another word for goals or objectives. “Means” are the methods that people use to achieve their goals and objectives. And “to justify” is to give reasons for why something is right or good.

So when we say, “the ends justify the means”, we are saying that our goals are so good and right that they automatically make any method of achieving them good and right. Those methods could usually be seen as bad behavior - lying or violence, for example but the good ends make them right.

As you might be able to see, thinking “the ends justify the means” can lead to people, companies, and governments doing very horrible things if they feel their cause is the right one - if their cause is just. If you want my advice, avoid people like this, and remember what Lord Acton said.

TED Talk: Speak like you’re playing a video game

That’s all for this batch of aphorisms and adages, but I always like to give you additional items in the newsletter, of course.

Here’s a video I found that I enjoyed and that I thought might help you. In it, the speaker (who lives in Malaysia, right next to where I used to live in Singapore) encourages English language learners to relax and enjoy their learning by focusing on communication and not perfection. Focus on talking to the other person, and have fun!

Thanks and please share

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Writer & host