Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 31, 2010
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Lost, Leap Year, and Idioms
It's always so ironic when a school system posts a public announcement that
shows that members of the administration are not terribly well educated.
Here's the most recent snow day announcement: "Due to inclement weather,
Guilford County Schools is closed Wednesday, February 3."
The schools is closed? Really? The teachers and students is staying home?
OK, I know why this happened. The district administrators think of "Guilford
County Schools" as a single entity. It's like the way the Brits think of
"government" as a plural ("The government are working to solve this problem")
while Americans think of it as a singular ("The government is laboring to make
things more difficult and expensive").
But the only people who think of the phrase "Guilford County Schools" as a
singular are the district administrators, who apparently live on their own little
The rest of us think of "Guilford County Schools" as a whole bunch of
individual schools, and we're barely aware of them as a collective entity. If any
of the district administrators remembered whom they're actually talking and
writing to, they would never commit a solecism like "Guilford County Schools is
Lost's last season has begun -- and begun well, I must say. Though in a way
I'm just the tiniest bit disappointed that they had to resort to the gods of
Atlantis (or so it seems) in order to explain the phenomena of the time-traveling
island, and I'm even more disappointed that the "real" John Locke is dead (and
possibly the real Sayid as well, since his "resurrection" may be more a matter
The loss of Juliet Burke was inevitable -- actress Elizabeth Mitchell, who plays
her, has a regular part in V -- but it still disappoints me that in the last
season, we won't have one of the best, deepest, and most sympathetic
characters in the history of television.
But the story, while still puzzling, is not confusing -- that is, we know exactly
what is happening, we just don't know all the explanations yet. But we're
moving toward them, step by step.
For those of you who gave up on Lost (mostly because of the going-nowhere
storyline in the cages in the beginning of the third season), I can only say that
you really should get the DVDs and watch the rest and try to catch up,
because this ending is looking to be everything we hoped for.
But hearing producers Lieber and Lindelof talk about it on Jimmy Kimmel the
night of the season premier (Tuesday, February 2nd), it is obvious that they did
not know the ending they were aiming for from the start -- the third season
was so weak precisely because they were spinning it out without any idea of
where they were going.
I told them so! I wrote an introduction to the book Getting Lost, which came
out soon after the second season. In that intro, I specifically called for them to
do what they finally decided on: Determine an ending for the series and then
write to that ending.
My statement, which they are now fulfilling: "It must reach an ending, and the
ending must satisfy us."
Leap Year aspires to be a remake of Frank Capra's It Happened One Night, and
in some ways it brings it off. Certainly we were entertained by the movie, and
only afterward did I notice that I had been hemorrhaging IQ points throughout.
A young New York woman who is used to getting her own way (Anna Brady,
played by Amy Adams) goes to Ireland to propose to her longtime boyfriend,
Jeremy (a cardiologist, played by Adam Scott). But a storm diverts her plane to
Anna doesn't like it when she doesn't get her way. She makes unreasonable
demands and seems utterly lacking in the ability to be either patient or
understanding. So she crosses the Irish Sea on a small boat and gets
deposited on the shore near Dingle, where she finds herself in a dilapidated inn
run by an Irishman named Declan (Matthew Goode).
She hires Declan to drive her to Dublin so she can propose to her boyfriend
Jeremy exactly on schedule. Of course everything goes wrong, including
staying at an inn where they have to pretend to be married, having her luggage
stolen so that Declan has to fight the thieves to get it back, and so on. (Just
another bit taken from It Happened One Night.)
If you can't guess the ending, you have never seen a movie.
The trouble is that It Happened One Night was a very fragile flower. The young
woman in that film (played by Claudette Colbert) was also spoiled and
obnoxious, but she was running away from her wedding, not rushing toward a
proposal. That rather changes things.
And we have the serious problem that Leap Year begins in the viewpoint of the
irritatingly spoiled young woman, rather than the point of view of the man who
protects her. Instead of him getting to know her (along with us), we are stuck
with her from the start.
Ten minutes into the movie, I leaned to my wife and said, "I don't like anybody
yet, especially not her."
Now, this doesn't mean I didn't like Amy Adams in the part -- she did (as
always) a superb job. A superb job, alas, of playing an unlikeable twit -- which
left us, for a long time, with nowhere to stand. She didn't like him, and we
didn't like her, and that's not a recipe for a hit movie.
It Happened One Night starred the single most popular romantic lead in film at
the time -- Clark Gable. Leap Year's guy is Matthew Goode who, while he's
very good eye candy (I'm told) and a fine actor, does not start out with
everybody in the audience wanting him to succeed. Instead, we know (because
this is that kind of movie) that he will succeed or the movie would never have
been made; the air of inevitability is hard to overcome.
Yet it is to the credit of the actors and the writers (Deborah Kaplan and Harry
Elfont, who committed Made of Honor, Josie and the Pussycats, and A Very
Brady Sequel) that in fact we do come to like both characters.
Still, I can't help but think that what kept us watching for long stretches was
the absolutely glorious Irish countryside and Declan's Irish brogue. Perhaps
the film should have been billed as "Leap Year, starring Ireland."
Although the movie is by the numbers, and they get some of the numbers
wrong, it was charming and entertaining and if we weren't emotionally moved,
at least we were pleased with the ending.
The single worst thing about the movie was the ludicrous premise -- that
because Ireland apparently has a tradition of women proposing to men on leap
day, Anna feels she must fly there and go through all she goes through just to
be able to propose on that day.
If she had had any spunk at all (unlike Lou Grant, I like spunk), when her
boyfriend seemed to be proposing and the ring box turned out to contain only
earrings, she would have said, "Oh. I thought you were proposing. I really
wish you would."
Of course, then there wouldn't have been a movie.
I'm guessing that the trigger for the idea of this movie was the Irish custom,
which somebody saw on a website and thought, OK, let's write a movie about
But as any good writer knows, you follow the story where it goes, and if the
original premise gets in the way, you toss it and find a better one.
The writers tried to take the curse off the patheticness of the premise by having
Declan constantly talk about how stupid it was to propose to a man on leap
day: "If he wanted to marry you, he would already have asked." To which her
answer is only, "But it's romantic!"
If they wanted to get her to Ireland to propose, there are only several hundred
better ways than enslaving her to a custom that even the movie admits is
I'm glad I saw this movie -- once. I'm glad that they have no F-bombs in it and
no actual nudity or sex. That's a step in a good direction -- the great romantic
comedies never need any hopping into bed to work well, and crude language
just makes people less likeable.
(In real life, too, by the way. Shock-value words and romance really aren't all
that compatible. Once the shock has worn off, the memory of the words is still
there, and it can be sickening.)
There is a great cast of minor players, and Amy Adams and Matthew Goode are
charmers and have some decent chemistry. In the filmic dumping ground of
winter, I recommend this movie three-quarters-heartedly.
It's interesting to see Amy Adams moving forward in her career. This is an
actress who has been working almost constantly since she first popped on the
scene in 1999. Inside the industry, her talent has been well known. Yet only
recently has she begun moving forward to real stardom.
Her big breakthrough was Enchanted in 2007, where she played the singing-and-dancing Disney-style princess who gets transplanted to our world (thereby
putting a spike in my own novel, Enchantment, which is way better and came
first, but now can't get filmed).
Yet even after that, it was hard to remember Amy Adams. Partly that's because
she disappears into her roles a little -- a good thing -- but I think it's mostly
because she has such standard good looks. There's nothing odd about her face
-- which makes her rather easy to forget.
I know, that seems stupid, doesn't it? But think of the big stars: They almost
always have a unique look, caused by something that I'm sure they thought of
as a defect growing up. I'm not going to enumerate all the obvious things, like
Julia Roberts's huge mouth -- it makes for a dazzling smile, but isn't it also
just a little scary? -- but most actors who stick in our minds as stars are
actually just a little goofy. Think of Cary Grant, James Stewart, Katharine
Hepburn, and old Jug-Ears himself, Clark Gable. Goofy.
With Amy Adams, though, there's absolutely nothing wrong with her. Which is
why, as I was watching the "Burning Down the House" episode of the first
season of That '70s Show and she popped up as a cheerleader type, it took me
half the episode to figure out who the heck that actress was.
It wasn't because that episode was made ten years ago -- she hardly looks a
day older now. It's because she was cast in the part precisely because she was
pretty in a completely standard way. That she could also act was just a bonus.
In a way, her lack of memorability is a good thing for her acting. The Amy
Adams of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and the Amy Adams of Julie & Julia are
completely different -- all we remember is the characters, not the actor who
But that's also why, when she's playing a character we don't much like at first,
her star power doesn't pull her through the way it did with funny-faced little
What made me realize I knew the girl in that That '70s Show episode was her
mannerisms, her way of delivering lines, her sauciness. That remains no
matter what part she's playing, and it is much of her likability. So Amy Adams
the person is memorable; it's just Amy Adams the celebrity face that isn't.
Or maybe everybody always remembers her perfectly and I'm completely wrong.
It could happen. But I doubt it.
The Facts on File Dictionary of Cliches: Meanings and Origins of Thousands of
Terms and Expressions should have been a wonderful book; instead it's barely
It's not as if we're going to be surprised by any of the entries. The fact that
they're cliches implies that everybody knows and uses them; in fact, almost all
of the entries are not cliches per se, but rather idioms or figures of speech.
It's important to keep that in mind, because we're taught in school (with the
usual perversity of English teaching) to "avoid cliches." Yet no one really
defines what a cliche is. So I'm going to make an attempt.
Phrases that everyone uses -- "avoid him like the plague"; "wouldn't touch it
with a ten-foot pole"; "won't open that can of worms" -- are not cliches. They
are figures of speech, idiomatic expressions that everyone knows and which we
finish in our minds even if someone leaves them dangling:
That's water over the ...
Don't burn your ...
I don't have a dog in that ...
He's getting a little long in the ...
We're going to leave no stone ...
They become cliches -- a bad thing -- only when a writer or speaker treats
them as if they were cool new expressions. It is the pretension and banality of
the writer's use of them that turns an idiomatic expression into a cliche.
And even then, you can turn a cliche on its head and make fresh use of it, like
this little stanza working with "Come hell or high water."
Came the flood, we stood together in high water,
Professor's son and farmer's lovely daughter,
Sandbagged and sturdy, doing rather well.
What broke us were the good times: They were hell.
In fact, one can say that a lot of what makes poetry work -- light or serious
verse alike -- is playing with and against "cliches." The verse above relies on
our knowledge of other phrases and expressions. "Sandbagged," "farmer's
daughter," and "good times" are all meant to resonate with ironic associations
that come up precisely because they have become idioms.
So this collection of idioms is useful as a reminder, a compendium. Where it
falls apart, alas, is in the area of scholarship and clarity. The book's author,
Christine Ammer, simply gets it wrong a shocking percentage of the time.
For instance, she refers to the phrase "all present and accounted for" as being
"redundant -- if one is present one is also accounted for." She completely
misses the point of the phrase, which is that it's possible not to be present and
yet still be accounted for. No redundancy at all: The statement means that
everyone who is supposed to be there is either physically present or their
absence has been accounted for.
Her claimed origin for "famous last words" ignores the obvious origin: the death
of General John Sedgwick in the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House on 9 May
1864. Confederate snipers were sending bullets toward the Union position,
and the men were flinching. Sedgwick impatiently said, "I'm ashamed of you,
dodging that way. They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." Whereupon
he fell over dead with a bullet just under his right eye.
Those are "famous last words," and exactly define the way this idiom is used.
We say "famous last words" immediately after someone has said what they
confidently hope or believe to be true; it is almost interchangeable with the use
of "knock on wood," except "f. l. w." adds the flavor of bitter irony.
But Ammer says that the idiom is used as a "satirical rejoinder to what the
speaker considers a fatuous remark or easily refuted statement." This is
simply wrong. The original statement is not "fatuous" or "easily refuted." It is
wishful thinking or overconfident. If definitions mean anything at all, this is a
Then there's her take on the meaning and origin of "go downhill," as in "his
fortunes went downhill from there" or "it's downhill from here." Here is
Ammer's definition: "Although it would seem that going down a hill is easier
than going up, downhill has meant a decline since the 1500s," and she gives
the example "The monks had traveled swiftly on the downhill road of human
But she misses the obvious, that "downhill" in that sense refers to the
impossibility of stopping a cart once it has started going downhill -- or even the
difficulty of stopping when you're running down a hill. We all know the sinking
feeling of seeing a shopping cart or stroller get away from someone in a parking
lot with a steep slope -- it goes faster and faster and you can't catch up, so you
can only wait to watch the inevitable collision or tip-over.
The ambiguity actually causes us some confusion. When we say, "Well, it's all
downhill from here," we often have to correct the statement with an explanation
of which "downhill" we mean. The statement could mean "We've done the hard
part, getting to the top; from here on we can stop pedaling and coast!" but it
could just as easily mean "Now that we've taken this foolish step, there's no
going back or stopping; we're doomed."
How can you talk about the origin of this idiom without saying this?
Then she takes on "to have a bone to pick." Her definition is fine, but she
actually makes the ridiculous assumption that it comes from dogs gnawing on
a bone. But if that were the origin, the phrase would be "bone to gnaw," not
"bone to pick."
She's forgetting the way meat was served in medieval England, before forks,
when you had a knife and your fingers. Getting the meat off a bone required
picking at it -- gripping any small fragment of meat with your fingers and then
slicing it free with the knife. You could spend a lot of time picking at a bone,
and the point of the phrase is that you're going after small meat at great effort.
The speaker is saying, "I have a subject we need to discuss, but it isn't really
Ammer thinks "la-la land" is the exact equivalent of "never-never land"; she
completely misses the point that when you say someone is "in Never-Never
Land," you're saying that they live in a wishful fantasy, deluded about what
might or will happen, whereas when you say they're "in la-la land," you mean
they're flat-out crazy in the here and now.
Then there's the ludicrous historical mistake when she says on page 256, "The
noun lord was already present in Middle English about a.d. 900." How very
strange -- the word lord was present in Middle English two hundred years
before Middle English even began to exist!
(For those who don't know, Middle English was the language of Chaucer, a
combination of Old English and Norman French, and it didn't begin to form
until after the Norman conquest; in 900, English was what we now call Old
English, and the word "lord" with that spelling did not exist.)
Just so you know, the Old English word for "lord" was "hlaford" from "hlaf-ward" meaning "loaf-keeper" -- the lord was the one who kept and shared the
bread. And in Middle English -- which didn't become a literary language until
about 1300 -- it was still hlaford, though the initial h was disappearing.
Then there's "shoot your bolt" or "shoot your wad." She says, correctly, that
"bolt" comes from medieval crossbow archery, but then adds, "the archer who
used up all his bolts at once, leaving him with none, was regarded as a fool." If
this had been correct, the phrase would be "shoot all your bolts," and it isn't.
What she doesn't know is that winding up a crossbow took more than a
minute, and often two minutes or more.
So when you shot one bolt, the likelihood was that your next move was to get
out your sword, because the enemy would be on you before you could reload.
Therefore, in the open field, once you had shot your single bolt, you were done
with the crossbow. That's what the phrase "He'd shot his bolt" comes from --
and still means.
To "shoot your wad," however, has shifted its meaning lately. It comes from
musketry. You pour powder down the barrel of the gun, then ram a wad of
thin cloth or cotton down after it with your ramrod. Only then do you push the
lead ball down on top of it. In the heat of battle, it was easy to get ahead of
yourself and, having rammed down the powder and wad, proceed to shoot the
weapon without ever putting in the ball. Therefore you "shot your wad," or
fired your weapon with no effect but noise.
That was the original meaning, but now that we don't load firearms that way, it
has drifted to be identical in meaning with "shoot your bolt," meaning you've
done what you can do and there's nothing left. Yet she misses the entire origin
of "shoot your wad" and links the meaning to a wad of cash -- having gambled
away all your cash, you have "shot your wad." This folk etymology seems to
make sense except that it doesn't explain why the word "shoot" is in the
expression. In other words, it explains nothing. Especially since you consider
that the phrase originated before paper money.
Does any of this matter? Well, yes, I think so. I'm not a scholar, and if I'm
picking up errors like these from random readings throughout the book, then
just how reliable is she? The whole point of a book like this is not just to make
a list, it's to tell us how enigmatic phrases in our language began and what
they mean now and meant in the past.
But if the author of the book seems clueless on a fair percentage of her
definitions, then how can you trust any of it?
This book was a good idea, and her list is a good long one. I just hope
somebody comes back and does a good job with it. Ammer certainly did not.