Are there really, “Dog and pony shows?”

Is he really, “All hat and no cattle?”

Is there really, “Wood in front of the house?”

And what happened to the White House chief of staff who, “Always wanted to see the pyramids?”

There are at least 12,000 English language idioms, words and phrases, which constitute figures of speech for native speakers, or at least those who understand the lingo. In Silicon Valleyese, one spoke of “Insufficient bandwidth,” “Open kimono,” “Biological breaks” and “Hard stops.” Texans are fond of stating, that someone is, “All hat and no cattle” or “That dog won’t hunt” (former Governor Anne Richards). Granted these are all in English, but without translation or inside knowledge they may not be understood in the proper context by those who claim English as their first language.


As communications choreographers should we use idioms in our discussions with internal and external stakeholders, including employees, customers, public officials, reporters, editors, bloggers and analysts? The short answer is we should first softly recite, “One Mississippi, two Mississippi (another idiom)” before letting loose with our clever colloquial use of the language. Time and place is everything, and if miscalculated an idiom may come back to bite the messenger.

For example, when the communications team for the US semiconductor industry was trying to pry open the Japanese market for our chips in the 1990s; some would make reference to an upcoming shameless Tokyo media event as a “Dog and pony show.” Native Japanese speakers wanted to know what dogs and ponies had to do with foreign access to Japan’s indigenous semiconductor market.

Never mind.

And English speakers don’t have the corner on idioms. The Germans have a phrase for a well-endowed woman, Sie hat Holz vor der Hutte. The literal translation is, she has wood in front of the house. How many non-Germans would understand that? And should men of any ethnic background go there anyway?

Former White House chief of staff Hamilton Jordan (Carter administration) reportedly was admiring the wood in front of the house of the Egyptian ambassador’s wife, prompting him to reportedly comment, “I’ve always wanted to see the pyramids.” Former White House Press Secretary Jody Powell denied this item that appeared in the society section of the Washington Post. Nonetheless the damage was done and it contributed to Jordan’s fraternity boy reputation.

Last week, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell said that constitutionally valid Obamacare may still be “An albatross around the neck” of the president. The White House reportedly was less than pleased with his use of an idiom from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Let’s face it, idioms are an everyday part of our language and sometimes we use them without even being overtly knowledgeable about their use. Here are some that immediately come to mind as candidates for regular use: “Life’s too short,” “Giving him the Heisman,” “All bark and no bite,” “Cross the Rubicon” and “One taco short of a combination.”

There are some idioms/metaphors that are particularly prevalent in “Inside baseball” (another idiom) discussions between and among communications choreographers: “Drinking the Kool-Aid, “ “Drinking your own bath water,” “Going postal,” “Deer in the headlights,” “Feeding frenzy,” “On the same page,” “Singing from the same hymnal,” “Off the reservation,” “Lone ranger,” “Thrown under the bus,” “Still in denial,” “Acceptance stage” and “Making chicken salad out of chicken sheet.”

Just as parables were used in Biblical times to get across points and ideas, idioms have and can be used by those in the public relations profession to position our clients and deposition the opposition. This is particularly true in public affairs and issues management in which the media is generally much more skeptical — bordering on cynicism — compared to reporters/editors/correspondents covering other topics. If you never use idioms and metaphors, you may be considered to be an uptight “space cadet” (another idiom).

Having said that be careful to avoid an inopportune use of an idiom. Rendell’s, “Albatross around the neck” of the president  sent the signal that last week’s Supreme Court Obamacare win may be an idiomatic “Pyrrhic victory” for the White House. The occupant may have thought of some idioms in reply to the former Governor of Pennsylvania.