What is the meaning and origin of ‘go against the grain’?

(Manoj Das, Cuttack)

This expression was in existence long before Shakespeare started writing his plays. According to scholars, however, it was the dramatist who popularised the use of the idiom. He first used it in his play Coriolanus. When you tell someone that he is ‘going against the grain’, you mean that he is doing the exact opposite of what he normally does. He is not doing what is expected of him.

*Shwetha doesn’t like asking people for help. It goes against the grain.

*He is going against the grain by trying to be an honest politician.

According to one theory, the expression comes from the world of carpentry. The fine lines that you find on a piece of wood are called ‘grain’. If you wish to smoothen wood, for best results, you should run the tool you are using ‘along’ the grain, and not ‘against’ it.

Why is a woman sometimes referred to as ‘black widow’?

(K. Sunitha, Bhopal)

In the insect world, a black widow is a poisonous spider that usually consumes or eats its partner after mating with him. In the case of human beings, the term is frequently used to refer to a woman who murders her husband or her significant other. There is a term to refer to a man who murders his wife — ‘bluebeard’. It is the name of a character from a literary folktale (‘La Barbe Bleue’). In the story, the villain is a vicious French aristocrat with an ugly blue beard. This individual is in the habit of killing the woman he marries. When he marries for the seventh time, his new wife turns the tables on him — with the help of her family, she manages to kill him. Some believe that the story is based on the life of the French aristocrat Giles de Rais; a serial killer who made many women disappear.

How is the word ‘prescient’ pronounced?

(C.V. Geetha, Ernakulam)

There seem to be different ways of pronouncing this rather formal word. Some people rhyme the first syllable ‘presc’ with the word ‘fresh’, while others pronounce it like the word ‘press’. The following ‘i’ is like the ‘i’ in ‘bit’, ‘kit’ and ‘sit’, and the ‘e’ is like the ‘a’ in ‘china’. The word can be pronounced PRESH-i-ent or PRESS-i-ent with the stress on the first syllable. It comes from the Latin ‘prae’ meaning ‘before’ and ‘scire’ meaning ‘to know’. The word literally means having the ability to foretell or predict what is likely to happen in the future.

*No one was willing to listen to his prescient warnings.

*Rahul predicted the outcome with amazing prescience.

When you call someone ‘calculating’ are you being complimentary?

(Dinesh Kumar, New Delhi)

No, you are not; you are being the exact opposite. When the word ‘calculating’ is used with an individual, it suggests that the person is devious or crafty. You are saying he is a scheming individual, always driven by self-interest. Most people disapprove of those who are calculating.

*I don’t like Laxman. He is cold and calculating.


“Life was much easier when Apple and Blackberry were just fruits.”Unknown