Metals have a clear hierarchy in terms of the value we perceive in them. Bronze--not a metal by itself, but an alloy of copper, zinc, etc.--was easier to make early in our history, though it was superseded by iron which is stronger and more durable.

These qualities of iron are reflected in our languages too. Idioms such as ‘iron fist in a velvet glove,' which we examined last week, suggest that we associate strength, durability, resolve, and other similar qualities with iron. This week, let's consider a few more idioms related to the word iron.

Pump iron: ‘Pumping' describes the action of repeatedly moving something in a fixed pattern of motion. The action of pumping air into the bicycle tires is a good example. Pumping iron refers to heavy exercising, especially at the gym, where lifting weights--heavy objects of iron--is a common routine. If you want to seriously work on your fitness, for example, you might spend an entire summer break pumping iron.

Iron curtain: After World War II, Europe was by and large divided into two parts: Eastern Europe was mostly under the influence of the communist Soviet Union, while Western Europe typically enjoyed political freedom, and especially democracy. Describing the situation in 1946, Winston Churchill talked about the ‘iron curtain that has descended across the continent.' Today, the phrase ‘iron curtain' refers to national barriers created by autocratic, non-democratic governments that restrict the freedom of the press, and severely control international trade.

Cast-iron stomach: If you have a cast-iron stomach, that means you can eat or drink just about anything and not suffer any ill effects. The food in India is considered to be spicy, especially compared to typical Western cuisine. So someone coming to India from say, USA would need to have a ‘cast-iron stomach' to eat Indian food. You can use this phrase in sentences such as: ‘I always thought I had a cast-iron stomach, but even I cannot eat the stuff you make without suffering later on.'

Apart from these idioms, there is an interesting use of iron: in slang usage, ‘iron' also refers to a firearm, typically a pistol. Since such firearms are made of strong metal, in slang usage the metal is equated with the object itself. Here is an example: ‘A gang of thugs surrounded the Batman. They were all packing metal.' The term ‘iron' is usually combined with ‘packing.' When someone is ‘packing metal', it means they are carrying a firearm, usually hidden in their clothes. In most James Bond movies, for example, you see the famous spy packing metal as he steps out of the hotel suite.

nilesh@skillspark.com

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