Know your English: What is the meaning of ‘poisoned chalice’?

September 29, 2014 11:11 pm | Updated 11:11 pm IST

What is the meaning of ‘poisoned chalice’?

(Saidu Khan, Guwahati)

First, let us deal with the pronunciation of the word ‘chalice’. The ‘cha’ sounds like the ‘cha’ in ‘chap’, ‘chant’ and ‘champ’, and the following ‘lice’ sounds like the ‘lis’ in ‘list’ and ‘lisp’. The word is pronounced ‘CHA-lis’ with the stress on the first syllable. It is a large ornamental cup usually made of gold or silver, and is used in all church ceremonies. The expression ‘poisoned chalice’ is frequently used in sports and politics to refer to a job or task given to someone. Initially, the person thinks he has been honoured; he soon realises, however, the job is, in fact, a burden — one that is likely to ruin his reputation. For example, last year there was considerable hoopla when David Moyes was appointed Manager of the Manchester United football team. But once the season started and United started losing, the press and the fans quickly turned against him; the poor man was fired before the season ended.

*If you ask me, your promotion is a poisoned chalice.

*Being made a temporary VC turned out to be a poisoned chalice.

What is the difference between ‘filch’ and ‘steal’?

(D Smitha, Bangalore)

In both cases, you are doing something illegal; you are taking something from someone without his being aware of it. For example, one can filch someone’s pencil or one can steal it. ‘Steal’ is a much more general term, while ‘filch’ is mostly limited to informal contexts. The use of the word ‘filch’ suggests that the object being taken is not of great value — it is a petty theft. One can filch an apple, but one does not usually talk about filching a million dollars. One can steal a pencil and one can also steal a million dollars.

What is the meaning of ‘get hold of the wrong end of the stick’?

(PN Ranganathan, Chennai)

This is an expression that is heard frequently in informal contexts in American English. When you tell someone that he has got hold of the wrong end of the stick, you are implying that the individual has completely misunderstood a situation; he has made the wrong assumption or arrived at an incorrect conclusion about something.

*Janaki got hold of the wrong end of the stick when she saw Ram talking to Rani.

*As expected, the Opposition got hold of the wrong end of the stick and blamed the PM for everything.

There are many conjectures as to what the stick refers to. Some believe it is a walking stick, while others think it is the stick the Romans used to wash their backside. The origin of the idiom, however, remains uncertain.

How is the word ‘blithe’ pronounced?

(R Rakesh, Madurai)

The ‘bli’ rhymes with the words ‘fly’, ‘ply’ and ‘sly’, while the final ‘the’ sounds like the ‘th’ in ‘this’ and ‘that’. The word is pronounced ‘BLYTH’; it is frequently used in literary contexts to refer to someone who is carefree and happy.

*How do you expect to tie down a blithe spirit like Pramod?

The word has a negative connotation as well; it can also be used to mean ‘showing a lack of due concern’ for someone or something.

*Most Indians show a blithe disregard for traffic rules.


“The toilets at a local police station have been stolen. Police say they have nothing to go on.”Ronnie Barker

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