Know your English — What is the meaning and origin of ‘smoke and mirrors’?

July 07, 2014 11:23 pm | Updated 11:23 pm IST

What is the meaning and origin of ‘smoke and mirrors’?

(Jawaid Hasan, Patna)

This expression is frequently used in American English, particularly in the contexts of politics and marketing. When you refer to the statement made by the CEO of a company as being nothing more than ‘smoke and mirrors’, you are suggesting that the individual is distorting or obscuring the truth; that he is, in fact, lying. A company that is going bankrupt will often issue statements in the press to make investors believe that the situation is much better than it actually is. When you say that a politician’s argument is ‘smoke and mirrors’, you mean it lacks substance.

*Use smoke and mirrors if you have to. We must convince the investor that he is in good hands.

*The government’s report on inflation was nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

I understand the expression comes from the world of magic shows. A magician depends upon smoke and mirrors to perform his tricks. The mirrors help create an illusion, and the smoke is frequently used to divert the attention of the audience.

In restaurants, you find people are either talking on the phone or texting instead of the talking to the person they are with. Is there a word for this?

(L Revathi, Vellore)

This is happening everywhere; at home and in public places, people are constantly busy communicating with everyone, except with those who are sitting right next to them! Such behaviour is called ‘nocialising’. The individual is not socialising!

*We hardly talked. Rahul spent the evening nocialising.

What is the difference between ‘laden’ and ‘loaded’?

(K. Kasturi, Trichy)

When you ‘load’ a car or a truck with something, you put a lot of things inside it — it could be anything: empty suitcases, boxes, blankets, sand, etc. The items that we put inside the vehicle may or may not be very heavy. The ‘lad’ in ‘laden’ rhymes with the words ‘made’, ‘paid’, and ‘jade’; the word is pronounced ‘LAID-en’ with the stress on the first syllable. It comes from the Old English ‘hladan’ meaning ‘to load or heap’. When you say that a truck is laden with boxes, you are suggesting the vehicle is loaded with heavy items; the word suggests that someone or something has been ‘heavily weighed down’. ‘Laden’ is mostly limited to literary contexts; it is usually followed by the preposition ‘with’.

*The trucks were laden with farm equipment.

*We could see from a distance that the trees were laden with fruit.

Is it okay to say, ‘The club is nearly half of a kilometre away’?

(J Nikhila, Mysore)

No, it is not. We have to say, ‘The club is nearly half a kilometre away’. Usually, ‘half’ and ‘half of’ can be used interchangeably in most constructions — without really affecting the meaning of the sentence. For example, there is no difference in meaning between ‘Half my friends are moving to Delhi’ and ‘Half of my friends are moving to Delhi’. But when we are talking about measurements or quantities, ‘half of’ is not used; ‘half’ is the preferred form. We don’t say ‘half of a dozen’, ‘half of a bottle’, ‘half of an hour’, etc.

*Renu used half a dozen oranges to make the juice.

*Thiru ate half a packet of chips before dinner.


“If you don’t agree with me, it means you haven’t been listening.”Sam Markewich

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