Know your English - What is the meaning and origin of ‘to put someone on the spot’?

October 22, 2013 12:17 am | Updated 12:17 am IST

What is the meaning and origin of ‘to put someone on the spot’?

(D Ramesh, Nagpur)

This is what reporters try to do to our politicians; they deliberately ask the ‘netas’ questions that are likely to put them in a difficult or embarrassing situation. When you ‘put someone on the spot’, you are forcing someone to answer a difficult question or make a decision about something very quickly.

*The teachers put the Vice-Chancellor on the spot by asking him when the new pay scales would be implemented.

In the old days, pirates used to send the ace of spades which had a spot in the middle to people they intended to kill. Anyone who received this card knew he had been ‘put on the spot’ — he was slated to die. Even today, the ace of spades is seen as a symbol of death in many countries. The Vietnamese believe this. This probably explains why during the Vietnam War, Americans resorted to dropping thousands of these cards from planes — they wanted to demoralise their enemy.

Is it okay to say ‘donkey’s work’?

(JV Nishant, Mysore)

Native speakers of English say ‘donkey work’ and not ‘donkey’s work’. Perhaps the other expression with donkey — donkey’s years — has influenced us. When an Indian says he did all the ‘donkey’s work’, he means he did most of the work — the others contributed very little.

For native speakers, on the other hand, the idiom has nothing to do with the amount of work done, but rather the quality of work done. The expression ‘do the donkey work’ is mostly used to mean to do the boring or hard part of any job.

*Why is it that I am always asked to do the donkey work?

How is the word ‘finale’ pronounced?

(K. Ashwini, Tirupati)

The ‘i’ in the first syllable and the ‘e’ in the final syllable are pronounced like the ‘I’ in ‘sit’, ‘hit’ and ‘bit’. The ‘a’ in the second is like the ‘a’ in ‘path’, ‘bath’ and ‘ask’. It is also possible to pronounce the final ‘le’ like the word ‘lay’. The word can be pronounced ‘fi-NAA-li’ or ‘fi-NAA-lay’. In both cases, the stress is on the second syllable.

The word comes from the Italian ‘finale’ meaning ‘final’; it was originally used to refer to the last part of a piece of music. With the passage of time, ‘finale’ began to be used in other contexts as well — nowadays, it is used to refer to the concluding part of any event; the finale is usually exciting and impressive.

The season ending episode of a television series, for example, is usually referred to as the ‘grand finale’.

*All the artists performed during the grand finale.

What is the meaning of ‘nothing but’ in the following sentence: “The children did nothing but complain”?

(MC Raghuram, Chennai)

The expression ‘nothing but’ is frequently used before a noun to mean ‘only’. In the above sentence, what you are saying is that the only thing that the children did was to complain. For a few days, Naresh could talk of nothing but his new computer.


“Whenever the talk turns to age, I say I am 49 plus VAT.”Lionel Blair

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