Know your English Education

Don’t get singed!

What is the meaning and origin of ‘steal a march on someone’?

This is an expression which is frequently heard in everyday context. Sometimes, in order to stay ahead of the competition, we do things in secret; we do things before our rivals realise what we are up to. When you ‘steal a march on someone’, you secretly plan and carry out something before the other person does — you are, therefore, at an advantage.

They stole a march on us by getting Kohli to be their spokesperson.

Our company plans to steal a march on the competitors by launching the product much before anyone else.

The expression comes from the world of medieval warfare. In the past, the word ‘march’ was mostly used to refer to the distance that an army covered in a day. When you ‘steal a march’, you are covering a certain distance without the enemy being in the know. As a surprise tactic, Generals ordered their troops to march through the night — thus catching their enemy off guard in the morning.

How is the word ‘singe’ pronounced? (L Deepa, Chennai)

The word consists of only one syllable. The ‘s..i..n’ is pronounced like the word ‘sin’, and the following ‘ge’ sounds like the ‘j’ in ‘jam’ and ‘juice’. The word is pronounced ‘SINJ’, and it comes from the Old English ‘sengan’ meaning ‘to burn lightly’. Nowadays, it is mostly used to mean to burn ‘superficially’ or ‘slightly’. Singe is a very tiny burn; it is only the surface that gets burnt. For example, when you pass your hands over a candle, sometimes, the hair on your arm gets singed — in other words, it gets burnt, without the hair actually catching fire.

Mayank got too close to the campfire, it singed his eyebrows.

The new rug was singed by a piece of coal that fell out of the fireplace.

What is the difference between ‘steal’ and ‘pilfer’? (Naresh Kumar, Pune)

In both cases, you are taking something that does not belong to you. One can steal money, objects and even ideas. When you steal money, for example, it could be a small amount (ten rupees), or it could be a big one (several crores). When you ‘pilfer’ money from an organisation, for example, what you are doing is stealing a small amount of money. One can pilfer repeatedly and make a vast amount. Some experts suggest that the word is used to refer to things that you steal from your place of work.

Jai has the habit of stealing towels from hotels.

Mala was caught pilfering biscuits from the stall.


Politicians don’t lie, they misspeak. And they don’t steal, they mispocket. Robert Breault

The writer teaches at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 9:57:54 PM |

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