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Sitting on their hands?

[ 2011-05-06 13:22]     字号 [] [] []  
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Sitting on their hands?

Reader question:

Please explain “sitting on their hands” in this sentence: Still, regulators want to make sure that they cannot be accused of sitting on their hands.

My comments:

Well, apparently something bad, say an industrial accident, happened and regulators snapped to action, ready to introduce, say, a whole bunch of new regulations.

My interpretation is, and I may be wrong, is that the new regulations are not going to work because they’re made just for the sake of it so that the bureaucrats won’t be accused of “sitting on their hands”, i.e. doing nothing when they’re supposed to be doing something.

And so there you have it, a whole bunch of new regulations to come. It’s the bureaucrats’ way of saying, we want to help.

To be fair, there are those situations in real life, where some sort of help is better than nothing. Take another mining accident, for instance. It would make family members feel better if bureaucrats promptly do something on their behalf.

Anyways, “sitting on their hands” is the expression in question here. It is an American expression and it is a position to avoid in general.

The position itself is often seen in kindergarten. To prevent two- or three-year-olds from playing with their hands while listening, or rather not listening, to the teacher, the teacher sometimes order these toddlers to literally sit on their hands, i.e. putting both hands, palm down, under their hips.

Obviously one can’t do much from this position.

Hence metaphorically speaking, if you sit on your hands when something happens, you do nothing, especially when you’re supposed to do something. For example, “when we needed help from Mary, she just sat on her hands”. The Chinese equivalent, in this case, will be 袖手旁观 – she tucked both hands in her sleeves and watched on, not lending a finger.

This term is also used to call out people in the audience who fail to applaud when they’re supposed to. For instance, “the afternoon audience was apathetic, sitting on their hands for the whole performance”. One or two things must have happened here. The performance was poor. The audiences are impolite or are unable to appreciate the performance.

Or perhaps they have all fallen asleep.

Anyways, according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, “both usages of this metaphor for passivity date from the first half of the 1900s.”

Here, an example of each usage, first for inaction, second for failing to clap hands:

1. Wall Street banks got greedy. Credit rating agencies acted as enablers. Congress and federal regulators looked the other way. It’s become the familiar refrain for those investigating what caused the financial crisis, as reported earlier on Credit.com. Now a new, authoritative report confirms it. In a 635-page tome released Wednesday, the Senate Permanent Committee on Investigations reached the same conclusions.

“Using their own words ... the report discloses how financial firms deliberately took advantage of their clients and investors, how credit rating agencies assigned AAA ratings to high risk securities, and how regulators sat on their hands instead of reining in the unsafe and unsound practices all around them,” Senator Carl Levin (D – MI), the committee’s ranking Democrat, said in a press release. “Rampant conflicts of interest are the threads that run through every chapter of this sordid story.”

Unlike previous attempts by Congress to find blame that ended up mired in partisan divisions, most notably the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission report, the investigations committee managed to hold things together. Members of both parties agreed they had uncovered evidence of widespread fraud and deceit by leaders of the nation’s largest banks and financial institutions.

- Credit.com Senate Committee: Greed, Complacency Caused the Crisis, Credit.com, April 16, 2011.

2. The reason why NFL teams battle so hard for home field advantage and first round byes during the regular season was plainly evident on Saturday night. The Patriots and Titans are two evenly matched teams that might split ten games against each other on a neutral field. But mix together sub-zero temperatures, an impressively loud fandom, and an Adam Vinatieri fourth-quarter kick in tough conditions and you have the formula for the Patriots reaching their third AFC Championship Game in seven years.

The fans who braved the cold to attend the game showed the rest of the nation that indeed Patriots Nation contains some of the best fans in the League. Right or wrong, since the new stadium opened, these fans have been accused of sitting on their hands. Not on Saturday night. It became so loud that a very good Titans' offensive line had numerous false start penalties and the Titans were forced to burn at least two timeouts due to the loud noise. The crowd noise and the boost it provided to the Patriots may have been the difference in such a close game.

- Home Field Was the Difference, PatsFans.com, January 10, 2004.



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.


Sweet spot?

Butter them up?

From the blue?

Victor’s justice?

(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑陈丹妮)