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Hand to mouth?

[ 2011-07-12 15:26]     字号 [] [] []  
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Hand to mouth?Reader question:

Please explain “hand to mouth government” in the following passage:

This is a hand to mouth government. This government has no programme to confront the economic crisis.

My comments:

If likened to a person, a hand to mouth government is one who has barely enough to eat.

You know what a person who barely has enough to eat is like, don’t you? He or she would grab anything to put into their mouth to quench their hunger, but otherwise would not care much for anything else. They won’t have the energy or the higher purpose for anything nobler.

Such as tackling the economic crisis.

Anyways, hand to mouth is the idiom in question. This idiom is said to have developed from “when times were hard in the past and during a great famine back in the 16th century in Britain” (SaidWhat.co.uk):

Record numbers of people at these times had precious little food to eat due to the famine, and so whenever they got a piece of food they would literally put it straight from hand to mouth to ensure that no-one else could take it and eat it before them, such was the desperation for some food.

Yeah, straight from hand to mouth. In other words, they only care for food or matters of immediate concern – food to them, after all, means life or death.

As for hand to mouth governments, I think, similarly they’re those that don’t have enough money to cover basic budgets, let alone projects of a higher purpose, such as opening new art museums and so forth.

The Greek Government is a hand to mouth government. The Irish, yeah. The Spanish, too. Even America to a degree, considering its large budget deficit.

Not the Chinese, though. Our governments at all levels are awash with money. They have so much money that it sometimes seems they have more than they can spend competently and wisely.

I am not complaining, though. Nor are our governments at all levels complaining, either, I don’t think, because to have more money than one can spend competently and wisely is a great position to be in. Americans certainly won’t mind finding themselves in this position. They don’t have this luxury, though. In fact, their government has run out of money again at the federal level and currently risks a shutdown. This from The Economist (The risk of an American government shutdown: Time to stop play-acting and spit out the tea, March 31, 2011):

THIRTY billion dollars is a lot of money for anyone except America’s government. In Washington it is a bagatelle: about what the feds spend in three days, or less than 2% of the predicted budget deficit for this year. Yet in the peculiar battle that is now raging over the budget for a fiscal year already half over, $30 billion is all that now separates the Republicans and the Democrats, who have been bickering for the past 14 months over the details. Because neither side thinks it can afford to back down, the risks of a government shutdown are rising fast; without an agreement, the government will run out of money on April 8th.

However, governing people and managing economies are too large a topic to tackle here. Let’s go small and turn our attention to the phrase itself. Here are two media examples of “hand to mouth”, with the first example dating back to 1959:

1. Since U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles took ill and Britain's Prime Minister Harold Macmillan stepped forward toward the leadership of the free world, the British press has been bursting with local pride. And in the process of building Macmillan up, even such ordinarily responsible papers as the Daily Telegraph and the weekly Observer have joined the raucous “popular” press in pot-shooting at an old friend. The target: U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, depicted in the British press as a sick, doddering old man who cannot possibly match wits with Russia’s Nikita Khrushchev at a summer summit conference.

Beginning in February, Daily Mirror Columnist Richard Crossman, a Labor M.P., urged Prime Minister Macmillan to step into the Western vacuum of leadership. Said Grossman: “Poor Mr. Eisenhower is far too old and ailing even to try negotiations with the Kremlin.” Asked the Sunday Express: “Will Ike now turn to Macmillan?” Answer: yes. Reason: “Too long has Ike let himself be known as a leader only in title, who in fact, needs someone else to lead him.” Said the Daily Telegraph: “President Eisenhower is, alas, no longer robust, and the West can provide no substitute for an active and authoritative American Secretary of State.” Said the Daily Express: LEADERSHIP LIES LIKE A DISCARDED SCEPTER IN AMERICA TODAY.

“Dead Men.” Last month in the New Statesman, onetime Punch Editor Malcolm Muggeridge fired even more wildly. Said Muggeridge, under the title “Dead Men Leading”: “Probably no powerful country in history has had quite so dead a government as the U.S. has today. It is not just a matter of the infirmities of its two principal figures—President Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles. Apart from the decrepitude of the one and the fatal illness of the other, the government itself is scarcely operative.”

Last week the attack continued in full cry. The Observer spoke worriedly of the President’s “apparent incapacity for work or decision.” Asked the Sunday Express: “Has the time come for Ike to step down? . . . What chance has the free world when its leadership is in the hands of a man who can hardly perform his day-to-day tasks? How can we expect President Eisenhower to hold his own against Mr. Khrushchev, healthy, exuberant, indefatigable?”

“A Broken Man.” Said the Daily Herald: “Sick men can’t rule the world . . . It is the West’s tragedy that the President is NOT fit for service. At 68, America’s wartime hero is a broken man, incapable of the energy required to grasp important matters for any length of time.”

Said the New Statesman: “It is his capacity that is in doubt, not his will . . . The result is hand-to-mouth government, without either a set purpose or the political know-how to carry out whatever vague aims the President may conceive.

- The Press: Tearing down to build up, Time Magazine, May 4, 1959.

2. From the younger generation of super-rich, Liu Yiqian is China’s biggest art collector.

Chinese media have dubbed him “the eccentric Mr Liu” because he wears T-shirts to work and shaves only occasionally, but his investment style suggests he is highly savvy.

As my crew fussed around his office preparing for the interview, Liu appeared unfazed, intently studying a huge screen of stock prices, a cigarette in one hand, and a mug of tea by his side.

Born in 1963 into an ordinary working class family in Shanghai, Liu left school at 14 to help his mother with her handbag business.

Initially, he made the bags which she sold from a stand on the street. But Liu worked out a way of making the bags cheaper than the other street vendors. By undercutting them he outsold them.

It was the beginning of the 1980s, and the earliest roots of China’s move to capitalism were being put in place. Small but significant fortunes were being made.

At the time there was a phrase in Shanghai: “becoming a 10,000 yuan person.” The average wage was 300 yuan per year at that time and the people earning 10,000 in Shanghai were all street traders like Liu.

He became a 10,000 yuan person aged 17. But although his fortune was on the rise, he and his family were still living hand to mouth.

Liu’s big break came when he was 27, and his on-the-job schooling finally proved useful. He was visiting the Shenzhen economic zone to buy materials for bags when he met a former classmate, who told him about a new thing called stock trading.

He bought his first holding in a company that operated very near his bag stall, so he knew all about them.

The shares cost 100 yuan and within a year their value increased to 10,000 yuan. He eventually sold his stake for more than two million yuan.

His wealth is based on that one transaction. Liu invested the profit in companies across a wide range of industries, all of which grew sharply.

- China's billionaires: Liu Yiqian, China's biggest art collector, BBC.co.uk, June 14, 2011.



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.


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(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑陈丹妮)