The meaning of war is lost on him?

2012-03-16 11:04



The meaning of war is lost on him?

Reader question:

Please explain “lost on him” in this sentence: “He said when he fought in Viet Nam, the meaning of war was lost on him. That has since changed.”

My comments:

To paraphrase: When he fought in Viet Nam, he did not understand the meaning of war. Now he does.

In other words, he was young then, just shooting, for instance, when he was told to shoot without thinking about why he was sent to kill, whom he was fighting against and what he was fighting for.

In other words, whether it was a just war (a war fought for a just cause) or just another war.

Or other profound things like that, which you cannot expect young soldiers to understand fully.

The “meaning of war” reminds me, for example, of Paul Simon’s song The Side of a Hill:

On the side of a hill, in a land called somewhere, a little boy lies asleep in the earth. While down in the valley a cruel war rages, and people forget what a child’s life is worth.

On the side of a hill, a little cloud weeps, and waters the grave with its silent tears, while a soldier cleans and polishes a gun that ended a life at the age of seven years.

And the war rages on in a land called somewhere. And generals order their men to kill, and to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten, while a little cloud weeps on the side of a hill.

When I first heard it years ago, I thought it was beautiful, as many Paul Simon songs were beautiful, but I did not pay attention to its larger theme – that it was an anti-war song. And you can say that when I first heard it, its anti-war theme was lost on me. That is, I did not understand it.

That’s the meaning of something getting lost on someone – it has no effect on them. Either they do not pay attention or they ignore it, they do not understand it, do not appreciate it.

Another example. When you tell a foreigner a joke in Chinese, you want to be careful and go slow. Even though the foreigner understand the individual words, it’s very difficult sometimes for them to get the joke. Sometimes, they nod and say they understand, but they don’t laugh. That’s the thing, the words they get but the joke was lost on them. In other words, they understand the drift but don’t get the irony or sarcasm. They do not get the nitty-gritty.

Same thing is true the other way around, of course.

Alright, let’s learn more about the phrase via real media examples:

1. THIS Friday sees the release of Amazing Grace, a biopic of William Wilberforce that portrays his life-long effort, along with his friend, William Pitt the younger, to pass a bill in Westminster abolishing the slave trade. Among other things, the film focuses on the problem facing Wilberforce and the abolitionists, to make the horror of the slave trade an issue to Britons who lived thousands of miles from its reality.

Last week, in Glasgow, I met Michael Apted, the British-born director of Amazing Grace, who was travelling round Britain promoting the film. We strolled around Glasgow’s Merchant City, and stopped to chat not far from the Tobacco Merchants House in Miller Street. “Wilberforce and the abolitionists had a similar problem to those opposing the Iraq war today, which is to say that slavery didn’t really touch people,” he explains. “People had no real connection to slavery. All they felt was sugar, and the irony of that sweetness was lost on them. There were only a few dozen black people in Glasgow and no real slavery as such, so there was this interesting dynamic as to how the abolitionists could dramatise this horror to them, how they could draw people's attention to it when it was happening 3,000 miles away; that was the challenge.”

Apted is one of a group of campaigners who believe that a proper acknowledgement of the slave trade could help smooth out Britain’s multiculturalist society. But relationships are thorny, and slavery is a sore subject. His film has already been condemned by black leaders who claim the film “prettifies the tragedy” of slavery, by focusing on Wilberforce, reducing the suffering of Africans to a “mere bit part”. Apted defends the film, seeing it as part of a wider reconciliation process.

He says: “I think there is a lot of work to be done in this country about multiculturalism and diversity. The British have an island mentality, a defensive mentality, and I think there is a lot of work to be done to remove discrimination. And I think the acknowledgement of the legacy of the slave trade shines a light on it. It shines a light on racial abuse, which is what slavery is about.”

- Glasgow’s dark secret,, March 30, 2007

2. The Magic will never respond to Howard again, and that’s on him. They’re lost in a brutal five-out-of-six-games debacle, and Howard’s public proclamation calling out Magic teammates last week has compounded issues. Despite his inability to separate the get-me-out-of-town Dwight and the I’m-your-leader Dwight, the organization knows one thing for sure: They’re the same guy.

“No need to point the finger,” Howard lectured on Monday night.

Yes, well, he’s done that. And that’s how he’s losing these Magic so fast – and why he’ll never get them back. No matter how dominant of a player, no matter how superior of a talent, the world’s best center has forfeited the right to talk to his teammates about commitment, professionalism and playing hard.

No one wants to hear it out of him. Howard has the right to ask for a trade, to want a better supporting cast, a bigger shoe deal. Whatever. Those are the privileges of stardom, but they no longer come with a license to lecture these Magic.

When asked about how the Magic reacted to his calling them out after the two debacle losses to the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers, the contradiction was lost on him.

“It’s not the first time I called them out, and sometimes I’ve got to do things that people don’t like,” Howard said. “People hate what they don’t understand, and my teammates understand why I said what I said. They all agree. It’s not like they’re [saying], ‘Oh, Dwight’s wrong for what he said.’ ”

- Dwight Howard lost pass to rip teammates, Yahoo! Sports, January 31, 2012.

3. Simon Davies, director-general of Privacy International, the pressure group that has been warning about the ease of such invasions for years, thinks it's an apt metaphor – but equally that, like the environmental movement, awareness is growing that it’s not right, and that we can’t go on this way.

“We have had developers tell us that they don’t want their platform screwed up by too much privacy management,” he says. “There’s all sorts of hoodwinking and linguistic devices that they use to persuade you to hand over your data.” Such practices are pervasive, he says.

But he sees signs for optimism: there’s growing awareness among a number of people on social networks (the irony might not be lost on you) that there’s value in keeping information about yourself, your whereabouts and life private. Not just to protect yourself from identity theft; also just because it’s nice to have some part of you that isn’t subjected to the panopticon of the web.

“It is like the environmental movement, in that there are evangelists working to keep the brakes on excess use,” says Davies. “I think Microsoft and Google are starting to see a change there.”

- The end of online privacy?, February 28, 2012.



About the author:

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


Don’t take it to heart

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(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑陈丹妮)

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