Fits and starts

中国日报网 2013-08-30 10:57



Fits and startsReader question:

Please explain “fits and starts” in this headline: Greenland loses ice in fits and starts.

My comments:

Greenland, the Arctic island covered mostly by an ice sheet, has been losing its ice partially due to global warming. Even though the process has been steady and continuing for some time, the amount of ice it loses each year is different and unpredictable. This year the ice melts rapidly. Next year, it melts slowly, so on and so forth.

In other words, it happens in spurts, or at an irregular pace.

“Fits” and “starts” are kind of tautological here.

Tautological? That means the use of two words that are similar in meaning.

Repetitive? Yes, that’s right.

First, let’s take a look at “fit” and “start” individually.

First, fit.

The “fit” in fits and starts refers to a convulsion, a spasm, a tightening of a muscle in an uncontrollable way. As a medical condition, when some people experience a fit, they experience violent, involuntary muscular contractions in the limbs or the face.

By extension, girls are given to having a fit of giggles. That’s when they burst into giggles and cannot stop laughing and shaking in the body. Likewise, people may fly into a fit of rage. That’s when they, say, hear something that makes them uncontrollably angry.

To have a start, on the other hand, is to experience a sudden, also involuntary, shake in the body due to surprise or fear. Thieves and on-the-run criminals, for instance, may start at the sound of sirens from a police car in the street. That’s their fear of being caught working at the subconscious level, and they themselves may or may not notice it.

I am reading Wuthering Heights, the classic by Emile Bronte, and have found many instances of “fit” and “start”. Here are just two examples.

First, “fit” in “a fit of coughing” as Nelly Dean, the female servant narrates the death of Mrs Earnshaw:

Till within a week of her death that gay heart never failed her; and her husband persisted doggedly, nay, furiously, in affirming her health improved every day. When Kenneth warned him that his medicines were useless at that stage of the malady, and he needn’t put him to further expense by attending her, he retorted, ‘I know you need not—she’s well—she does not want any more attendance from you! She never was in a consumption. It was a fever; and it is gone: her pulse is as slow as mine now, and her cheek as cool.

He told his wife the same story, and she seemed to believe him; but one night, while leaning on his shoulder, in the act of saying she thought she should be able to get up to-morrow, a fit of coughing took her—a very slight one—he raised her in his arms; she put her two hands about his neck, her face changed, and she was dead.

Then, “start” as Nelly describes, this time, the Death of Mr. Heathcliff:

The following evening was very wet: indeed, it poured down till day-dawn; and, as I took my morning walk round the house, I observed the master’s window swinging open, and the rain driving straight in. He cannot be in bed, I thought: those showers would drench him through. He must either be up or out. But I’ll make no more ado, I’ll go boldly and look.

Having succeeded in obtaining entrance with another key, I ran to unclose the panels, for the chamber was vacant; quickly pushing them aside, I peeped in. Mr. Heathcliff was there—laid on his back. His eyes met mine so keen and fierce, I started; and then he seemed to smile. I could not think him dead: but his face and throat were washed with rain; the bed-clothes dripped, and he was perfectly still. The lattice, flapping to and fro, had grazed one hand that rested on the sill; no blood trickled from the broken skin, and when I put my fingers to it, I could doubt no more: he was dead and stark!

When put together, the phrase “fits and starts” (always plural) is descriptive of an activity which is “intermittent, variable in intensity, and prolonged by interruptions” (

In other words, it’s on again, off again (now on, now off); now volatile, now peaceful, and not at all regular and predictable.


Alright, media examples:

1. Egypt’s revolution, a key development in last year’s Arab Spring uprisings, has since sputtered and fumed to almost no one’s satisfaction: not the international community’s, not the Egyptian people’s, not even the revolutionaries’ themselves.

Despite the dissatisfaction, the fact that it is moving ahead — albeit by fits and starts — is reason for encouragement, an authority on Egypt said Monday, adding that even the continuing street protests are signs that the people still hope for change and believe that their voices count. In addition, they are not being violently repressed.

“This isn’t over … it’s just starting,” said Jon Alterman, the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Alterman spoke at Harvard’s Sever Hall as part of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies’ lecture series on the region’s transformation. The talk, hosted by Roger Owen, the A.J. Meyer Professor of Middle East History, was titled “The Egyptian Revolutions and Defining the New Normals.”

- Egypt’s revolution: A work in progress,, December 4, 2012.

2. The talks regarding the Los Angeles Clippers’ attempt to acquire Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers are off again, multiple media outlets reported.

“The deal is completely dead,” a source told Yahoo! Sports.

Rivers, who is under contract with the Celtics for three years and $21 million, has returned to his home in Orlando for the weekend and is no longer interested in the Clippers job, according to a Yahoo! Sports report.

The talks have come in fits and starts, and the changing nature of the discussions was evident Friday morning when the Celtics cancelled a scheduled press conference with president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and Rivers without giving a reason.

It originally was scheduled for noon EDT on Friday.

The Celtics sent out an e-mail at 9:30 a.m., announcing the press conference at the team’s practice facility in Waltham, Mass., according to No reason was given why it was scheduled, but it is assumed to involve Rivers’ future with the team.

It was then cancelled an hour later.

The Celtics did indicate that the press conference will likely be rescheduled for Monday, but no other details were provided.

- Report: Clippers talks for Rivers are off again,, June 21, 2013.

3. Douglas Brinkley says he got the idea to write a biography of Walter Cronkite from David Halberstam. During a casual conversation on a long car ride, Halberstam told him that Cronkite was “the most significant journalist of the second half of the twentieth century,” and that someone ought to write his biography. The life Brinkley produced, “Cronkite” (HarperCollins), is long and hastily written, and it’s not immediately apparent what Brinkley’s take on Cronkite is. Much of the biography is quite critical. In the end, though, Brinkley is determined to back the claim that Halberstam made on that momentous car ride. The Cronkite story has become part of a much larger, decline-of-the-news narrative—the narrative that the new HBO series “Newsroom” is built on, for example, and that Cronkite’s deposed successor as CBS News anchor, Dan Rather, pursues in a new book, “Rather Outspoken” (Grand Central Publishing). Some of that narrative may be true, but a lot of it is Camelot, and extracting the facts without damaging the myth is a delicate business. Discusses Cronkite’s early career, his radio reporting from Europe during the Second World War, and his relationship with Edward R. Murrow. Cronkite’s career at CBS proceeded by fits and starts until the chairman of the company, William Paley, chose him to replace Douglas Edwards on the evening news, in 1962. During his nineteen years as the nightly news anchor, Cronkite also anchored or co-anchored CBS’s coverage of most of the major-party political conventions; he covered every NASA space shot, from Mercury to the Apollo moon landings; and he was on the air seemingly non-stop during national events like the Kennedy assassination and the Bicentennial celebration. In 1981, when he was sixty-five, he voluntarily stepped down as news anchor. He was replaced by Dan Rather, his own choice for the post. Discusses “the Cronkite moment” and considers whether Cronkite’s 1968 “Report from Vietnam” caused President Johnson not to run for reelection. Cronkite came to believe (and Brinkley agrees) that the man who put him out in the electronic cold was Rather. Rather’s book is principally a defense of the story that got Rather removed from the anchor job and ultimately from CBS—his 2004 “60 Minutes” report on George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard. Rather has only agreeable things to say about Cronkite in “Rather Outspoken.” He does have disagreeable things to say about the president of CBS and the head of the news division. But the villain of his story is Sumner Redstone, who, at the time of the National Guard debacle, was the chairman of Viacom, which owned CBS. (Unwisely, Rather sued CBS and Viacom after he was let go. The case was tossed out.) Rather’s belief is that he was thrown under the bus by corporation men who betrayed the legacy of CBS News to protect their profits.

- Seeing It Now: Walter Cronkite and the legend of CBS News,, July 9, 2012.

Related stories:

A rough and tumble career

Through the revolving door?

Keep his counsel?

Halo effect?

Throwing them a bone?

Smoking gun evidence?

Political horse trading

Go to Zhang Xin's column


About the author:

Zhang Xin(张欣) 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.





















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