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Down but not out
[ 2008-01-25 11:33 ]

Reader question:

What does the expression "down but not out" mean? And where does it come from? Give examples.

My comments:

"Down but not out" is a variation of "down and out." Both expressions come from the game of boxing.

It is one thing to try to learn expressions like these (along with their definitions and usage) by rote, but quite another, and far easier if you happen to know their origins. Learning idioms by rote doesn't always make it easy for you to put them into use correctly. Understanding where they come from, on the other hand, often gives you the confidence that you can put them into use in the right circumstances.

In the game of boxing, one of the more dramatic ways to end a contest (or bout, as it is called) is by knockout, i.e. by KNOCKing your opponent OUT (unconscious). The knockout is declared if a player who's knocked DOWN to the floor (or canvas as they call it) fails to stand up on his feet within 10 seconds. As soon as the player is down on the floor, the referee begins the count to 10, at the end of which he waves his hand and sometimes say "OUT", meaning the player is deemed out of conscious and therefore unable to continue. Game over.

A lot of times the player who's knocked down is able to stand back up before the count to ten ends and therefore the game continues. In this case, the player is described as "down but not out". The fight resumes until one player is knocked down, and this time fails to get up. In this case, he's described as "down and out." If neither player is knocked out, they are said to be able to go the distance of a, say, 12-round fight. The winner is declared then via a points count by three ring-side officials. Oh, never mind.

"Down but not out" hence applies to situations where people are having temporary difficulties but are not deemed hopeless of recovery and eventual victory. If people are described as "down and out", on the other hand, the situation is, well, pretty dire for them. The homeless, jobless, those on welfare are often said to be down-and-out, meaning they don't have a chance. Not that they really don't have a chance, just that society considers them to be so.

Back to boxing for a moment, the Great Mohammed Ali was often down during fights in his illustrious career, forced to the corner and on to the ropes and so forth, but seldom did he get knocked out. Mike Tyson, on the other hand, was seldom down and but gave the impression that he was always knocked out whenever he was knocked down. That's why Iron Mike, who once claimed to be the "Baddest" man on the planet, always shrinks in comparison with Ali.

It borders on sacrilege, in fact, for me to have mentioned Tyson in the same breath with Ali, Tyson, not me, being the guilty party of course (lest young readers who are only old enough to watch Tyson entertain the wrong ideas). In terms of spirituality, Ali is peerless in the ring (the boxing playing field) and outside. Ali was big enough, you see, to not forget shaking hands with the guards at the court trial that sentenced him to prison for refusing to go half the globe and fight a war in Viet Nam because he "ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong".

Uh oh, I'm drifting again. Anyways, those are my idol thoughts on boxers.

And here are media examples:

  • Down but not out

1. Dollar is down, but not out, as Fed cuts rates

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The Federal Reserve's biggest emergency interest rate cut in more than two decades took a bite out of the U.S. dollar on Tuesday, but could end up helping both the currency and the U.S. economy rebound as early as this spring.

2. Darwin down but not out

The British government has withdrawn its bid to have Charles Darwin's home and the surrounding countryside designated a World Heritage Site, at the same time expressing strong concern over the way in which sites of scientific heritage are judged. The decision follows an unfavourable evaluation of the Darwin bid by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), which advises UNESCO's World Heritage Committee on aspects of cultural heritage (nature.com, June 21, 2007).

  • Down and out

1. Reality Check: Sanjaya Down and Out on 'American Idol'

So it finally happened: Despite the valiant efforts of Fanjayas and ruckus-causers across the country, the 17-year-old was sent packing.

Based on the response in the auditorium — insane hoots and hollers of joy when Ryan revealed that LaKisha was staying while Sanjaya was leaving — this momentous occasion happened not a minute too soon.

But in the Sanjaya universe, heroes don't go down without a fight — or at least a snarky comment — and our boy got his by changing the words of Bonnie Raitt's song from "Let's give them something to talk about, how about love?" to "Let's give them something to talk about, other than hair."

To which I say: Sanjaya, people didn't only talk about your hair. They also spent a good deal of time lamenting your voice. And some of us also pondered your weirder comments about the universe of Sanjaya and whatnot (FOXNews.com, April 19, 2007).

2. Brewster Manse Welcomes the Down and Out

Despite its upper-crust name, there are no lords, earls, or duchesses living at Morningthorpe Manor. The Brewster mansion, with its 31 rooms and 13 fireplaces, instead houses "commoners"-the kind with guts, determination, and a strong will to radically improve their lives. The stately 1894 mansion, on 50 acres that include a carriage house and two other residences, is one of the five facilities nationwide that make up Delancey Street, America's leading residential self-help organization for the disenfranchised. It's a haven for everyone from ex-cons to the homeless to those who have simply hit rock bottom.

Since opening in 1980, the Brewster Delancey Street has turned around the lives of up to 7,000 men and women, ages 18 to 68-many of whom were hard-core drug and alcohol abusers with no work skills or education and histories of poverty or violence. During their two- to four-year stays, residents earn a GED and are trained in three marketable fields, such as the culinary arts, woodworking, moving and trucking, construction, accounting, automotive repair, and antique refinishing. Occupants also learn positive ethics, as well as practical and social skills that teach them how to lead productive, crime- and drug-free lives full of purpose and integrity (lohud.com, December 21, 2007).



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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