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Catbird seat

[ 2011-12-28 09:12]     字号 [] [] []  
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Catbird seat

Reader question:

Please explain “catbird seat”, as in this sentence: He’s the swing voter and sits in the catbird seat.

My comments:

First of all, he’s “the swing voter” means that his vote swings the election, one way or the other. That means his vote counts, may decide who wins the election and therefore is important to both candidates.

Hence, that put this person “in the catbird seat”, i.e. an advantageous position – both candidates covet his vote and therefore would try to please him.

And so, catbird seat equals advantage, but allow me to explain.

Just the other day, I saw this subtitle from the New Yorker online: House Republicans’ bungling of the payroll tax put the President in the catbird seat... (Obama’s Christmas Present, by John Cassidy, December 22, 2011).

That means, by the way, that Republicans messing up things only benefits the Democrats in general and in particular President Barack Obama, who’s running for re-election (hence the Christmas present analogy).

Anyways, this New Yorker line is relevant because “Catbird seat” is coined by the New Yorker’s long time cartoonist and humor writer James Thurber (1894-1961), who used the expression, and explained it, in an article of the very same title The Catbird Seat (The New Yorker, Nov. 14, 1942):

Mr. Martin bought the pack of Camels on Monday night in the most crowded cigar store on Broadway. It was theatre time and seven or eight men were buying cigarettes. The clerk didn’t even glance at Mr. Martin, who put the pack in his overcoat pocket and went out. If any of the staff at F & S had seen him buy the cigarettes, they would have been astonished, for it was generally known that Mr. Martin did not smoke, and never had. No one saw him.

It was just a week to the day since Mr. Martin had decided to rub out Mrs. Ulgine Barrows. The term “rub out” pleased him because it suggested nothing more than the correction of an error--in this case an error of Mr. Fitweiler. Mr. Martin had spent each night of the past week working out his plan and examining it. As he walked home now he went over it again. For the hundredth time he resented the element of imprecision, the margin of guesswork that entered into the business. The project as he had worked it out was casual and bold, the risks were considerable. Something might go wrong anywhere along the line. And therein lay the cunning of his scheme. No one would ever see in it the cautious, painstaking hand of Erwin Martin, head of the filing department at F & S, of whom Mr. Fitweiler had once said, “Man is fallible but Martin isn’t.” No one would see his hand, that is, unless it were caught in the act.

Sitting in his apartment, drinking a glass of milk, Mr. Martin reviewed his case against Mrs. Ulgine Barrows, as he had every night for seven nights. He began at the beginning. Her quacking voice and braying laugh had first profaned the halls of F & S on March 7, 1941 (Mr. Martin had a head for dates). Old Roberts, the personnel chief, had introduced her as the newly appointed special adviser to the president of the firm, Mr. Fitweiler. The woman had appalled Mr. Martin instantly, but he hadn’t shown it. He had given her his dry hand, a look of studious concentration, and a faint smile. “Well,” she had said, looking at the papers on his desk, “are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch?” As Mr. Martin recalled that moment, over his milk, he squirmed slightly. He must keep his mind on her crimes as a special adviser, not on her peccadillos as a personality. This he found difficult to do, in spite of entering an objection and sustaining it. The faults of the woman as a woman kept chattering on in his mind like an unruly witness. She had, for almost two years now, baited him. In the halls, in the elevator, even in his own office, into which she romped now and then like a circus horse, she was constantly shouting these silly questions at him. “Are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch? Are you tearing up the pea patch? Are you hollering down the rain barrel? Are you scraping around the bottom of the pickle barrel? Are you sitting in the catbird seat?

It was Joey Hart, one of Mr. Martin’s two assistants, who had explained what the gibberish meant. “She must be a Dodger fan,” he had said. “Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions--picked ‘em up down South.” Joey had gone on to explain one or two. “Tearing up the pea patch” meant going on a rampage; “sitting in the catbird seat” means sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him. Mr. Martin dismissed all this with an effort. It had been annoying, it had driven him near to distraction, but he was too solid a man to be moved to murder by anything so childish. It was fortunate, he reflected as he passed on to the important charges against Mrs. Barrows, that he had stood up under it so well. He had maintained always an outward appearance of polite tolerance. “Why, I even believe you like the woman,” Miss Paird, his other assistant, had once said to him. He had simply smiled.

So, there. The catbird is a North American bird that mimics the cat mew or meow if you will. Hence its name. This bird likes to perch himself/herself on the tallest branch of a tree and sing out loud, attracting mates or warning off rivals. The tallest branch of the tree is therefore the “catbird seat”, where the bird gets an overview of what’s going on from all directions.

Hence the metaphor that the catbird seat equals to an advantageous position, where one sits comfortably and enjoys their advantage, whatever it is.

Alright, here are more media examples:

1. This show was conceived as a one-hour special about the non-Michael Jackson brothers planning a new album and tour together, as a way of trying to cash in on this year's 40th anniversary of the Jackson 5.

Michael Jackson had nothing to do with this project and was not involved in any of the initial filming, which began back in January.

Shooting wrapped just days before Jackson's sudden death. After that, the production company behind the special, Point 7, started shooting more footage — this time of the family dealing with the loss of Michael.

Since June 25, A&E has been sitting in the catbird seat, having already announced its Jackson project to advertisers back in May. Technically, it was not listed among its unscripted series pilots. It was described as a show in which Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Randy Jackson “allow unprecedented access into their world as they embark on their most personal reunion album and tour.”

- A&E takes full advantage of Jackson’s death, SignOnSanDiego.com, August 28, 2009.

2. The credit crunch on Wall Street is spreading its tentacles over all areas of the credit market, and students are not immune. A majority of private colleges and universities lost at least one student loan lender, and a significant portion of students said they found it hard to get a replacement lender, according to a national survey released Tuesday.

More than 500 members of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities responded to the survey, conducted in September. Of the colleges that responded, 424 said they lost at least one student lender and 27 percent of that group said students had trouble finding a new lender.

The lack of available funds for investment in student loans is causing lenders to make the requirements for securing loans more stringent, said Trace Urdan, a senior analyst at Signal Hill Capital Partners, a Baltimore- and San Francisco-based investment bank.

“The credit score requirements of lenders will go up and up until the only people who can get loans are the people who don't need loans,” he said. “[The money] is still available but not so easy to get.” He predicted a rise in enrollment at two-year community colleges as a result.

Alan Collinge, who runs the political action committee Student Loan Justice, agreed, saying he suspected few students, if any, would be unable secure a loan but that the loans themselves would get worse.

“The terms and interest rates in these loans are going to get far worse, and they were really bad to begin with,” he said. “Students can’t bear the weight of student debt. When the average borrower is leaving school with $23,000 in loans something has gone horribly wrong.”

Collinge blamed universities for part of the crunch for raising their tuition rates at a faster rate than inflation.

Universities have been sitting in the catbird seat with this explosion of student loan debt,” he said. “As we go into this recession I predict the universities will lower - for once - their tuitions.”

- Credit crisis makes student loans harder to secure for future, UNOGateway.com, March 10, 2011.

3. There were two major nuclear non-proliferation conferences in April, one in Washington (President Barack Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit) and one in Tehran (International Conference on Disarmament and Non-Proliferation). A third, aka the Big One - the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference held in New York City under the auspices of the United Nations - is now taking place in New York.

China has attended all these confabs in its apparently successful efforts to stake out an advantageous and independent position on nuclear weapons policy and the Iran crisis - and counter Russian attempts to create a new, anti-China security condominium in alliance with the United States.

After months of anxiety and uncertainty, China finds itself in the catbird seat - and in a position to profit if Obama’s Iran diplomacy succeeds or, as appears very possible, it fails.

- China in the catbird seat on Iran, ATime.com, May 6, 2010.



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.


The great leveler?

Can of worms?

Slap on the wrist?

Stuck in a rut?

(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑陈丹妮)