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Third rail, turn a blind eye, rub the wrong way, by and large

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November 24th, 2015

Third rail

When we talk about something being a “third rail,” we mean it’s controversial, touchy, or more to the point, shocking. For instance, a topic that is a “third rail of politics” is a sensitive matter—one likely to spark debate and perhaps even partisan rancor. 

The phrase itself is a reference to the third rail that runs along a subway track. There are two rails for the train’s wheels and a third that carries a high-voltage current to power the train’s motor. Because this “third rail” is electrically charged, it serves as an apt metaphor for politically charged or sensitive issues.

“Race relations has always been a political third rail in the United States.”

Turn a blind eye

Admiral Horatio Nelson is, to this day, perhaps the most beloved naval hero in British history. Those who are familiar with him know that he was blind in one eye. During one of the many battles he took part in, the fleet’s flagship signaled for him to stop firing on a Danish vessel. Overzealous as he was, however, Nelson refused. Instead, he put his telescope to his blind eye and declared, “I do not see the signal.”

Thus was born the phrase “turn a blind eye,” which means to ignore something.

“A toddler’s bad behavior will only worsen if you turn a blind eye to it.”

Rub the wrong way

Anybody who has ever owned a cat knows they can be very particular about how they are treated. This goes for everything from what they eat to how you pet them. As to the latter point, cats like to be rubbed from front to back (in the direction their hair falls). When you pet them from back to front, it ruffles their fur and causes discomfort. 

You’ll irritate a cat if you rub him the wrong way—hence the phrase’s usage today.

“His constant interruptions during dinner really rubbed me the wrong way.”

By and large

In the good old days of sailing ships, the word “large” often referred to a ship sailing with the wind at its back. Of course, this was the ideal situation for a vessel at sea. Then there was the not-so-ideal “by,” which meant that the boat was heading into the wind. 

Therefore, when you put the two words together you get a little-known piece of nautical parlance: “by and large,” which means that you’re going in any and every direction depending on the wind. That’s why, today, the phrase “by and large” is equivalent to “generally” or “for the most part.”

“Our vacation tended toward boring, but by and large, it was pleasant enough.”

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