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New word of the month
by Kerry Maxwell

trying to nail jelly to a tree idiom
(American English also) trying to nail jello to a tree idiom
trying to deal with a very difficult problem or a problem that cannot be solved

'Trying to keep this mailing list up-to-date is a bit like trying to nail jelly to a tree '

'Managing the process of software development has been likened to trying to nail jelly to a tree.'
(Chris Marshman, book review in New Electronics, September 1995)

The idiomatic phrase (like) trying to nail jelly to a tree has been popularised in computing and information technology, where it is used to describe a programming task which is considered either impossible or extremely difficult because of poor specification of the problem domain. It is also used to describe difficulties in learning programming languages.

The related phrase nailed to the wall is used to describe a programming problem that has finally been solved after a great deal of effort.

Though popularised in computing, the origins of both these phrases actually lie in politics. Theodore Roosevelt, in a letter to William Roscoe Thayer talking about the difficulty he was having negotiating with Columbia regarding the Panama canal, says:

'You could no more make an agreement with them than you could nail currant jelly to a wall - and the failure to nail currant jelly to a wall is not due to the nail; it is due to the currant jelly.'

This idiom has consequently been more widely recognised in the United States than in Britain, though today there is plenty of evidence that it is beginning to enter mainstream use in both countries, also in contexts outside of politics or IT. A typical scenario is when people are trying to stress the very problematic nature of a given task, e.g.:

'Defining an organisation chart for the University Libraries is a bit like trying to nail jelly to a tree! Don't expect to find a staid hierarchy here.'
(Susan V. Wawrzaszek, Brandeis Universities libraries liaison, April 2003)

The phrase is also used when people want to describe something which is generally accepted as a difficult aspect of life, e.g.:
'Raising teenagers is like trying to nail jelly to a tree.'

or when it is just plain impossible to know how to do something, as in:
'Getting him to pin down what he actually believes is like trying to nail jelly to a tree.'

Another idiom of related meaning which is popular in the computing world is like kicking dead whales down the beach. This is a phrase which is used to describe a particularly slow and difficult process. Though still firmly in the domain of 'hacker-speak', it has begun to make the journey into general use, presumably assisted by those hackers who use it in language contexts outside of computing to refer to any situation which is slow and difficult, e.g.: Getting her to do things differently is like kicking dead whales down the beach.

We've already observed that the computing domain is a rich source of neologisms, and idioms are no exception.

Of course there are many other contexts in which new idiomatic phrases are coined. In business slang, to throw it over the wall is to complete part of a project and then pass responsibility to someone else without properly communicating with them, e.g.:

'They didn't just want to create something in the lab and then throw it over the wall to the marketing team to sell.'

This idiom has been around since the mid-eighties and is presumably inspired by the concept of large open plan office floors divided by low partitions.

A more recent coining in the media is the idiom to jump the shark. Perpetuated on the Internet since 1997 by a dedicated website www.jumptheshark.com, this idiom refers to a television show including a dubious development of the plot which is indicative of its decline or a desperate attempt to improve its ratings. The idea behind this idiom is thought to originate with an episode of the popular 70s TV show Happy Days, when the character Fonzie jumped a tank full of sharks on a motorbike. It is said that the show was subsequently never as funny as it had been before that episode. This idiom has also entered domains other than the one where it was originally popularised, occurring for instance in media coverage of politics and sport, e.g.:

'Michael Dukakis jumped the shark when he climbed into a tank and put on an oversized helmet.'

'The Boston Red Sox jumped the shark when they traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees.'
(Bangor Daily News, 9th November 2002)

A rather controversial new idiom is to drink the Kool-Aid. This phrase is used mainly in the United States meaning to completely accept or believe in something blindly, without asking questions, e.g.:

'I'll be honest, earlier this year when President Bush first announced his "volunteer" initiative, FreedomCorp; I drank the Kool-Aid as quickly as the next guy.'
(Jason Wright, opinioneditorials.com, July 2002)

There is plenty of evidence on the Web to suggest that this idiom has entered general mainstream use for any situation where an individual accepts an idea or joins in an activity without thinking.

Kool-Aid is a soft drink of various fruity flavours sold in America. The reason it has been adopted into this idiom, and the reason also why the idiom is often considered to be in rather bad taste, is that it relates to the "Jonestown Massacre" in Guyana. In 1978, over 900 people died when, as members of the Peoples Temple cult, they committed mass suicide by drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide.


For more information about new and topical words and phrases, read Kerry's Word of the Week articles on the MED Resource Site.