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A carving in Zushih Temple in New Taipei City’s Sanxia District, taken on Dec 10.

Photo: Paul Cooper, Taipei Times

Chinese practice

To rein in the horse at the brink


xuan2 yai2 le4 ma3


在英文中類似的片語是「in the nick of time」(在緊要關頭)、「just in time」(及時),或是「at the very last moment」(在最後一刻)。此處所用之「nick」一字,可追溯至十六世紀,它指的是木頭上的一個小刻痕或是刻度,用作測度時間,標記事情發生的時刻。「nick」一字現在已經沒有原來「the critical moment」(關鍵時刻)的意思,其原義只在這個片語中保留下來。這片語之後又進一步加上修飾語「of time」,雖然狹義而言它原本單純指的是「在某一確切時刻」,但這個成語現今多用來指最後關頭。 (台北時報記者林俐凱譯)

♦ 他本來已經要扣下板機了,幸好他懸崖勒馬,沒有鑄下大錯。

(He was just about to pull the trigger, but luckily held back right at the last moment, and didn’t make a huge error.)

♦ 幸好他們及時懸崖勒馬,停止濫墾濫伐,才沒有毀掉環境。

(Thank heavens they stopped the deforestation right at the last moment, and didn’t ruin the environment.)


in the nick of time; just in time

The idiom 懸崖勒馬 comes from quite an early work, the Yuan dynasty play Zhi Yong Ding Qi by Zheng Dehui. In the play there is the line “呀!你如今船到江心補漏遲,抵多少臨崖勒馬纔收騎”, which means, “oh, it is like taking the boat to the middle of the river, and only then repairing the leaks, or racing to the edge of the cliff before realizing that you need to pull on the reins and bring your steed to a halt. As a result, the idiom 懸崖勒馬 is a metaphor for arriving at the brink of danger before realizing the risk, and deciding to pull back.

The equivalent English idiom is to do something “in the nick of time,” “just in time” or “at the very last moment.” The word “nick,” as used here, dates back to the 1500s, and refers to a small cut, or notch, made in wood, usually as a precise marker of time, the exact moment in which something is to happen. The meaning of “nick” as “the critical moment” is now obsolete, and survives only in this idiom. The idiom was later further elaborated with the qualifier “of time” and, whereas the strict sense of the first usage simply meant “at a precise moment,” the idiom now more usually refers to something that happens at the last possible moment. (Paul Cooper, Taipei Times)

♦ Ah, you’re here, and just in the nick of time. Breakfast is ready.


♦ The police arrived just in the nick of time. Any later, and she would have been a goner.


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