PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 December, 2006, 12:00am

Up to speed

Ask Mike. He's up to speed on computers. In other words, Mike is up-to-date on the subject of information technology.

Are you up to speed on the deal? A business manager might ask this of an employee. Does he/she know all the latest developments? Is he/she following the negotiations closely?

Or when discussing a job applicant, one interviewer might say to another: 'Do you really think he's up to speed?' This is a little vague and the interviewer is asking if the person is good enough and can keep up with the demands of the job.

The origin is clearly a person or horse keeping up in a race, or a machine increasing speed and performing very well.

It could even be an old-style movie camera or projector where the right speed was very important for a smooth, continuous run.

To bring up to speed is to brief someone, to give them information quickly. Politicians, for example, have to be brought up to speed by their assistants just before a press conference so that they seem to be in control of the situation.

So remember to read this idiom page to keep yourself up to speed with all these phrases.

Fifth column

Among the uses of column, there is one referring to a long line of soldiers. Try to imagine a battle involving Napoleon, with columns of troops arriving from different directions and taking their positions on the battlefield. It is this usage that occurs in this idiom.

During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, one general marched on Madrid, the capital, which was then in the hands of the enemies, with four columns of men.

He then gave a radio broadcast in which, naturally, he wanted to show that he was sure to win. So he said that he was attacking Madrid with five columns, four on the outside and one inside the city - the thousands of people who wanted him to win and were waiting to welcome him and his army.

Depending on your point of view, the fifth column refers to supporters behind the enemy lines or traitors who need to be found and shot.

The phrase was a memorable one and was taken up by writer Ernest Hemingway, who called a play The Fifth Column.

The second world war and the cold war followed and the phrase was in almost daily use as everyone worried about spies and secret agents.