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We have a Japanese old saying, “俎板の上の鯉-manaita no ueno koi, a carp laid on a chopping block” for describing (1) a critical situation you cannot avoid, and (2) a person who is self-poised at such a critical moment.

This metaphor comes from the legend that carp is still and composed unlike other fish, like eel when laid on a chopping board. I think it corresponds to the spirit of ‘葉隠-Hagakure’, the Bushido’s bible written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a senior samurai in Saga-Nabeshima fief in 1716, in which he says the ultimate goal of Bushido is to recognize when, where, how, and for what you should die.

Though I’ve never seen a carp placed on a cutting board, we use this simile for various occasions for facing predicament and requiring rational judgment / action in such a way; “The company is considering a massive layoff, I’m a carp on a chopping block,” “The governor behaved like a carp on a chopping block when he was sued for sex scandals,” "My husband said "I'm a carp on a chopping block," when he was told he was at the terminal stage of cancer by his doctor."

Are there metaphoric expressions similar to “a carp laid on a chopping block” which implies keeping composed at eleventh hour, preferably using a bird, beast, or fish, like a carp?

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Of course! The most canonically British expression of all: Keeping a stiff upper lip. –  user24964 Apr 9 at 10:38
    
We have the idiom "cold fish" for someone who shows little emotion, which could apply in some of the scenarios you described. But it's usually used negatively (indicating unfriendliness) rather than positively. –  The Photon Apr 9 at 18:37
    
Non-metaphoric adjectives include serene and imperturbable. –  Ben Voigt Apr 10 at 18:51
    
Related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/91439/… also, in my opinion, the best word for this equanimity, though it is not metaphorical –  nohat Apr 10 at 23:37
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...and if you want an English-speaking-world analogy that typifies "stiff upper lip", similar to the noble carp, how about "Like the band who kept playing as the Titanic sank" –  user568458 Apr 11 at 13:15

22 Answers 22

up vote 33 down vote accepted

Nerves of steel connotes the ability to control your fear and remain calm even in extremely dangerous or difficult situations.

Lionhearted, courage of a lion, etc. are also used to connote bravery.

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It’s difficult for a non-native English speaker to weigh which of ‘Stiff upper lips’ and ‘Nerves of steel’ is closer to ‘carps on the chopping block.” as a metaphor of staying calm and rational at the panicky situation. So I had to toss the coin to accept the latter. To me ‘lionhearted” is more focused on ‘courage and bravery’ than ‘calmness and self-composure’ as you admit. –  Yoichi Oishi Apr 10 at 9:10
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To me, nerves of steel is typically associated with bold actions (e.g. "That trapeze artist has nerves of steel!"), where stiff upper lip is more frequently found associated with emotional circumstances. "Your dog died, mate? Keep a stiff upper lip!" –  Wayne Werner Apr 10 at 13:10
    
Along the same lines, saying that someone is "steel and velvet" is not just keeping their cool under stress, but also keeping their manners. –  milestyle Apr 10 at 19:41
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@Wayne, agreed completely. Secret agent James Bond needs nerves of steel not to soil his trousers when the minions of evil super-criminals are chasing him with various highly lethal weaponry at their disposal. But once he gets back to MI5 and has to explain to M why he’s caused £340 million worth of damage to the historic centre of Athens and destroyed the Parthenon, he needs to keep a stiff upper lip and appear unperturbed. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 15 at 14:09

The idiom most used in British English is to maintain a stiff upper lip.

It means to retain composure in the face of adversity. A trembling lip is a sign of weakness.

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I don't think this qualifies as "metaphoric" (but I could be wrong). –  PatrickT Apr 13 at 13:31
    
@PatrickT we don't physically have stiff upper lips. –  Matt Эллен Apr 13 at 22:17
    
stiff: "not easily bent or changed in shape", I can make mine stiff, but perhaps it's like wiggling ears, not everyone can ;-) –  PatrickT Apr 14 at 6:53

To remain " as cool as a cucumber " is an idiomatic expression used to indicate a controlled composure in front a a difficult event.

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Strikes me as a little "silly" for a serious or dangerous situation. –  KRyan Apr 9 at 13:45
    
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@KRyan So does "a carp laid on a chopping block", in my opinion. –  Jeff Gohlke Apr 9 at 18:17
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"Cool as a cucumber" refers to general demeanour and is not specific at all to dangerous situations or 'a difficult event' as indicated by the original post. –  nathanchere Apr 11 at 5:15
    
@nathanchere I disagree, I think it is specific to difficult (though not necessarily dangerous) situations. It describes demeanour at a point in time, not generally. –  starsplusplus Apr 11 at 9:21

The phrases grace under fire and cool under fire are both used to convey calm in a difficult situation. Under fire refers to gunfire and the phrase was well adapted to the movie titled Courage Under Fire.

For an animal idiom, consider like a lamb led to slaughter. This is a phrase from the Judeo-Christian Bible, Isaiah 53:7

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.

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Huh, I usually hear like a lamb led to slaughter implying naivete, unawareness of the danger that one is in. Didn't realize that the original source used it for someone very aware of the danger. –  KRyan Apr 9 at 13:45
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Maybe it's because I did know the origin, but I never associated it with unawareness (though I can see how that could be perceived). To me, this phrase conveys that the person went into a fatal situation willingly or without resisting. –  techturtle Apr 9 at 19:32
    
+1 for grace under fire, exactly what I was thinking –  ryan Apr 9 at 22:35
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Lamb to the slaughter says to me that the person is resigned to their fate, and not taking cool, calm, and collected action to extricate themselves. –  Phil Perry Apr 10 at 16:01
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@PhilPerry Well, yeah - do you think the carp's trying to extricate himself from the chopping block? –  Kyle Hale Apr 11 at 14:38

Consider also "sangfroid" (which I've also seen as "sang-froid") - http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sangfroid

From the French meaning "cold blood" it refers to staying calm in a difficult situation.

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Related to that (cold blood), there are also the term "ice in the veins," meaning a person who stays cool under pressure ("Joe has ice in his veins"), or the word "frosty" which is used to mean the same in some circles ("stay frosty"). –  HopelessN00b Apr 11 at 11:51
    
I don't know the precise connotation of sangfroid in French, but in English, cold blooded means emotionless, not the ability to control one's emotions. Cold blooded is often used to describe acts of cruelty. –  medica Apr 11 at 12:01
    
@medica - Indeed, but I don't believe that "emotionless" or "heartless" is the meaning of "sangfroid" (as an English import word, or indeed in the original French). I think that its meaning is best expressed in opposition to "hot" idioms, rather than in commonality with "cold": it's the opposite of being hot-tempered, hot-blooded, acting in the heat of the moment, etc. –  almcnicoll Apr 11 at 13:08
    
@almcnicoll - good point. I didn't think to look at it that way. Thanks! –  medica Apr 11 at 19:03

There are some English words with that meaning:

imperturbable: incapable of being upset or agitated; not easily excited; calm.

cool-headed: not easily worried or excited.

placid: (of a person or animal) not easily upset or excited.

Of these I would say that "imperturbable" is the most emphatic, but it is not commonly used. The most casual of these is "cool-headed," and that is also the only one of the three that specifically connotates calmness under fire, I think; the others are more about general temperament.

If you are looking for a multi-word expression that you are likely to hear in conversation, "cool as a cucumber" is what comes to mind for me.

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As an alternative to "imperturbable", I like "unflappable". –  tobyink Apr 11 at 11:33
    
Ah yes -- I had forgotten that one! –  AmigoNico Apr 11 at 16:34

Surprised nobody mentioned stoic, since its OED definition is "a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining."

Other things not mentioned:

  • put on a brave face
  • grin and bear it
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I was surprised to have to search for "Stoic", +1 –  David Wilkins Apr 11 at 12:29

Keeping your head when others are losing theirs Keep your head about you

All variations of Rudyard Kipling's quote:

If you can keep your wits about you while all others are losing theirs, and blaming you. The world will be yours and everything in it, what's more, you'll be a man, my son.

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In sports, we use the word "clutch." A player is clutch if they can perform in a high risk/stress situation, like hitting a last second shot to win a playoff game. Players that are not clutch break down in those situations.

Edit: this is a much more slang type of term as well.

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The apt translation to English is dead man walking. Like the Japanese expression, this phrase has a literal meaning from which the figurative meaning derives.

Literal meaning

Traditionally, a prison warden would call this out while leading a man to the place of execution. The English expression connotes a similar poise or self-control as of the carp in the Japanese expression. For all intents and purposes, the man is dead, except that the actual stroke of execution has not occurred. Knowing this, the man still walks to the place where he will die.

Figurative meaning

Like the Japanese expression, the English expression is used figuratively of a person who in any hopeless situation is completing his final tasks. For example, a person who cannot avoid losing his job and yet is in the process of completing his remaining work assignments is dead man walking. The expression can be applied to one’s self, or to others. It is also sometimes used to describe a person in a hopeless situation who does not know it (yet).

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/dead+man+walking

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I will offer two modern (chilly) variations:

  • ice cold

to be in a state of complete self control

usually a referance to staying cool enough to not sport wood in the presence of a fine lady "just stay cool man, ice cold"

  • stone cold

2) emotionless

And a variation of other answers not mentioned and probably the most generic term I hear - keep(ing) your cool.

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Steve Austin!!! –  AbraCadaver Apr 9 at 14:50
    
@AbraCadaver - who is better under pressure other than Stone Cold? –  RyeɃreḁd Apr 9 at 14:52

I would go with composed. He maintained a composed demeanour in the face of the terrible news.

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There is also "face the music" which basically means to own up to the inevitable.

Perhaps more applicable, "bite the bullet", the origin of which is perhaps that a soldier when being whipped would have a bullet (lead ball at the time) in their mouth and bite on that to bear the pain so they could show no outward emotion.

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Consider "(as) cool as a cat."

cool as a cat: to act fine when you are actually scared or nervous.

Consider also "to keep one's cool" and "to keep one's chin up."

keep one's chin up: to be brave; be determined: face trouble with courage.

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Frankly, no cat i've ever seen or had could be described as "cool as a cat". :) –  cHao Apr 10 at 0:44
    
@cHao Check this out petplace.com/cats/why-are-cats-so-independent/page1.aspx :-) –  Elian Apr 10 at 0:48
    
cool as a cat is used often, don't know why the down vote. I believe it came from the jazz scene when they called more relaxed people "cats". –  stephenbayer Apr 10 at 23:04
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I've never heard "as cool as a cat" used in this way. A "cool cat", sure, meaning someone who is trendy or hip, but not "as cool as a cat" meaning acting fine when you're nervous. –  starsplusplus Apr 11 at 9:24
    
These would have been good answers if it was ELU 70s edition. –  RyeɃreḁd Apr 11 at 21:37

There's a solid as a rock which isn't used/heard much anymore. I've always like unflappable when in the face of severe circumstances or 'shaken not stirred'.

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If you are telling a story about such a situation you might say

I collected myself

or

I composed myself

If you handled the pressure, someone might describe you as being

calm and collected

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Implying that you are resigned to your fate. I'm not sure that's what the OP was referring to. –  Phil Perry Apr 10 at 16:03
    
@PhilPerry It doesn't imply that. –  patrick Apr 10 at 16:11
    
By itself, to "collect yourself" or "compose yourself" usually is taken to mean that you've accepted your fate, and to stop fighting. With more elaboration on what you're doing to fight, they could mean what you say. –  Phil Perry Apr 10 at 17:01

"Never loses his cool" or "Always keeps his cool"

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Surprised no one has mentioned:

Unflinching - "Not showing fear or hesitation in the face of danger or difficulty."

Which can also be combined with courage and composure:

He showed unflinching courage.

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Possibly, depending on the context, "whistling past the graveyard" or "he whistled as he walked past the graveyard", implying that even though he was afraid to walk past it, he put on a brave face and walked on anyway, not only to look fearless to others, but to try to convince himself that he isn't afraid. It's sort of an old-fashioned phrase though, so modern readers might not quite understand it.

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Something like balls of steel (if we are talking about informal speech).

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Keeping a cool head means this and keeps the idea of 'head'.

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"Deer in the headlights" conveys being immobile in the face of imminent peril.

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That's just the opposite of composure, though. –  Nate Eldredge Apr 10 at 4:12

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