Came across this:

The woman had appalled Mr. Martin instantly, but he hadn't shown it. He had given her his dry hand, a look of studious concentration, and a faint smile. "Well," she had said, looking at the papers on his desk, "are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch?" As Mr. Martin recalled that moment, over his milk, he squirmed slightly.

Extracted from: The Catbird Seat by James Thurber

Does over his milk imply "while he was drinking his milk"?

In addition, Is are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch? an offensive statement? What does it imply? I already think it implies someone pretends to do an important job while the job is not that important or When someone is trying to do something very difficult.

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    The link is broken as of January 19, 2015
    – Peter
    Jan 19, 2016 at 22:22
  • @Peter I thank you, just changed the way of referencing.
    – Juya
    Jan 22, 2016 at 18:54

2 Answers 2


Thanks for supplying the context. You're correct in your understanding of "over his milk".

The oxcart question is not offensive in itself, though it is colloquial and hence sounds a bit silly.

The key sentence in the larger context you provide is "She had, for almost two years now, baited him. In the halls, in the elevator, even in his own office, into which she romped now and then like a circus horse, she was constantly shouting these silly questions at him."

To bait someone is to deliberately taunt or annoy them, hoping to get a response from them. (Analogous to offering bait to a fish in the hope that it would bite.) She behaves extravagantly ("like a circus horse"), she shouts out rhetorical questions that are both colloquial and hackneyed, and ultimately she is always asking the same question that assumes things are going badly. She's negative, imposing, and annoying.

At least that's my take on it, based on a few paragraphs. I have to admit that I've never read that classic story before.

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    +1 Good ear. I've loved this story since my childhood, and you hit the nail on the head. Feb 14, 2014 at 15:15
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    Given the whole point of citing those apparently-incomprehensible "idioms" is to show that Mrs Barrows has a plethora of idiosyncratic "rustic-sounding" usages, it seems to me perfectly possible that Thurber might even have made some of them up. For example, I found several references in Google Books to "tearing up the pea patch" after he'd written it, but none before then. In any case, it seems pretty obvious Thurber didn't expect (or indeed, want) his average reader to already be familiar with the expressions he rattled off there. Feb 14, 2014 at 16:07
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    @FumbleFingers: Good point. Where I say "hackneyed", I should probably say "hackneyed-sounding". They have the ring of various colloquial sayings, "How's work in the salt mines?", etc, that imply the situation is bad. "Scraping the bottom of the barrel" is, I believe, fairly well established.
    – Wayne
    Feb 14, 2014 at 16:38
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    @Wayne: Sure, scraping the bottom of the barrel goes way back to Victorian times. But I can't find any written instances of ...the pickle barrel until Thurber used it in 1942 (after which there are apparently over 1500 instances, only about half of which seem to directly allude to Thurber's use). Feb 14, 2014 at 19:40
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    @Juya: A football club with a small budget, say, may have to "scrape the bottom of the barrel" and sign contracts with lesser talents, if the wealthier clubs have already scooped up the stars. It means to take what remains after others have taken the better part.
    – TimR
    Jan 22, 2016 at 20:30

"over his milk" does indeed refer to the action taking place whilst Mr. Martin is drinking his milk. This refers back to the first sentence of the paragraph which sets the scene:

Sitting in his apartment, drinking a glass of milk, Mr. Martin reviewed his case against Mrs. Ulgine Barrows, as he had every night for seven nights

The meaning of the oxcart phrase is not clear. It's not a common idiom as far as I know. A couple of her other weird phrases are explained in the next paragraph but unfortunately not that one.

However I don't think the precise meaning of the phrases really matters; indeed it's the very fact that they are nearly meaningless which makes them so annoying for Mr. Martin and anyone else she throws them at.

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