Pardon Me, Your Idiom is Showing

01 Aug

I love the English language, partly because it’s like an unmanageable pet. It abides by very few rules. Learning to live with it presents challenges. Every time you think you’ve mastered it, it surprises you.

A particular joy for me is parsing idioms. An idiom is “an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements.” Examples include (and there are too many to list): let the cat out of the bag, dead as a doornail, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, face the music.

Idioms are so engrained in our day-to-day lives that we don’t stop to think about the beauty of how they came into being.  I found the following explanations of American idioms at English Idioms can be found at

== Let the cat out of the bag (to divulge a secret): At medieval markets, unscrupulous traders would display a pig for sale. However, the pig was always given to the customer in a bag, with strict instructions not to open the bag until they were some way away. The trader would hand the customer a bag containing something that wriggled, and it was only later that the buyer would find he’d been conned when he opened the bag to reveal that it contained a cat, not a pig. Therefore, “letting the cat out of the bag” revealed the secret of the con trick.

== Dead as a doornail (to be dead, with no chance of recovery): Nails were once hand-tooled and costly. When an aging cabin or barn was torn down, the valuable nails would be salvaged so they could be reused in later construction. When building a door however, carpenters often drove the nail through, then bent it over the other end so it couldn’t work its way out during the repeated opening and closing of the door. When it came time to salvage the building, these door nails were considered useless or “dead” because of the way they were bent.

== Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth (do not be critical of a gift): Horses have gum lines that recede with age. Hence older horses have longer teeth than young horses. To “look a horse in the mouth” is to examine the horse’s mouth closely to determine its age (and therefore its usefulness and/or worth). To immediately judge a gift based on its worth or usefulness rather than the “thought” behind it is considered rude, and ungrateful (it is a gift after all, and didn’t cost the receiver anything).

This phrase is apparently quite old. A Latin version of it appeared in a work by St. Jerome in 420 A.D. and it alos exists in many languages. An Early English version (1510 A.D.) appears in John Standbridge’s “Vulgari Standbrigi: “A Gyuen hors may not (be) loked in the tethe.”

== Face the music (accept the truth): Comes from the British military. When someone was court marshaled, there would be a military drum squad playing, hence face the music. The term “drummed out of the military” came from this practice.

The history behind idioms is rich, layered, and oh-so-human. No stuffy group of intellectuals sat in ivied halls around a large conference table and coined these phrases. The people took what they knew in their ordinary worlds and made new meanings.

And, not to start a whole other blog, but clichés (a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse) became labeled such because they were used a lot. Why? Because they WORK! Everyone immediately knows what is meant. Even if “it’s nothing to write home about.”  🙂 I know as writers, we are constantly chastised for using clichés. Whatever!

What idioms do you resort to when it’s the best way to describe the emotion, task, or point? What did your grandma and grandpa always say? I’d love to get a long list started of your favorites.


Posted by on August 1, 2011 in writers, writing


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24 responses to “Pardon Me, Your Idiom is Showing

  1. Meredith Conner

    August 1, 2011 at 7:48 AM

    I love the history and richness of language! What a wonderful post! My husband comes up with the most obscure and crazy idioms from time to time and it is one of my favorite things about him! My grandmother used to always say she was as “nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs” – she was from the south so it was said in a soft drawl. I always thought those words had a life of their own when she said it. She had another phrase that was not an idiom, but it’s one of the things I’ll always remember her by: “between me and thee, I think one of us is a little crazy and it isn’t me”. Thanks for the great post and the memories!

  2. Janis McCurry

    August 1, 2011 at 7:57 AM

    You can instantly picture the scene with the rocking chairs and the poor cat. Thanks for the laugh.

  3. Betsy Love Lds Author

    August 1, 2011 at 8:01 AM

    Words are amazing! I love idioms. As a high school teacher they are so fun to teach about. I had my students make a list of all the ones they could think of and that was a great exercise. My mother used to say, “oh, my stars and garters” or “heavens to Betsy”. Since my name is Betsy, it’s fun to say, “heavens to me.” Older folks get it. Younger ones not so much. It’s still fun to say. 😀

  4. Janis McCurry

    August 1, 2011 at 9:02 AM

    Yeah, I’m one of the older ones! Thanks for commenting on Gem State Writers.

  5. johannaharness

    August 1, 2011 at 9:08 AM

    I love idioms too. A few months ago, a Twitter friend used the phrase, “going great guns” and then explained it to me, thinking it was an aphorism from Australia. I responded that I’d heard the same idiom since I was a child and thought it came from The American West–from the idea of riding shotgun on a stagecoach. (Yet another idiom. Growing up, the kids would yell, “I call shotgun!” when we wanted the front seat next to Mom.)

    It turned out “going great guns” was much older than either of us realized. It actually came from British Naval slang and the original was “blowing great guns.” The really big gales would rage so hard against the ship that even the great guns would be forced out of place (picture carronades like this one: Harry Truman used the phrase, “going great guns” in 1945 (“We have been going great guns in the last day or two.”) so we know use of the phrase had adapted by then.

    And don’t even get me started on the origins of “riding shotgun.” There were certainly people riding shotgun on stagecoaches elsewhere (not just in the American West), but the origin of the phrase appears to be more recent. Fascinating stuff:

    • Janis McCurry

      August 1, 2011 at 9:17 AM

      Riding shotgun brings vision of my teen years cruising Main in Boise. Great memory.

  6. Peggy Staggs

    August 1, 2011 at 9:12 AM

    Great blog as usual. As much as I try to stay away from idioms are fun. When I think of some of them I wonder how they not only got started, but how they caught on and endured. I’d love to write a character someday who gets them all twisted around.

  7. suzanne dumoulin

    August 1, 2011 at 9:14 AM

    The book “I’m Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears,” by Jag Bhalla, (2008, Nat’l Geographic Press) is all about idioms and lists hundreds from different cultures. Fun read!

    • Janis McCurry

      August 1, 2011 at 9:18 AM

      Suzanne, that sounds like a great resource. Thanks for the tip.

  8. Liz Fredericks

    August 1, 2011 at 10:52 AM

    One of the worst – and you’ll have to advise me on whether it’s an idiom or cliche – is ‘rule of thumb’. I’d always say it UNTIL one of my professors pointed out its original meaning. English common law held a man could freely beat his wife as long as he did so with a rod no greater in circumference than his thumb. I suspect men with small hands were quite popular with the ladies.

  9. Janis McCurry

    August 1, 2011 at 11:02 AM

    I would call it an idiom because the words separately don’t constitute the meaning of the phrase as a whole. Does that make sense to everyone else? Great history lesson there, isn’t it?

  10. Mary Vine

    August 1, 2011 at 11:14 AM

    I get the honor of teaching idioms to high school students as it is part of language impairment. True, the ones who get it right away have a parent or usually a grandparent who uses them. One of my favorites is getting up on the wrong side of the bed-actually the meaning that goes with it. You’ll have to look it up:-) I get up on the wrong side of the bed and a student told me to flip over on my stomach and then get out of the bed with my right foot. Fun post. Thanks, Janis.

  11. lynn mapp

    August 1, 2011 at 11:31 AM

    There was a teacher that had her students complete idioms, and they were published. For example: The early bird catches… Their answers were always funny. Either Carson or Leno would read them on their show.

  12. Carley Ash

    August 1, 2011 at 12:11 PM

    “To hell in a hand basket.” What’s up with the basket?
    This was a fun read Janis.

  13. Megan Hutchins

    August 1, 2011 at 1:30 PM

    I love learning word histories — thanks! This was fun for me.

    There’s a dictionary of idioms somewhere. I once spent an hour reading through it, and a large number of them I actually had to sit and stare at because I’m so used to them (passed away, give weight to, pour over, fair game).

  14. Clarissa Southwick

    August 1, 2011 at 1:33 PM

    I love idioms, especially when they come from other languages. One of my favorites is from French-“Ce n’est pas la mer a boire.” it’s not the sea to drink. In other words, I’m not asking him to drink the entire ocean, I just want him to do whatever. Well, since you put it that way, it seems quite easy…

    • Janis McCurry

      August 1, 2011 at 1:37 PM

      That’s a great idiom. Language is fascinating.

  15. ValRoberts

    August 1, 2011 at 3:34 PM

    The idiom “let the cat out of the bag” is very closely related to “buy a pig in a poke” — poke was a synonym for bag in Medieval Europe, so it’s the same idiom from a different angle.

    See, there’s more than one way to skin a cat….


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