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 www.prideunlimited.com/probono/idioms1.html English Idioms can be found at www.phrases.org.uk.
== 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.