So! Let's kick back and play a game. How many of these expressions do you know?
1. To scare off the mule
2. To stretch out the legs
3. To look at a radish from underneath
4. To become a Buddha
5. To eat dandelions by the root
Click for answers:
Want to know something cool? All five of these are colloquial expressions from other languages that mean "to die" - or as we say in English, "to kick the bucket."
It's a great example of an idiom - which is to say, an expression with a meaning separate from the literal definition of its words. We use these all the time. "I'm at the end of my rope." (What rope?) "It was raining to beat the band." (What band?) "Now you're thinking outside the box." (What box?)
|This box, fool.|
And you know, they're not all big fancy colorful expressions, either. You can also think of an idiom as an expression which, if someone were to ask you about it, you'd pretty much have to explain with, "well, because we say it that way."
For example: why do we talk on the phone? We're not literally standing on it. By all rights, we should talk with the phone or through the phone. But all you can do is shrug and say, "well, because we say it that way." So every English learner for the last 125 years has had to suck it up (another idiom!) and remember to talk on the phone but with the caller.
- can be colorful / add flavor
- all the cool kids are doing it
- almost impossible not to (see "on the phone," above)
Disadvantages? Well, all our standard store-bought idioms (" kicking the bucket" et al) are unoriginal by definition, so they can become a cheap shortcut. Plus, if you're writing for a wide audience - a blog, say! - the figurative expressions can leave some readers in the dust. (<--Another idiom!)
Here's the thing, though: not all idioms are equally opaque. For example, could you guess at the meaning of this one?
You washed your hands and wiped them on the floor.
This saying, translated from Haitian Creole, means "You've wasted your efforts."
Or what about this one?
My pocket is lonely.
I'd like to buy you dinner, but my pocket is lonely.
So there's the thought of the day, word-enthusiasts:
1. Idioms can be fun and flavorful
2. They shouldn't be a mindless replacement for your own original voice
3. Consider signposting less-intuitive expressions with context, so that even a reader who doesn't know a phrase can pick it up.
And now my question to you: what are some of your favorite idioms? I would love to learn some new ones!
Many thanks to today's GrammatiCats!
1. Firefly, courtesy of Jarret O.
2. Rocket, courtesy of Sally Hamilton and the one and only A. Lee Martinez
3. Toast, courtesy of Frank the Magnificent
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