Friday, April 12, 2013

GrammatiCats: Kicking the Bucket (and Other Idioms)

Do you know what?  It's freakin' FRIDAY, y'all.  And that last post was a humdinger.

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.

So what are the advantages of using idioms in your writing?
  • easy
  • natural
  • 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.
In Japanese, this means "I'm broke."  But I bet you'd already surmised as much!  In this case, the literal meaning of the words goes a long way to indicate the meaning of the expression - even if you've never heard it before.  Context can do the rest:
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

(Does your kitty want to be a GrammatiCat?  Sign up here!)


  1. I can't think of any idioms I particularly like. There's probably one or two that I do and use, but they are eluding me right now. I blame the day job. ;)

    1. DAMN YOU, BURGERLORDS... or, you know, other kind of lords, as appropriate.

      Still, I bet you've got a humdinger or two up your sleeve - I've only been following your posts for a couple of weeks, but you are as dramatically devious as they come!

  2. I use one in my WIP which is an old Hungarian idiom used in the same way as "speak of the Devil and he'll appear", which is "speak of a wolf, and it'll be just outside the garden."

    1. I love it! That is one of the totally delectable things about historical fiction - there are so many delicious little language-wrinkles to find and exploit! (Don't you go speaking of wolves, though - your garden is especially nice, and I'd hate to see it trod on...!)

  3. All I am going to say is:

    "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush!"

    Oh yeah!

    Oh, and I totally took "my pocket is lonely" as gearing up for "pocket pool," but it was made clear in context later. Which is good, ya know?

    1. Hahaha, that had never crossed my mind - now it looks so secretly profane up there! Way to lower the tone, buddy - we needed a little raunch up in here!

      Also, totally don't make yourself bananas trying to catch up on everybody's comments. Seriously. Like you said, it's supposed to be fun, not a hideous Ponzi scheme of ever-increasing obligations (and I know you think I'm amazing, regardless - the feeling is mutual!)

  4. "Elle et sage." ("She is wise." in French.) People used to say that about Lily, and deep in the throes of new motherhood, I would look at her beautiful liquid eyes and think, "Gee, she really is wise, and everyone can see that." Then I realized they said it about every baby. But most babies *do* look like they are thinking deeply about something, most likely their next poo.

    1. Hahaha, deep thoughts indeed! I can't say I've heard the phrase before, but I've also not hung out around very many babies. Love me some French, though - I'm so glad you clue me in on these little gems!

  5. Were I more awake, I could sling some good Appalachian idioms your way ...