Idioms: The power tools of expression

September 21, 2013



TO many, idioms and proverbs are just another lesson in English grammar to get over with, however, they can be powerful tokens of symbolism and expression. When used effectively, a handful of these phrases sprinkled over your conversation can give it spark and gusto.

Anybody who has ever been graced by a large audience of friends knows that communication is everything. The right choice of words makes all the difference between a boring and awkward monologue and an amusing observation. For this reason every schoolchild makes it his or her business to know all the slangs and similes that are ‘in’ and ‘cool’. Some of these phrases are so potent that their delivery remains unchanged across different languages.

But who first said, “I’m just pulling your leg” and was there an actual leg concerned in the story? Was “grapevine” always slang for friends and connections, or was it really once used as some slipshod method of communication? Here are some of the most common idioms used in the English language, and some facts about how they came into use.

Talk of the devil: ‘Talk of the devil’ or ‘Speak of the devil’ is a humorous jibe at someone who shows up when they’re being spoken of by someone. It is convenient and snappy to use, and people of all ages help themselves to it quite liberally. We are all grateful it’s there, but who first said it? Did it have some superstitious significance in the past?

‘Speak of the devil and he doth appear’ was literally used in the Middle Ages as a prohibition against mentioning the Devil or evil in general. You can actually picture a Harry Potter thing going on in the Mediaeval times, with everybody wearing long robes and speaking in whispers about “You-know-who” when they want to talk of Satan or hypothetical evil wizards.

Kill two birds with one stone: This rather graphic idiom has its roots in several ancient cultures. On one hand it is claimed by the Chinese as a modern derivative of one of their terse proverbs, ‘one stone, two birds’.

On the other, it can be also traced to the story of Daedalus and Icarus in Greek mythology. Daedalus, who is trapped in a high tower by King Minos, escapes through cinematic dexterity and precision. He flings a stone up at some birds in a manner that it ricochets off of one and hits the other, killing both. He might as well not have gone through all that trouble, for Icarus was a dolt and destroys his pair of wings by flying too close to the sun.

Pull the wool over one’s eyes: Whenever I hear this one, I think of a wolf who wraps himself up in a sheep’s skin to fool the shepherd. Some of you must have heard of this fable, but, to my surprise, this idiom has nothing to do with shepherding at all. In fact it originated in the 1700s when it was used to describe scenarios where judges had been duped by the cunning lawyers.

Back in the day, judges were burdened not only by the duty of passing verdicts on the accused but also by their rather bulky shoulder length curly wigs that were part of the formal courtroom attire for them. The bigger and more elaborate this headwear, the more fashionable it was. These wigs were puffy at the top, tightly curled at the bottom and invariably powdered white. Oh, and they were called “wool” in slang.

The last straw: This one is easy if you just recall the complete idiom. It goes, ‘the final straw that broke the camel’s back’, and it is hardly a practical supposition.

It is difficult to imagine that the weight of a single straw is all the difference between a ship-shaped back and a broken one, unless you’re an ant, and even those things are super strong for their size. Perhaps for this reason this idiom has no literal story behind it. It goes as far back as the 18th century, and can be found in several literary works from different regions, in different forms.

Another version, for example, is ‘the last feather that broke the horse’s back’, and is equally preposterous. It has very compelling psychological implications however: it teaches us that sometimes miniscule and insignificant advances in the wrong direction can face unprecedented resistance.

A penny for your thoughts: I find this little bribe particularly charming and irresistible. It is meant to be a gentle reminder of your presence to your companion if they happen to sink into a reverie. You will find many people under the unwholesome impression that Hollywood conned this phrase; it is utter nonsense.

While no documented record of the first use of ‘a penny for your thoughts’ exists, it is most authentically attributed to the good old days when postal service in London cost just a penny. You can just picture this as a slogan for the London Post Office in the 1840s, put together by some genius marketing agent, if they had any of those back then.

Doesn’t it make you want to take out a quill and parchment, and scribble the contents of your hazy mind?

Sit on the fence: While going through the histories of idioms I was sorry to learn that this rather uncomfortable proposition was in fact literally acted out in the good old days.

‘Sitting on the fence’ has always been an idiom that depicts neutrality or indecision, and it brings to mind a Southerner sitting astride a fence separating two lands, wishing for more snug seating arrangement, but thoroughly uncertain about which way to disembark. Cases like these were found extensively in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when onlookers and arbiters would sit on the fences between neighbouring houses and listen to both parties squabble.

Hot potato: If something’s a hot potato, it is risky to deal with because of its sensitive and controversial nature. This term is mostly used for abstract subjects or matters of contention and painful to handle as a subject of conversation.

‘Hot potato’ dates back to the mid 1800s when it was used in a slightly different form: ‘drop like a hot potato’. This meant to abandon something or someone quickly (lest one be burned). Back in the time before oven mitts, people would do a lot of unprotected handling of hot food, including baked potatoes fresh from the fire, which they were obliged to toss from hand to hand or simply drop. Those more affluent or less hasty would use tongs.

You must have heard and used these common, yet interesting idioms, and now you know how they came into use and you would now be using it in the right manner.