Wednesday Words: Idioms, in a Nutshell

My son begs over and over to do something that I have repeatedly explained is SO NOT going to happen.  Still, he’s in my face with the persistence of a severe case of hiccups and reasoning he’s spent more time developing than a lawyer arguing before the Supreme Court.  In frustration, I turn to him and exclaim, “You sound like a broken record!”

Which means almost nothing to the generation that grew up with x-box instead of Atari, cell phones instead of rotary dialers, and MP3 players instead of turntables.  But I hate letting go of the perfect idiom to describe what’s happening.  I suppose my mother had the same problem when she would tell us, “Don’t upset the applecart!” – as if I had received any exposure to a sidewalk fruit seller growing up in suburbia.

I love idioms.  They create word pictures for what’s happening.  They refer back to memories (like the continuous skipping of a record as the needle stuck against a scratch on the vinyl).  They relate something new to something familiar.

Of course, they can be overused.  They can become clichés rather than enlightening descriptions.  Describing a stormy day as “raining cats and dogs” is not particularly creative.

Also, idioms can be misunderstood.  For instance, if you’re writing a middle grade novel and say, “he has a chip on his shoulder,” does the reader get the point or picture a Pringle balanced precariously?

Some idioms make no sense, as they seem to be the opposite of what they are trying to convey.  How about “she drinks like a fish”?  Or “he works like a dog”?  And who can explain “head over heels”?  Isn’t my head always over my heels?

There are also idioms that we know the meaning of, but few rarely know why it means that.  Do you know where the phrase “Beyond the pale” comes from?  Apparently, “pale” is an obsolete word for a stake (think “impale”).  “Beyond the pale” means outside a safe, staked-in area.  How about “the proof is in the pudding?” Am I looking for geometry logic in my tapioca? Fingerprints in the banana pudding?  No, the original phrase was “All the proof of a pudding is in the eating,” and it was coined at a time when pudding was more like sausage that apparently could be fatal if improperly prepared; you knew it was safe to eat once you ate it.

But idioms convey rich meaning when used well.  For instance, rather than talk about that person who rides in your car and gives a play-by-play critique of your driving, it’s easier to just call him a “back seat driver.”  Or to describe trying to meet your writing deadline in a frenzied panic as running around “like a chicken with its head cut off”!

Idioms can also be varied.  For instance, I had a friend who never stated her opposition to an action with the hackneyed “over my dead body.”  She spiced it up and proclaimed, “Over my flopping-on-the-ground dead body!”  (She was also known for the phrase, “You’re jumping on my last exposed nerve!”)

Conversationally, idioms are great communicators.  While writing, they have to be chosen carefully and applied sparingly.  Perhaps you can introduce your own idiom into the common language.  Other authors have.  That’s why we refer to a grinner as “smiling like a Cheshire cat.”

What are your favorite idioms?  Which idioms do you think are overused?  Which ones make no sense to you?  Have you come up with your own perfect comparison that should become common usage?

6 thoughts on “Wednesday Words: Idioms, in a Nutshell

  1. Love it! I probably have tons…but I've still got "beyond the pale" on my mind since I have used the term impaled so often lately, lol! I impaled my leg on a raw cut piece of fence steel about 5 weeks ago and it is still heeling. I'll post if I think of any. BTW, great blog, Julie. 🙂 I'm a word person, too. I am in love with anything to do with words or grammar!Diana

  2. Thanks, Diana! I write about language every Wednesday (thus, Wednesday Words).So glad to have another word person out there! We are kindred spirits.(Hope your impaled leg is okay!)

  3. This one never made sense to me: clean as a whistle. A whistle is full of dried-up, old spit! Hardly what I'd call clean.

  4. Great post, Julie! I loved it. I have used just about all of the ones you gave examples of. I never knew the origin of some of them. Isn't it funny how we know what they mean even when they don't really make sense?

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