Idiomatic Expressions

20 July 2010 § Leave a comment

Some people, especially those who speak English as a second language, have a lot of difficulty with idiomatic expressions. It may also be they weren’t raised with family that appreciated the – ahem – ‘richness’ of these sayings. Of course, the flip side might be that the sayings are tired cliches actually revealing an absence of depth. I, however, think these so-called cliches can be quite succinct ways of making a point with a splash of color.

Take, for instance, oh…how about the expression “rolled over in his grave.” To say that somebody rolled (or, turned) over in his or her grave is to imply that the dead person would disapprove of what is currently going on. Usually, said deceased either invented, innovated, or mastered whatever is being spoken of. For example, when speaking of the Tea Party, one might say that Hitler would roll over in his grave, since the Tea Party just isn’t doing racism as well as it was done back then.

That, by the way, was a joke (and a reference to an earlier post). But if you know your idioms, and are politically like-minded, it resuscitates the cliche for a nice joke. Even without humor, though, idioms can be useful. They sum up complex situations and provide clarity of insight in the same way as your favorite Bible passage, Confucius-saying, or philosophical treatise. They, in many ways, are the collective wisdom of the common person.

Which is also to say that they are wrong and misapplied frequently. But nonetheless beautiful.

I imagine an old man with a thick southern accent rattling off the wisdom of his life to his grandchildren sitting around the porch.

Sometimes, they have less picturesque beginnings. Indeed, the beginnings are completely vague. I had long heard that “son of a gun,” meaning a mischievous child or scamp, came from somewhere around the 18th century. A captain’s wife, or perhaps more accurately a prostitute, was allowed to accompany the crew. If she became pregnant, the guns would be fired to induce early labor. Looking at it now, this hardly makes sense, so I turned to trusty Snopes. They admit the undetermined nature of the etymology, but suggest that a gun may simply refer to any military man; a son of a gun, therefore, would be a way of referring to the child by way of his father (a father probably fighting abroad, and therefore a child possibly more wild and uncontrolled).

Here’s a good site that lists several idioms, including this gem: “You have Van Gogh’s ear for music.”

Fellow English teacher Gini Cunningham discusses her own family’s positive use of idioms to motivate and inspire, then writes this account of one man’s use of idiom to avoid meaningful communication:

I shared the power of family sayings with a friend. She grimaced and then paused before sharing a saying that her father had nailed on her. As a young bride of eighteen she and her groom were about to move hundreds of miles away to launch a lifetime together without parents or anyone familiar to call on for support. Droplets welled in her eyes and sobs were throttled in her throat as she bid her farewell. Not really expecting loving words of departure from her dad, she yearned for them just the same. He looked her squarely in the eye and said, “Dry your tears, Sister. I broke your dinner plate long ago.” Then he turned and shuffled back into the house.

What do you suppose were the multiple intents and meanings of that collection of words? She had heard them before, and she heard them again down the line, but that pronouncement on a day that she needed to believe that she’d be missed, set her out on a road of an ever-widening desire for independence from those whom she loved and could hurt her so profoundly.

What’s your favorite idiomatic expression? Do you (your family) use any lesser known, unique ones?


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