Tag Archives: idioms

Mind your idioms

Originally published in Active Voice, the national magazine of the Editors’ Association of Canada

English has many quaint and curious phrases, clichés, and idioms, and we quite often see them misconstrued. Ours can be a very unforgiving game. You don’t have free reign to pawn off whatever one-of usages will tie you over, or do just any linguistic slight of hand (or vocal chords). No, you have to tow the line and stick to the straight and narrow, or your straight-laced readers will develop a deep-seeded dislike for you and give you short shift – they will wait with baited breath to see you get your just desserts and be hoisted on your own petard without further adieu, and the value of what you have to say will be a mute point.

Heh heh. Let me put that right:

You don’t have free rein to palm off whatever one-off usages will tide you over, or do just any linguistic sleight of hand (or vocal cords). No, you have to toe the line and stick to the strait and narrow, or your strait-laced readers will develop a deep-seated dislike for you and give you short shrift – they will wait with bated breath to see you get your just deserts and be hoist with your own petard without further ado, and the value of what you have to say will be a moot point.

Of course, that’s all well and good as long as we’re all playing the same game. But when we’re dealing with international audiences, the phrasing we use in hopes of striking a home run with our readers (or even just stealing a base) may seem to them to be not just cricket, and you won’t strike out – you will be dismissed.

We Canadian editors may be a bit smug about our position seemingly straddling the British-American fence. After all, we all know about our/or and re/er and ise/ize, and we may feel that, having mastered aluminium with an i and orientate with the ate and perhaps revise for study, estate agent for real estate agent, and some food terms – rocket (arugula), courgette (zucchini), marrow (summer squash), swede (rutabaga) – we can count on our intuitions with British.

But we run the risk of taking something for an error or typo when it’s really the correct British form. A bit over a decade ago, Orrin Hargraves came out with an excellent guide to British-American differences, Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions; let me share with you some of the benefit of that smart volume: If you want to make a home from home in British English, and make a good job of it, don’t take the attitude of the know-all; know when to leave well alone if you want to cater for your readers and get on with them. Knowing your phrasal idioms can make the world of difference and give you a new lease of life – and if you don’t know them, you can rub your readers up the wrong way, and they might have a go at you and want to get shot of you. It will be more than a storm in a teacup; you will end up down at heel.

Which means, first of all, you will not render the above in a Canadian way: do not change it to home away from home, do a good job, know-it-all, leave well enough alone, cater to, get along with, make a world of difference, a new lease on life, rub your readers the wrong way, give you a tongue-lashing, get rid of you, tempest in a teacup, or down at the heels.

The best idea, of course, is to get a native British speaker – or, as occasion demands, an American speaker to add American idioms and weed out Canadianisms: don’t slip up and start talking about writing the odd test in pencil crayon, for instance (“Ohhhh, you mean taking the occasional test using a colored pencil! What was that other weird stuff you said?”). But at the very least, always look twice before crossing the idiom.

Clichés and picturesque language

Originally published in The Spanner, issue 0008.

At first glance, English may seem to be going through a paradigm shift, with a  dizzying array of ways to put lipstick on the pig. This naturally provokes some push-back, even withering criticism, as we struggle to wrap our heads around it. But the upshot remains to be seen. Should we just run with it? Or should we step up to the plate and think outside the box? If you talk about the elephant in the room, will that mean you’re not a team player? Will you get thrown under a bus? And, on the other hand, at the end of the day, are we even truly at a crossroads?

More to the point, did that paragraph provoke you to hyperemesis?

We Anglophones have an apparently inexhaustible facility for creating clichés. A sharp turn of phrase or a particularly engaging image sparks interest and spreads like wildfire, and soon enough it’s tired and stale. This is not a new thing. Some hackneyed clichés of yesteryear have become so cemented that we continue to use them even though we no longer quite remember the literal reference. The result is sometimes what are called eggcorns: misconstrual of idiomatic words or phrases into things that make more sense to the modern eye and ear. This is how just deserts becomes just desserts, tide me over becomes tie me over, strait-laced and strait and narrow get straightened, sleight of hand gets slighted… Forget about trying to nip these in the bud in the nick of time; many of them are as old as the hills. You may look for the silver lining and try to make lemonade, but…

What? Oh, fine, I’ll stop. What I’ve really been doing is illustrating a central point of all of these: they’re all picturesque. They all involve metaphors. But in many cases the imagery is etiolated. The words are still there, and we could play with the images if we want, but for general use they are like posters or pin-ups that have been on the wall too long and are now faded to pale shades of cyan.

But that is how language works. Most language you use is made of metaphors and images that have lost their vividness and, in many cases, are no longer recognizable as imagery at all. Let us look at some “plain” words that could replace the clichés. Going through a paradigm shift – well, we could say changing, but that comes (much changed!) from a Latin word for bartering and exchanging, and may deriver further from an older word for bending or turning back. We could replace push-back with rejection, but reject is from Latin for “throw back.” If we prefer to understand rather than wrap our heads around, it ought not to take us too long to see the under and stand in understand. And if we go with comprehend? There’s the Latin again, meaning “grasp, seize” (remember that anything that can grab things is prehensile, from the same root). If you prefer betray to throw under a bus, you may want to know that the tray in betray conceals a Latin origin in trans plus dare, meaning “hand over.” And so it goes. Look back over this paragraph and try to find one verb I have used that isn’t a figurative use of a word with a physical reference: work, make, look, go… even prefer comes from Latin for “put in front, carry forward.”

In this way (as in a few others) English is like Chinese. I’m not talking about the Chinese use of imagery and metaphor, which is considerable; I mean the written form, the Chinese characters. People who aren’t familiar with Chinese characters may think of them as pictograms, resembling closely what they refer to. People who try to learn Chinese find very quickly that the characters generally give the reader nothing obvious to grab onto. This is because the characters are like our words and phrases that have had the imagery worn off them.

Let me give you a couple of examples. Look at the character for “look”: 看. Does that look like looking? How about after I tell you that it’s made of two parts, and the 手 was originally a hand (see the fingers? it has changed somewhat) and the 目 was originally an eye (it rotated 90˚ a long time ago; make the outside box curved and see the inside lines as making the edges of the iris)?

Now look at the character for “good”: 好. How does that look good, or like anything good? Well, the 女 part is the character for “woman,” and originally looked like a line drawing of a standing woman with her hands held in front of her. The 子 part is the character for “child,” and if you curve the top part and bend the crossbar down, you might begin to see an infant in swaddling clothes. It seems that, to the scribes who determined this character, the epitome of goodness was a mother and child.

Such is the way it goes, too, with our picturesque language. Time and tide, change and overuse, leave the imagery behind. But if you know how to look, it’s still good – and not altogether lacking in character.

My veil of tears: an eggcorn poem

Herewith a poem (and following note) from my book Songs of Love and Grammar, which will be forthcoming if and when I find a publisher or give up and publish it myself with an on-demand web publisher [EDIT: buy it at lulu.com]. The poem is about eggcorns. What are they? Read on…

My veil of tears

Oh, woeth me! I’ve fallen hard,
hosted by my own petard!
In one fowl swoop, my just desserts
have been served up – and, boy, it hurts!
I have betrayed my love, but plead
compulsion by deep-seeded need!
Whole-scale short-sided wrecklessness
has got me in an awful mess.
My Jane was straight-laced; I was cursed,
chalk-full of need to slack my thirst.
Although our lives were going fine,
I just couldn’t tow the line.
When on a small site-seeing tour,
I took a pretty southmore’s lure:
jar-dropping beauty, looks to kill –
with baited breath I stood stalk still.
“I have a view that’s quite unique,”
she said. “Let’s go and sneak a peak.”
Why did I heed her beckon call?
Free reign of passions leads to fall,
but what I thought led straight to hell:
“She’ll tie me over – my as well!”
We didn’t buy our time that night;
we cut straight to the cheese on sight –
I won’t mix words: our will to dare
just grew like top seed then and there.
As if possessed of slight of hand,
in never regions we did land
(to name a view would be too course
and put the cat before the horse).
When all was done, I had the sense
I’d face cognitive dissidence,
but thought I’d pawn off bold-faced lies.
At last I had to realize
my power mower was not one-of
when I got news that caused my love –
a note a few months later: “Soon your
southmore will produce a junior.”
I got a mindgrain; I could see
a storm in the offering for me.
My Jane was cued in, bye and bye,
and she raised up a human cry
in a high dungeon. “You’ve done wrongs!
Let’s go at it, hammer and thongs!
The chickens have come home to roast!
I won’t lie doormat now! Your toast!”
She caused a raucous with abuse
and anger I could not diffuse.
Her words were nasty – so profound,
my vocal chords can’t make the sound.
She was a bowl in a china shop,
beyond the pail. I said, “Please stop!
The dye is cast! It’s not the place
to cut off your nose despite your face!
Don’t get your nipples in a twist!
You give me short shift! I insist
I’m utterly beyond approach!
Don’t treat me like a mere cockroach!”
She cried, “My cause for consternation
is not a pigment of the imagination!
There’s a bi-product of your lust!
Get out! You fill me with disgust!”
The point was mute; my chance was past,
so I gave up the goat at last.
Fate accompli, forgotten conclusion –
my morays were my dissolution.
And so, without further adieu,
here’s some advice that’s trite and true:
It would be who of you to trust your gut;
nip wayward passions in the butt.
Don’t sow your wild oaks around –
the eggcorns might just bring you down.

An eggcorn is a misconstrual of a word or phrase on the basis of an inaccurate (but seemingly sensible) analysis of its parts or origins. It uses other existing words or word parts in place of the originals. The term eggcorn is of course one such – the word should be acorn. The six dozen eggcorns in this poem have all been observed “in the wild” – used by real people in earnest, not as jokes (see eggcorns.lascribe.net). The eggcorns (and their proper forms) are veil of tears (vale of tears), woeth me (woe is me), hosted by my own petard (hoist with my own petard), one fowl swoop (one fell swoop), just desserts (just deserts), deep-seeded (deep-seated), whole-scale (wholesale), short-sided (short-sighted), wrecklessness (recklessness), straight-laced (strait-laced), chalk-full (chock full), slack my thirst (slake my thirst), tow the line (toe the line), site-seeing (sightseeing), southmore (sophomore), jar-dropping (jaw-dropping), baited breath (bated breath), stalk still (stock still), sneak a peak (sneak a peek), beckon call (beck and call), free reign (free rein), tie me over (tide me over), my as well (might as well), buy our time (bide our time), cut to the cheese (cut to the chase), mix words (mince words), grew like top seed (grew like Topsy), slight of hand (sleight of hand), never regions (nether regions), to name a view (to name a few), course (coarse), put the cat before the horse (put the cart before the horse), cognitive dissidence (cognitive dissonance), pawn off (palm off), bold-faced lies (bald-faced lies), power mower (paramour), one-of (one-off), caused (cost), mindgrain (migraine), in the offering (in the offing), cued in (clued in), bye and bye (by and by), human cry (hue and cry), high dungeon (high dudgeon), hammer and thongs (hammer and tongs), come home to roast (come home to roost), lie doormat (lie dormant), your toast (you’re toast), a raucous (a ruckus), diffuse (defuse), profound (profane), vocal chords (vocal cords), bowl in a china shop (bull in a china shop), beyond the pail (beyond the pale), the dye is cast (the die is cast), cut off your nose despite your face (cut off your nose to spite your face), don’t get your nipples in a twist (don’t get your knickers in a twist), short shift (short shrift), beyond approach (beyond reproach), a pigment of the imagination (a figment of the imagination), bi-product (by-product), the point was mute (the point was moot), gave up the goat (gave up the ghost), fate accompli (fait accompli), forgotten conclusion (foregone conclusion), morays (mores), without further adieu (without further ado), trite and true (tried and true), be who of you (behoove you), nip in the butt (nip in the bud), sow your wild oaks (sow your wild oats), and of course  eggcorns (acorns).

Tonnes of options

Today’s discussion on the Editors’ Association of Canada listserv has brought forth an ad looking for performers with “tonnes of energy.” Hm! That would be “tons,” right? Boy, give these people 2.5 cm and they’ll take 1.6 km…

Except that there actually is a case to be made for it. Continue reading