Phrases, idioms, and clichés—why do we say the things we say? Watch Your Tongue explores weird and wonderful everyday sayings and what they reveal about us.
Do you ever wonder why you shouldn’t have a cow but you should seize a bull by its horns? Who has the better reputation in language—cats or dogs? Do you sometimes feel that our speech is all smoke and mirrors or that our expressions simply make no sense?
In Watch Your Tongue, award-winning author Mark Abley explores the phrases, idioms, and clichés of our everyday language. With wit and subtle wisdom, he unravels the mysteries of these expressions, illuminating the history, tradition and stories behind everything we say. Pulling examples from Shakespeare’s plays to sports team names, ancient Rome to Twitter, Abley shares samples and anecdotes of the eccentric ways that we play with, parse, and pattern language.
Why do so many companies use fruit for their brand names? What do politicians mean when they say they’re going to “drain the swamp”? Why does English use chickens to signify cowardice? Abley dives into the history and psychology behind these examples and countless others, unpacking their significance (and sheer absurdity) to show how our language developed, where it is headed, and what we can learn about ourselves from it.
Whimsically illustrated, easily browsable, and full of catchy sidebars, Watch Your Tongue celebrates how we amuse ourselves with words and what our sayings reveal about the way we see the world.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Mark Abley is an award-winning poet, journalist, and author. His books include The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English and Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, a New York Times Notable Book, a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year, a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year, and a Discover Magazine Top 20 Science Book of the Year. Abley lives in Montreal. Learn more at MarkAbley.com.
Read an Excerpt
Watch Your Tongue
It was a blue winter day in downtown Montreal, and I was standing among thousands of other shivering people on the city’s main shopping street. We had gathered in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington, the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as US president. A local gaggle of the activist group the Raging Grannies sang a homemade ditty to the tune of “Oh! Susanna”—“Women’s power, we’re here to make a stir / Don’t mess around with women’s rights, we roar as well as purr.” Cat motifs were in evidence throughout the rally, notably in the form of knitted, pink “pussy hats”—a response to the incoming president’s vulgar boasting about his sexual conquests.
What struck me, as I looked around, was the language on the hundreds of cardboard placards. Some were direct and blatant anti-Trump slogans. But many of the signs, like the grannies’ song, used more subtle, idiomatic language to make their point. “Pussy hat” was itself an idiom, and one big sign hoisted by a woman standing a few yards away from me said, “Pussy grabs back.” Placards reading “Love is power,” “The future has no gender” and “Walls won’t divide us” seemed like optimistic attempts to spread new proverbs. “Girls just want to have fundamental rights” was a clear spin-off from the old Cyndi Lauper hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” “Post-Truth = Lies” made a terse comment on a recently coined expression, “post-truth.”
My favorite placard, being waved to and fro in the cold air as the Raging Grannies warbled on, read: “I won’t stop till it rains glass.” It was a brilliant play on words. But unless you grasped the meaning of the expression “glass ceiling”—the invisible, powerful barrier that Hillary Clinton had hoped to shatter—the sign would have made no sense.
The language play so noticeable on these signs was evidence of hope, I thought. Even at a time of immense concern about the future, hundreds of people at the rally had gone to the trouble of making placards that displayed a frisky, defiant creativity. Gatherings in other cities brought forth equally inventive signs: “Free Melania,” “He shall overcomb,” “Keep your tiny hands off my human rights,” and so on. The people who invented these expressions and held these signs were refusing to let anxiety or depression override their urge to find words adequate for the challenge.
That’s a very human impulse, one with a long and glorious history. Soldiers in the trenches during the First World War scribbled away in damp notebooks. Prisoners in Nazi concentration camps and the Stalinist gulag wrote on whatever materials they could find: scraps of paper, candy wrappers, toilet paper, even stone walls. Human beings are creatures of language. We speak, therefore we are.
And when we speak or write, we often resort to idioms. We use words not just in a factual way—“Don’t let the dog off the leash”—but also in an idiomatic way: “Don’t be a dog in the manger.” Idioms are small artifacts of imagination. They encapsulate and sum up aspects of our experience. Whatever genre they fall into—miniature poems, sermons, jokes or warnings—they can keep time in abeyance. Clothes and furnishings, even those from recent years, are regularly consigned to the thrift store or the garbage, but idioms from the distant past still trickle through our lips and ears. Many English expressions that are familiar today (“dog in the manger” among them) were well known in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance.
Language is always evolving, but some of these idioms show an impressive capacity to resist change. Ever since William Shakespeare was a child, long before Samuel de Champlain or the Pilgrim Fathers set off across the Atlantic, a selfish or spiteful person has been said to take a dog-in-the-manger view. Never a cat in the manger. Never a dog in the stable. Never two dogs in the manger.
Not all idioms survive, of course. Technological change has rendered many of them obsolete. It’s only members of a rapidly aging generation who are likely to recall what a “Kodak moment” is, or was. Likewise, the expression “Hold your horses!” made sense in previous centuries, when horses were abundant in cities and a necessity of rural life. A person who offered this advice to the driver of a wagon or cart—or to anyone else—was saying, “Be patient! Slow down!” But to shout “Hold your horses!” in the twenty-first century would be to sound irredeemably old-fashioned.
Linguistic obsolescence can also affect the online realm, where expressions that were up to the minute a few years ago can now seem hopelessly dated. When was the last time you heard anyone announce what they discovered while “web surfing”? Several organizations select a new “word of the year,” a choice that often turns out to be not a single word but an idiom. Since 2007 the words of the year as picked by Macquarie Dictionary have included such duds as “phantom vibration syndrome,” “googleganger” and “pod slurping.” Tech-based vocabulary can have an amazingly short life span.
Donkey’s Hind Leg
In October 1993, an article in the New York Times stated: “One of the technologies Vice President Al Gore is pushing is the information superhighway, which will link everyone at home or office to everything else—movies and television shows, shopping services, electronic mail and huge collections of data.” The American Dialect Society chose “information superhighway” as its word of the year for 1993. The idiom seemed destined for a glamorous future.
Not so. “Information superhighway” shot to prominence but remained in wide use for less than a decade. Then it disappeared. The number of its appearances in a major Canadian newspaper, the Vancouver Sun, traces its fate. “Information superhighway” entered the Sun in 1993, when four articles contained the phrase. In 1994, the expression appeared in sixty articles; the following year, thirty-one. The total kept on falling until 2002, when it wasn’t mentioned at all. The road had run out.
Nobody knows which of the idioms introduced or favored by millennials will be alive in the language two or three generations from now. Predictions are rash. But I’ll “go out on a limb,” to adopt an old expression, and say that Inc.com’s 2015 list of “15 Words and Phrases Millennials Use but No One Else Understands” featured several expressions that won’t stick around for long. One of the top items was “hundo p” (one hundred percent). It would be a surprise if that phrase outlasted a couple of the more useful expressions on the list: “Sorry not sorry” (a partial or insincere apology) and “The struggle is real” (serious annoyance).
• • •
Idioms are, by their nature, acts of fusion. They bring two or more disparate elements together into a single whole. They embrace metaphors, similes, proverbs, analogies—a whole range of imaginative thought. “Language is not something which could be built up one word at a time,” the philosopher Charles Taylor argued in his book The Language Animal. “Each word supposes a whole of language to give it its full force as . . . an expressive gesture.” If that’s the case for individual words, it’s even more so for idioms. Often, on a word-by-word basis, they make no literal sense.
I’m using the word literal in a traditional manner. To many people, even today, a statement is “literally” true only if it’s free of all metaphor and exaggeration. But just as the verb “dust” can mean either to clean the dust away or to sprinkle something with dust, “literally” now has a pair of opposite meanings. In 2011 the Oxford English Dictionary added a new sense to its definition of the word: “Used to indicate that some (frequently conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense.” When reporters noticed the change and asked for comment, one of the dictionary’s senior editors, Fiona McPherson, dryly remarked, “It seems to have literally slipped in under the radar.” Still, I prefer to maintain the old distinction. Just as I’ve never heard a dog barking in a manger, I have never “literally died laughing.”
The implications of a phrase like “glass ceiling” have nothing to do with the architectural meaning. Similarly, the walking dead—as far as I’m aware—do not inhabit shopping malls. But when a long commercial building sits nearly empty, most of its stores and restaurants having closed down, the place becomes a “zombie mall.” This is a young idiom, one that has not yet reached many dictionaries. Nonetheless, the New York Times used the expression in a memorable headline in April 2017: “From ‘Zombie Malls’ to Bonobos: What America’s Retail Transformation Looks Like.” The risk of such headlines is that for some readers, the “wow factor” will be overtaken by the “huh? factor.”
Every word or phrase depends on context. “Bonobos,” in the Times headline, refers not to small, endangered chimpanzees but to an “e-commerce-driven” chain of men’s clothing stores. “Own the school year like a hero” may or may not be a smart expression for Walmart to display in its back-to-school advertising, but when a Walmart store in Indiana brandished the slogan in big capital letters above a gun cabinet, the context was wildly inappropriate. “Walls won’t divide us” is a clear and powerful statement, but its implications are different in North America today than they were in West Berlin during the 1980s.
In short, idioms are more than the sum of their individual parts—they rely on “a whole of language” to convey their point. And although it may not be obvious at first, plenty of idioms have a moral or political edge. They’re not as value-free as they may appear. “Three plus eight is eleven” is innocent, but it’s not an idiom. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is an idiom, but it’s not innocent. Neither are phrases like “illegal alien” and “death tax.” In repeating any expression that touches on public issues and debates, we implicitly take some kind of stand.
Used with care and imagination, idioms can feed your head. “In China, the stool pigeon is the true hero of the revolution”: that’s a line from a 2017 book review in the Washington Post. The reviewer, John Pomfret, was outlining the long history of surveillance practices by the Communist regime—not the most alluring topic, you might think. But his unexpected use of the American idiom “stool pigeon”—a term for a police informer—in the context of Maoist and post-Maoist China crystallized a significant idea in a few words.
Most idioms are specific to their own language. No matter how expressive an image they create, that image may dissolve on foreign lips and tongues—this is one of the main reasons why translation is such a difficult and necessary art. If you “show water to someone,” what could you possibly mean? In English, the phrase is nonsensical. But in the Tamil language of southern India and Sri Lanka, it means to make an opponent dizzy, or to be that person’s nemesis. Without having heard the expression before, we lack the means to see beyond the veil of words, so to speak, and grasp the idea the Tamil image conveys.
Combing the Giraffe
“I follow my friend to Gangnam” is an idiom familiar in both South and North Korea—Gangnam, the site of a smash-hit video by the South Korean musician Psy, is a district of Seoul. In South Korea, the expression is said to mean “I’m following my friend’s desires, not my own.” In the North, the idiom had a related though slightly different meaning. But in 2013, the regime suddenly banned its use. The reason: North Koreans had begun to say “I follow my friend to Gangnam” when they really meant “I’m going to leave the country.”
The ability of idioms to sum up an issue in a short, sharp way makes them appealing to editors who are paid to write headlines. This is a tricky craft, because stories are often complex and space is always limited. On a random Monday in the summer of 2017, I checked the Wall Street Journal to see if its headline writers had used any idioms. Indeed they had. A story in the fitness section suggesting that frequent visitors to gyms are now driving less had the headline: “Work the Abs or Fill the Tank?” In the business pages, an article on trends in beer consumption was introduced by “Brewers Can Get a Buzz from Low- and No-Alcohol Beer,” and a report on stock-market lethargy appeared below “The Dow Moves at a Snail’s Pace.” An editorial about rogue traders for J.P. Morgan was titled “The Morgan Whale That Got Away.” And on the Journal’s front page, a story about the problems facing Australian politicians with dual citizenship came with a catchy but misleading headline: “Australia Wants to Drain the Swamp—of Canadians.”
Changes in policy are both signaled and symbolized by changes in language. In the first weeks of the Trump administration, staff in the US Department of Agriculture were told to avoid all mention of “climate change” and to use the expression “weather extremes” instead. Climate change is a stark reality—and a contested idiom. The staff were also instructed to abandon the expression “reduce greenhouse gases” in favor of phrases like “build soil organic matter” and “increase nutrient use efficiency.” As the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once observed, “Every word has repercussions. Every silence, too.”
• • •
Idioms serve a variety of other purposes. For one thing, they add humor to language. There’s nothing funny about saying “He’s stupid,” and on occasion, directness is what you may need. But often it’s wiser—less offensive and more inventive—to say “He’s sharp as a bowling ball.” Or “He’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic.” Or “His cheese has slipped off his cracker.” Or “He’s as quick as a tortoise on Prozac.” Or any one of the countless other idioms for stupidity.
Hour by hour, much of the language that comes our way is purely transactional—in their routine efficiency, the words have no discernible color or flavor. Perhaps it has to be that way. When you’re staring at a business invoice, you don’t expect to meet expressions like “sell like hotcakes” or “buy straw hats in winter.” But invoices, memos, agendas, board minutes, job applications, order forms and the like are written with a single limited purpose in view. They have no other life. Any idioms that stray into them are as out of place as whales in a creek.
News stories, too, are supposed to state in direct, unbiased prose what a reader or viewer needs to know: “Just the facts, ma’am.” (That’s the tradition, anyway. In the current political realm, it risks becoming obsolete.) When a reporter is sent to the scene of a major fire, her job is to provide straightforward information about when the blaze began, how long it lasted, how much was destroyed, if there were casualties, and so on. She is not encouraged to write a story that begins: “Great balls of fire!” This may explain, I suppose, why most news articles are no sooner read than forgotten. It also helps explain why headlines that aim to entice people into reading an article rely sometimes on idioms.
Compared to reporters and executives, fiction writers have far greater latitude to use language in the most vivid, original manner they can—to make their words “leap off the page,” so to speak. One of the most productive techniques for achieving this is the judicious use of idioms. I think of the Mississippi writer Eudora Welty. In a disturbing short story from 1963, “Where Is the Voice Coming From?,” she enters the mind of a frustrated bigot who murders a black civil rights leader. The tale is markedly evocative because of the man’s expressions: “fixed on me like a preacher’s eyeballs when he’s yelling ‘Are you saved?’?”; “trees hanging them pones of bloom like split watermelon”; “may try to railroad me into the electric chair”; “so hot to my feet I might’ve been walking the barrel of my gun.” Desolate perceptions like these are at the story’s heart. Welty’s idioms awaken both our senses and our appalled imaginations.
As “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” demonstrates, the most powerful expressions are sometimes rooted in a single region. “Think global, act local” is a maxim that urges people to take action in their own communities for the sake of the greater good. For authors, it could be adapted to “Think global, write local.” Despite the power of Hollywood, Wall Street and the internet to smooth out distinctions among the major dialects of English, differences persist. Indeed, the British and North American versions of an expression are often distinct. The Old World’s “storm in a teacup” lasts no longer than the New World’s “tempest in a teapot,” and an English “spanner in the works” is just as annoying as an American “monkey wrench.”
The English language continues to grow apace not just in the United States, Britain, Canada, and a few other wealthy countries, but also in parts of Asia and Africa. Works of imagination that are set in India or Nigeria, say, can be authentic only if their characters speak in voices that are true to their own place. These works may demand the use of local idioms. For example, Salman Rushdie’s celebrated novel Midnight’s Children is crammed full of passages like this one: “Amma, do not go to see other men, with Lucknow-work on their shirt; enough, my mother, of teacup-kissery! I am in long trousers now, and may speak to you as a man.” It’s not just particular images and expressions that evoke India (“Lucknow-work” is a style of embroidery popular in the state of Uttar Pradesh), it’s also the rhythms of Rushdie’s idiomatic language that distinguish Midnight’s Children from North American and British novels.
Combing the Giraffe
“It’s Greek to me” means “I just don’t understand.” For English speakers, at least. Speakers of Czech and other Slavic languages say “To me, this is a Spanish village,” while speakers of Spanish say “This is in Chinese.” What’s foreign is a perennial source of suspicion. Some English speakers make the faux request “Pardon my French” before they unleash a swear word or an off-color joke, even though the offending expression has nothing to do with the language of France.
But no people get beaten up in the English language as often as the Dutch. You show “Dutch courage” only if you’ve been drinking; a “Dutch treat” is no treat at all; the “Dutch cure” is suicide. Admittedly, “double Dutch” refers to a harmless game with a skipping rope. But that expression can also mean gibberish. When a language is Greek to you, its speakers are talking double Dutch.
Figurative language has clout. But it needs to be handled with grace, and authors in any country are wise to abstain from the sloppy overuse of idioms. In a Maclean’s article published in August 2017, the novelist Joseph Boyden mixed his metaphors at an alarming rate: “As an honorary witness, my personal mandate is to speak in my role as a writer and public voice about the dark clouds and frightening basements of our shared history and the abomination that was residential schools and the ongoing intergenerational tsunami of trauma.” Public voices, dark clouds, frightening basements and intergenerational tsunamis probably don’t belong in the same paragraph, let alone the same sentence. Idioms express a relationship, and they need to be in relationship with each other. Otherwise, a writer’s work may come across as mere “smoke and mirrors.”
• • •
Language is so essential to human experience, we should expect to find idioms that reflect its power. And sure enough, dozens of English expressions involve words and speech. Many of them illuminate the ways we look on language. These idioms “speak volumes” about how people communicate, or fail to do so. They are, if you like, the selfies English has taken of itself.
When two people have similar beliefs, or find themselves in agreement, they’re said to “speak the same language.” To convey the feeling more emphatically or enthusiastically, you might want to say: “You’re speaking my language!” A third idiom that shows warm agreement is “Now you’re talking.” This phrase can also be used to express surprise. In John le Carré’s 2010 novel Our Kind of Traitor, a British operative named Hector Meredith muses to himself, “Catch the minnows, but leave the sharks in the water. A chap’s laundering a couple of million? He’s a bloody crook. Call in the regulators, put him in irons. But a few billion? Now you’re talking.” The richly idiomatic nature of the language reflects Hector’s inner agitation.
When a word or idea “rolls off the tongue,” it’s easy to say. A “silver-tongued” orator is someone blessed with “the gift of the gab.” But idioms about tongues are not always so positive. A “tongue-lashing” is a verbal attack. If a scolding is profane or over-the-top, the person administering it might be told to “keep a civil tongue in his head.” Or if you’re keen to make a request but you’re nervous about the potential consequences, it might be wise to “hold your tongue”—or “bite your tongue”—and stay quiet.
“Silence is golden,” we’re informed. It’s rare to hear the original version of this saying: “Speech is silver, but silence is golden.” Be that as it may, English has a variety of idioms to evoke silence and the occasional need for it. When you’re “tight-lipped,” you refuse to tell anyone what you know. “My lips are sealed”: in that case, you won’t betray any secrets. You’re “as silent as the grave.” Then again, if you remain speechless for too long, a questioner might ask disparagingly, “Cat got your tongue?”
Any doubts these idioms display about the value of silence are matched, or exceeded, by doubts about speaking too forcefully. It’s never good to be “talking somebody’s head off,” for instance. In its scorn for excessive or careless speech, that expression is close in meaning to the even stronger idioms “run off at the mouth” and “shoot off at the mouth.” Keep on like this, and I’ll be forced to give you “a piece of my mind” or “a good talking-to”—a stern lecture, that is. A tireless talker makes it hard for anyone else to “get a word in edgeways.” If you speak unusually fast, you “talk a mile a minute”—a remarkably quick pace, given that no human has ever run a mile in less than three minutes and forty-three seconds.
Donkey’s Hind Leg
In The Surprise, a play by the English author G. K. Chesterton, a poet tells a princess, “There is always something that we have to say.” The princess slyly retorts that the poet is never at a loss for words. To which the poet replies: “Oh, I know I talk the hind leg off a donkey—a very useless thing to do to a very useful thing like a donkey.” It’s a rueful admission that he talks too much and too long.
“Talking the hind leg off a donkey” was a commonplace idiom in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Another expression, “donkey’s years,” meant an extremely long time. Neither idiom has logic on its side—but until farmers got rid of their donkeys, both idioms were widespread.
Untrustworthy people “talk out of both sides of the mouth” or “speak with a forked tongue.” Why forked? It’s sometimes claimed that indigenous Americans are the source of this expression. Addressing the Muscogee Creek nation in 1829, the newly elected US president Andrew Jackson said, “I love my white and red children, and always speak straight, and not with a forked tongue.” A few years later, the Muscogee Creek were ethnically cleansed from their traditional lands in a forced march that became known as the Trail of Tears—so Jackson’s tongue had indeed been forked. But in any case, the expression was not an American one. It has appeared in English literature going back to the seventeenth century, with reference to the devil.
Our vocabulary for taste is paltry compared to our vocabulary for deception. Either a food is sweet, or it’s not. Either a food is salty, or it’s not. But forked tongues and speaking out of both sides of the mouth are just two of the many idioms that involve false or misleading language. We “pay lip service to an ideal” if our actions don’t match our fine words. We “lie by omission” when we choose to ignore an important part of the story. We use “weasel words” to avoid making a direct statement—weasels can supposedly suck out the contents of an egg while leaving the shell intact. “Barefaced lies” are the most blatant form, whereas “white lies” are the most benign, often uttered for reasons of diplomacy or kindness. The Art of Mingling, a self-help book on overcoming shyness, offers this advice: “I can’t stress enough how important the white lie is in mingling, especially when you are faced with imminent disaster of some kind.”
White lies have been around for centuries, but one memorable expression for not speaking honestly—“economical with the truth”—became a catchphrase only in 1986. That’s when the British cabinet secretary, Robert Armstrong, appeared as a witness in an Australian trial—the British government was trying to prevent Spycatcher, a memoir by Peter Wright, a retired UK counterintelligence officer, from being published there. Armstrong was asked if a particular letter contained a lie. He said no, but admitted the letter gave “a misleading impression.” Pressed about why a misleading impression was any different from a lie, Armstrong replied, “It is perhaps being economical with the truth.” The idiom soon entered wide use—partly because, unlike a blunt accusation of lying, “economical with the truth” is vague enough to forestall a potential lawsuit.
In the past, a person who swears a lot was said to have a sailor’s mouth. Sailors were notorious for using foul language or, as it was sometimes said, “language that would fry bacon”—a clever play on the notion that oaths were hot on the tongue. “Swear like a trooper” and “swear a blue streak” are both American expressions—the blue streak originally meant a bolt of lightning. But the verb swear is a kind of double agent: apart from meaning profanity, it also refers to a solemn vow. If you “swear on a stack of Bibles” or “swear on my mother’s grave,” it’s unlikely a blue streak will come into sight. The word oath has a similar dual meaning: when it’s not a curse, it’s a sworn declaration.
• • •
Some idioms are unlikely to ever go out of style, and they provide no sign of their age or origin. “Word of mouth,” for example, is as current now as it was in the fifteenth century and as it probably will be in the twenty-fifth. But other expressions give an indelible sense of period and place. “Fine words butter no parsnips” is redolent of rural England in past centuries. Those sturdy root vegetables need some extra flavor, and exalted language won’t do the trick. In its mistrust of eloquence, the idiom is reminiscent of a better-known proverb, “Actions speak louder than words.” “Them’s fightin’ words” is suggestive of backwoods America a century ago, although the expression can also be dressed up more formally: “Those are fighting words.”
It’s not just the countryside that breeds idioms, but also the cities where most people now live. One idiom that speaks to our own era is “throw shade.” It means to be critical or show contempt, often in a nonverbal way, and it emerged from the gay club scene in New York in the 1980s and 1990s, especially the world of black and Latino drag queens. Shade can be thrown with a smirk, a raised eyebrow, a turning away, a meaningful pause. But it can also involve language. When the Seattle Times summed up the consensus opinion of a 2017 movie, its headline read: “Critics Throw Shade at 50 Shades Darker: It’s ‘Utterly Ridiculous.’?” Throwing shade can blur into another idiom that characterizes the present day: “trash-talking.”
Lies, oaths, personal attacks. Does English have no idioms that show a happier view of language?
Spoonfuls of sugar
Proverbial expressions often take the form of warnings: they look to the future with foreboding. Don’t be shocked, then, that many proverbs begin with “don’t.” From looking a gift horse in the mouth to changing horses in midstream, from mixing business with pleasure to casting pearls before swine, and from letting the grass grow under our feet to sweating the small stuff, English is rich in rebukes. Don’t forget how U2 sported with all this in their 1993 song “Numb.” It featured a long series of spoken commands. Don’t run before you can walk, for example. And don’t fall down on your sword, either.
Thankfully, it does. Anything that’s novel or surprising, for instance, can be a “conversation piece.” When a girl in Hamilton, Ontario, found an alligator near her family’s backyard swimming pool, her father was reported as saying, “I’m glad no one was hurt . . . When you think back on it, it’s a nice little conversation piece.” (The residents of Hamilton must be cucumber cool.) If I’m “hanging on your every word,” I’m paying close attention and I’m keen to know what you’ll say next. Should you be someone I greatly admire, I “won’t hear a word against you.” I might encourage you by giving you a pep talk, or we could engage in direct and honest communication by means of straight talk.
Agree with something I just said, and you might inform me that I “took the words right out of your mouth.” Only if we were surprisingly intimate, though, would we move on to “pillow talk.”
• • •
Those idioms about language are characteristic of how words can crystallize, clarify, and confuse our thinking on all matter of subjects. Food and drink, love and sex, illness and death, weather and time: all these and more have generated a rich vocabulary of human perception. “We die,” the novelist Toni Morrison said when she accepted the Nobel Prize for literature. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” By focusing on the fragments of language that sum up our feelings and convictions, we can begin to understand larger patterns of thought. Do old idioms still reflect the truth of twenty-first-century lives? Which new expressions deserve to last?
A phrase becomes idiomatic only when it catches a mood or sentiment that has been felt not just by one person but by many. It touches a common nerve, so to speak; it strikes a familiar chord. Idioms are democratic in spirit. We may not always like what they reveal about past history and present beliefs—we may wish they were more tender, less sexist, less militaristic—but “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” English idioms can be merciless. They puncture many kinds of illusion.
Besides, idioms are central to the music of language. Whether a Top 40 hit or a Mahler symphony, every piece of music is built up of melodies consisting of multiple notes. The ways in which these melodies are repeated, altered and harmonized help to create the overall mood of a piece and affect the impact it has on listeners. Likewise, our verbal acts—from a casual conversation to a poem or a political speech—comprise not just individual words but whole phrases. Idioms are recurrent melodies. Used wisely and creatively, they allow language to sing.
So let’s investigate more of these expressions. I invite you to come along for the ride. Even if the journey’s end is no laughing matter, getting there will be half the fun.