You can use a familiar saying for years before the words suddenly strike you as sounding idiotic, illogical and inane.
How can it possibly rain cats and dogs? Have you ever seen anyone stop to put on a thinking cap? Pull the wool over someone’s eyes? Put their foot in their mouth? Put a sock in it?
What does it mean to scream at the top of one’s lungs; to be at the end of your rope or to put all your eggs in one basket?
Anne Sheehan, associate professor of English at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, enjoys exploring the world of idioms, which she defines as multiword expressions whose meanings, though conventionally understood, are not semantically deducible from the literal meanings of the words used.
“Idioms are unique, not only in their ability to carry meanings not contained literally in their actual words, but also because, though phrases, they convey one whole concept that is entered into one’s mental lexicon as a single item or idea,” she said.
“Figurative language makes communication more interesting, vivid and meaningful, particularly graphic metaphors,” she added. “When you think about it, idioms often contain pictorial language.”
Once one possesses the single-concept meaning of an idiom, Sheehan said, the graphic implications tend to go unnoticed. For example, when Mary says, “Jack ripped my idea to shreds,” the listener does not picture a shredder; instead he or she understands that Jack found many things wrong with Mary’s idea.
In terms of meaning, idioms generally fall into two categories: transparent and opaque, although there can be some overlap.
Transparent idioms are those that don’t take much explaining to be understood.
“They are basically self-evident,” Sheehan said.
An example of a transparent idiom would be: “Looking for a needle in a haystack.” It doesn’t take much imagination or prior knowledge to figure out what that probably means. Likewise with “barking up the wrong tree,” as in looking in the wrong place for something.
However, the meanings of opaque idioms aren’t so reaily apparent. “Many of the more opaque idioms are considered to have early cultural beginnings. It has been speculated, for example, that ‘the cat’s pajamas’ comes from a 19th century tailor, named ‘Katz,’ who made pajamas for the very wealthy.”
Sheehan also noted that, “beating around the bush” could refer to people who, in days gone by, were “beaters” in hunting parties.
“Their job was to beat the prey out of bushes and out of woods. They were supposed to beat the bush itself, not beat around it. In other words, they were to get to it. Some have conjectured that ‘dog days of summer’ may refer to the fact that, since the dog star, Sirius, and the sun are in the same area of the heavens, very hot days are ‘dog days.’ ”
‘Close but no cigar’ is a 20th century American idiom believed to harken back to when cigars were common prizes at various carnivals and fairs.
Sometimes one idiom derives from another. For example, the transparent idiom “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” when reduced to “the last straw,” becomes more opaque and may well require some explaining to one unfamiliar with English idioms, Sheehan said.
Robert Thompson, a pop culture expert and director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, said idiomatic speech has both pluses and minuses.
“These 10,000-plus phrases in regular circulation certainly add a flavor to common speech, often carrying regional identities as a bonus. They also tend to be very efficient — carrying fact, interpretation and drama all in a few syllables. . .,” he said.
“The bad news is that idioms are, almost by definition, overused. Like Hallmark mass-produces emotions for us to purchase and sign off on, an idiom is ready-made poetic speech ready to be pulled out when the situation demands. It’s often useful, but nearly always cliché,” he said.
Tracing the history of idioms is largely a matter of speculation, though there are etymologists who research old dictionaries, literary works and other documents to find the first written usage of some of the phrases. Finding original printed references is informative; still, because most idioms first come into being orally, it is hard to trace most with absolute certainty.
Here are some popular idioms and the widely believed tales connected to their origins:
Wet behind the ears — This phrase is mostly used to state that someone is very young or, more often, inexperienced. When animals are born, they are wet from the amniotic fluid and the birthing blood. After giving birth, the mother animal licks her offspring clean. This also stimulates the babies into taking their first breath. At that point, they begin to nurse and their fur dries. Because of the folds of skin, the last place to dry is often behind the ears, at the base. Thus, they are so newly born that they are still wet behind the ears.
Raining cats and dogs — After consulting several language reference books, none definitively pins down the phrase’s origins. All, however, confirm the colloquialism’s meaning as a heavy rainfall. The 16th edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations attributes the phrase to anonymous. The New Dictionary of American Slang states that the phrase probably traces back to middle 1700s British, but goes on to say that the origin is “unknown, although many improbable derivations have been proposed.”
Another theory is that in old England they had hay roofs on their houses and cats and dogs would sleep on the roofs. When it rained, the roofs got slippery and the cats and dogs slid off. Therefore, it was “raining cats and dogs.”
Barking up the wrong tree — This is traced back to varmint hunting of some type, most likely raccoons. Because the hunting generally took place at night, under the cover of darkness, hunting dogs and their owners could sometimes get a little confused about which tree the raccoon was actually in. Needless to say, nothing good comes out of barking up the wrong tree.
Rough as a cob — This phrase describes anything that is rough, uncomfortable or difficult. It goes back to the days of outhouses, before three-layer toilet tissue was invented. Old, used corn cobs had a lot of functionality back then.
Some of the most popular idioms in modern society incorporate a pop of verbal color.
For example, you can be tickled pink, in the pink or get the pink slip. You can have a red-letter day, be in the red or get caught red-handed. Maybe you have a yellow streak or are yellow-bellied, both of which refer to someone who is cowardly and timid, and perhaps you’ve gotten the green light, have a green thumb or are just green with envy.
Idioms and children
Because children tend to believe what they hear and also take language very literally, Sheehan cautions that one should think twice about using idioms in their presence.
“If a small child overhears his mother say to a neighbor: ‘The boss bit my husband’s head off this morning,’ imagine how traumatizing that would be for the child. Researchers studying children’s idiom comprehension have found that by about first grade, [kids] still tend to take idioms literally. So, if their teacher remarks, ‘Look children. It’s raining cats and dogs,’ they will most likely run to the window, only to be disappointed.”
By third grade, however, children have begun to internalize the conventional meanings of many common idioms, she said.
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