Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Save the Idioms?

id•i•om/ˈidēəm/ Noun: A group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words.

I’ve always been a fan of language. I was a very early reader, and developed a talent for speaking in my early teen years that turned into stints as a radio announcer and master of ceremonies at functions and events through my twenties. And then there is this writing thing I like to do. Writing is a pastime of mine that I’ve been told I have a flair for, but one from which I have never directly made a penny to this point.

As a language fan, I often notice things in how people write and speak. One of the things I have noticed is that idioms seem to be fading from common use, especially among people under the age of around 50. You rarely here some hip twenty-something in a coffeeshop observing that it’s “raining cats and dogs”, do you? I am not entirely sure what the reason for the fading of idioms might be. It could be the result of our texting society, where any use of excess words in writing is frowned upon. If so, this may have also spilled over into speaking habits. Or, it might just be a generational thing. People of Generation X and younger, in order to distance themselves from the overwhelming cultural juggernaut that was and is the Baby Boom Generation, avoided using idioms so as not to sound like the older folks.

Personally, I think that it’s because a lot of popular idioms are just wackadoodle crazy when you stop and think about them. The following are some cases in point:

“A piece of cake”: This phrase commonly means “something that is simple”. In reality, this makes little to no sense. I have attempted to bake a cake on many occasions. Well, okay, by “many occasions”, I mean “once”. Getting all those ingredients together requires, first of all, a trip to the supermarket, which is the very opposite of simple. Then there is the whole “following the recipe thing”, which is kind of a pain in the neck, but important, I’ve found. And then, to literally top it all off, there is the frosting application. I turned an average-looking cake into a broken pile of crumbs in no time flat just trying to frost it. There is nothing simple about a piece of cake, except maybe eating one. I probably won’t screech too loudly on this one, since my baking skills leave much to be desired, and a piece of cake may actually be easy for some people.

“In a pickle”: In other words, “to be in some kind of trouble”. This is something in which I am an expert. At no time, however, did I ever feel like I was encased in an edible product, such as a cucumber, that has been preserved and flavored in a solution of brine or vinegar. First of all, I am much too big, as are most people I know. Secondly, pickles are not usually hollow. This idiom obviously was created by someone who lived in a household with a lot of flaking lead paint. I think it should be changed to “in a room full of pickles”, since the strong smell of vinegar might be considered trouble for some people. Revision is definitely in order.

“Let the cat out of the bag”: It means “to reveal a secret”. It’s a piece of cake to get yourself in a pickle if you let the cat out of the bag. Now I work with cats every day in my job, in addition to being the owner of two. Even if a cat stays in a bag, there is no secret involved whatsoever. In general, cats do not like being held in a bag, and will make their presence within abundantly clear. I’d suggest we change the meaning of “let the cat out of the bag” to “inflicting great personal harm on some poor sap nearby, requiring him or her to go to the local emergency room”, since that is often the end result of doing so. I wonder to whom I would speak about that?

“Up the creek without a paddle”: Another way of stating that someone is in trouble, but with no apparent way out of it. Now stop and think about this: You are in a canoe on a creek somewhere. A crazed bear storms out of the woods and, instead of eating you (maybe you looked like you might be stringy), this bear steals your canoe paddle and leaves. You have, therefore, lost your paddle. Where would you rather be, vis-à-vis your intended destination, up the creek, or down the creek? Seems to me, if you are up the creek without a paddle, you could just drift downstream until you reach your campsite or whatever, and all is good. If you are down the creek without a paddle, then there’s a good chance you will drift downstream, maybe even out to sea to become a snack for a hungry squid. Far-fetched? Sure. Possible? I think so. “Down the creek without a paddle” would be a much more appropriate idiom for trouble. Perhaps I should start a petition.

“More *blank* than Carter’s got liver pills”: This one has always mystified me. Evidently, it means one has a lot of something. I’ve got a bunch of questions about this one. Who is Carter? How do we know what is in his bathroom cabinet? And what’s wrong with his liver anyway? Should I send him a get-well card? Do I need to get my black suit dry-cleaned? A typical prescription is around 60-90 pills per month, I would guess. Why not just say “more than 90”? It would be much more direct and clear. I’ll add this to the petition.

It saddens me to see any development that makes our language less descriptive and interesting, though it is not really a surprise. If you read published personal letters written just in the past 200 years, you can detect a distinct decline in the use of vivid description and interesting vocabulary. Idioms have their purpose. However, if idioms are to survive, I think they need to make more sense.

At least, that’s what I think. Who knows? I might just be crazier than a bedbug.

I hope you’ll still sign my petition.


  1. I like to have my students explain the origin of idioms (and then compare them to documented "official" version) and the raining cats and dogs one always comes up. My favorite explanation came from a girl from Spain, who said she heard that back in the days when people lived in houses with thatched roofs, the animals would sleep in the eaves or right on the straw to keep warm, and during rainstorms, the straw would weaken and the animals would drop through, making it seem as it it were raining cats and dogs. I thought it was cute, and it beats the hell out of the book we use, that says it originated from the days of open sewer systems, where heavy rains would flood the streets and drown stray cats and dogs!

  2. Interesting hypothesis about the texting culture. i have always assumed it was just because language culture is disappearing altogether; accents as well as idioms. I used to blame television, but young people now don't seem to watch tv much anymore.