Recently, I came across a video article that highlighted the US’ attitude toward intelligence gathered on Syria. Basically, US officials described the intelligence as not a ‘slam dunk’. My first impression was of how inappropriate a phrase was chosen by the US officials. But then it reminded me of how casual the English-speaking world now is with its collective use of language. Rather than taking the time to make a more detailed assessment of the Syrian intelligence, an inappropriate idiom was chosen instead.
Idioms have fascinated me ever since I was a child, particularly because of the wisdom they could impart on a young mind. As the years passed by, that fascination then blossomed further. I now find them interesting because of their origins, and for how lots of people can’t get by without them.
‘A Colloquial Metaphor’
Dependence is a notion that came to me when I was watching one of my favourite TV shows, Archer (it’s a rude yet intelligent cartoon about spies). In the particular episode that I was watching, the main character, Archer, tries to communicate his orders to a group of foreign pirates by way of a translator. The translator eventually gets fed up with Archer’s use of idioms, because he can’t translate them, and asks Archer if he even knows what an idiom is.
If you watched the short clip, you will have heard Archer explain that it is a ‘colloquial metaphor’. Without delving into dictionaries, we can settle on colloquial metaphor as an accurate definition. This is because colloquialisms are unique to certain geographic locations, like with the slam dunk example from earlier. Then when we get to metaphor, this is a comparison through which people can draw meaning. Idioms certainly tick both of those boxes (yup, that was an idiom).
For people learning to speak English, idioms are definitely one of the most difficult concepts to grasp. This is because the budding speaker needs to learn the situations in which they can be used correctly. To provide some perspective on idioms, take a look at some of the examples provided:
- A piece of cake – popular with bakers
- A taste of your own medicine – popular with pharmacists
- All in the same boat – popular with sailors
- At the end of the day – popular with soccer commentators
- Bite your tongue – not popular with dentists
- Devil’s advocate – not popular with the church
- Excuse my French – popular with French language students
- New kid on the block – popular with Mark Wahlberg
- Off on the wrong foot – not popular with shoemakers
- Pass the buck – not popular with former US President Harry S Truman
- Rule of thumb – not popular with the other four fingers
Go Pat a Horse
Idioms are very useful in social contexts because they can communicate feelings or opinions without significant explanation. However, idioms become a problem when they are overused within written content. The world is becoming much better at understanding English, but that does not mean that everyone can understand the idioms that are popular within your culture.
Recently, I came across a wonderful example of a foreign idiom from a Danish friend of mine. She was dealing with a frustrated Danish customer that told her to ‘go pat a horse’, which essentially translates as ‘chill out’ for English speakers. On that note, I am going to go pat a horse. Don’t think too hard over your use of idioms when chatting with your friends. (Photo credit to With Associates)
By Mike Porter