“A creative writing teacher at San Jose State used to say about clichés: Avoid them like the plague. Then he’d laugh at his own joke.” – Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner)
The English language can be difficult to master. Those learning to speak it as a second language find its vagaries more like a mine field than a walk in the park. Effective communication requires a mastery of grammar and pronunciation as well as the acquisition of a large vocabulary. The sheer number of words in the English language can boggle the mind. Add to that the need to know verb variations and tense as well as mastery of slang and colloquialisms, and you’ll have yourself a real kettle of fish. But the straw that breaks the camel’s back is the overuse of idioms.
To get to the bottom of this we have to understand what makes an idiom an idiom. Idioms are phrases whose meaning can’t be determined by a defining every word within them. I don’t mean to beat around the bush. Idioms are words or phrases that aren’t meant to be taken literally or at face value. If I say I I’m “bent out of shape,” it doesn’t mean I’m twisted in a strange yoga position. Rather, it means I am upset.
If you are still with me, I want you hang on tight and keep an open mind. I’m going to ask you to go out on a limb and throw caution to the wind. I have a gut feeling you’ll be able to get a handle on idioms in the following paragraph.
He slept like a log but woke up in the nick of time before the roof collapsed on him. As luck would have it, he escaped. It was the dead of the night and despite having had a near-death experience he was as cool as a cucumber.
No one could win a prize with those sentences. They’re as interesting as watching grass grow or paint dry. Now imagine how difficult it would be to understand the paragraph if you were just learning English.
Last weekend Bob and I helped celebrate the birthday of a friend who is woman of color. Her 4 year old grandson was sitting with us and listening intently to the grownups at the table. When his aunt commented that her mother was tickled pink, the little guy took a hard look at his grandmother, shook his head and let everyone at the table know his grandmother was black, not pink. I wanted to laugh, but I caught myself for fear I’d hurt his feelings. I remember another four year old whose feelings were hurt when folks laughed at her very literal conclusions. I can still recall her looking first to my right side and then to my left when I told her I was “beside myself.” This same child extended her hand and expected payment any time she heard the phrase, “A penny for your thoughts.” I tried to avoid idioms until she was old enough to understand the difference between literal and figurative expressions, but her dad and I had a (literal) belly laugh as she mastered the vagaries of the English language. I’m here to tell you she was “a tough nut to crack.”
Normally, those recollections would slip back into memory, but I was at a contentious meeting this morning. To save my sanity I withdrew from the conversation and, for reasons that are still not clear to me, I started to think about idioms. The first that came to mind regarded the circumstances in which I found myself. Ever the cheer leader, I reminded myself that “the ball is in your court,” and not wanting to leave before making my point, the words “you are barking up the wrong tree,” slipped irretrievably from my tongue. On a roll, I let it be known that I couldn’t “beat around the bush,” and I thought it was time for us to “go back to the drawing board.” Now, I don’t know about your neighborhood, but in mine this is not the way to win friends and influence people. I belatedly remembered that some things are best held “close to the vest,” and I hoped those present would take what I said “with a grain of salt.”
For my part, I resolved “not to cry over spilled milk,” because the “cat was out of the bag.”
If you think idioms should be no problem for those just learning English, I hope you’ll put the shoe on the other foot and pretend you are a stranger in a strange land. All countries have figurative language. In Italy, “not all doughnuts come with a hole” means you don’t always get what you want. In France, “when chickens have teeth” means something’s never going to happen. In Portuguese, “he who doesn’t have a dog, hunts with cats” means you make the most of what you’ve been given. In Polish, “mustard after lunch” means it’s too late to do something. In German, “an elephant made out of a fly” means to make a big deal out of nothing and in Spanish, “a lot of noise and no walnuts” means someone’s all talk and no action. So don’t miss the boat, pull yourself together and enjoy the ride. It’s free.
Photo: Courtesy of Really Learn English Idioms via Pinterest