Peg Herring, an historical and contemporary mystery author is currently on a Blog Crawl and is posting about the English language and its wonderful richness. Today, Peg’s talking about Idioms. Why not visit Peg’s blog and see what other blogs she’s visited and what other aspects of the language she has been discussing? Her blog address –http://itsamysterytomepegherring.blogspot.com/
English is stuffed with idioms, words strung together with meaning in addition to what the individual words indicate. It drives ESL students crazy and adds humor in TV shows like “NCIS”, where a running gag has Ziva confused by idioms. When McGee says, “I have hung a net,” she says, “I do not know who Annette is or why you are so proud of killing her.”
Idioms are helpful for adding color and character, but a writer runs the risk of dating her work and losing readers of a different era or age. Phrases like “ghetto blaster” and “cut a rug” come and go quickly and seem ridiculous only a few years after the phrase is coined.
Even idioms that stay in the language can miss the mark in the wrong character’s mouth. A teenager would probably eat a bug before she would say “Clean as a whistle” or “happy as a clam”, and an older person must have good reasons for using terms like “bust a move” or “phobar”.
While context might help readers figure out an unfamiliar idiom, the author’s responsibility is to see that his readers have a fair chance to comprehend his words. On the other hand, readers should be willing to think about why an idiom was used and what it might mean. I was told the story of a writer whose editor would not let him use the term “walking point” in a novel about Vietnam-era soldiers because she had never heard the term before. Give us a break, chickie!
For your entertainment, I’ve listed below some common idioms and where they came from.
A As dead as a doornail- used in 1350 or earlier, but Shakespeare used it in King Henry VI, Part 2
A As white (now pure) as driven snow-Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale
A A drop in the bucket-The Bible, Isaiah: 40:15
Pearls before swine-The Bible, Matthew: 7:6
Take the Dickens-this saying has nothing to do with the writer Charles Dickens. A euphemism for devil or devilish, Dickens was probably a shortened form of the word “devilkins”.
Happy as a clam – This one used to have a second half: “happy as a clam at high tide”. At high tide, the clams are safe and sound under the water, and you can’t dig them out and eat them.
Worth one’s salt – Roman soldiers were paid via a salarium, money intended for the purchase of salt. The English word salary derives from the Latin word for “salt”.
Learn the ropes – A new sailor had to become acquainted with knot tying as well as handling the ropes on the individual sails.
Hit the sack or hit the hay- In the early 1900s, it was common for mattresses, or sacks, to be stuffed with hay or straw, therefore “hitting the hay” or “hitting the sack” was a literal thing.
Mind your p’s and q’s – There are two explanations for this one, and I like both:
First, innkeepers used to keep a chalkboard on the wall to keep track of orders, using “p” for “pint” and “q” for quart. It is said that when a customer began to get rowdy, the host would point to his name on the board and tell him “Mind your p’s and q’s!”
The other explanation comes from early printing, where letters were set by hand into the presses to make a page. The letters were carved backward, and it was easy to confuse similar letters, so printing devils were told to “mind their p’s and q’s”.
The Poser: Name three books/series where an animal is central to the plot.
The Prizes-Weekly prizes (your choice of THE DEAD DETECTIVE AGENCY in e- or print format) drawn from the names of those who comment on the blogs as we go. Comment once/day, but the first commenter each day gets entered twice in Saturday’s drawing!
The Pitch: THE DEAD DETECTIVE AGENCY, First in The Dead Detective Mysteries, paranormal mystery. Tori Van Camp wakes in a stateroom on a cruise ship with no memory of booking a cruise, but she does have a vivid recollection of being shot in the chest. Determined to find out what happened and why, Tori enlists the help of an odd detective named Seamus. Together they embark on an investigation like nothing she’s ever experienced. Death is all around her, and unless they act quickly, two people she cares about are prime candidates for murder. Read more about this book and the author at http://pegherring.com or buy the book at http://www.ll-publications.com/deaddetectiveagency.html.
The Perpetrator: Peg Herring writes historical and contemporary mysteries. She loves everything about publishing, even editing (most days). Peg’s historical series, The Simon and Elizabeth Mysteries, debuted in 2010 to great reviews. The second in the series will be available in November from Five Star.
Thank you, Peg, for a very interesting post. I must admit, I love just about everything concerning the English language – even the spelling! Throughout its history it has accommodated words from other languages and this is partly what gives it its richness. Thanks again, Peg. Don’t forget, to follow Peg’s Blog Crawl, go to: http://itsamysterytomepegherring.blogspot.com/ to see where Peg is posting during her Crawl.