Monday, August 17, 2009

Idiotic Idioms

In general, I pride myself on my finely-honed grasp of ordinary language, its meanings, and implications. Recently, however, my confidence was put to a test. Over the course of the last two weeks, I have been challenged on three separate occasions and found myself searching for answers to my initial lack of understanding. The cause of the chaos—idioms.

An idiom is a phrase whose meaning cannot be revealed by the exact definition of the phrase itself, but conveys instead the figurative meaning that is known only through common use. If a listener hears an idiom for the very first time, she may find difficulty connecting its meaning to its intent, as its literal meaning delivers an entirely different message.

For example, perhaps you never heard the idiom, “read between the lines.” Upon hearing it, you may look around you for something to read and the lines upon it, when actually, “read between the lines” means “discern the meaning which is not obvious and explicit.”

To get back to MY idiom idiocy, it all started with a book that I was reading in which the writer wrote, “Come what may, I would continue to love him.” As a natural editor, I thought that May should have been capitalized. Only then did I discover that I had missed the meaning of this term all along. I have always thought the word may meant the month of May, as in, “a year from now, come what May,” I will continue to love him.

The second realization occurred in much the same way. The writer of my book wrote, “I didn’t know how I would make ends meet.” I always thought it was ends meat. I relayed my potential blemish to my family, who, in turn, laughed at me. However, upon looking this one up, I discovered that I would have the last laugh. The idiom, “to make ends meat” derives from the age of the Great Depression. When times were difficult, butchers making sausage had to resort to stuffing more filler into one end than the other so they could tie off the second end. They could not make both ends meat. (A side note—Microsoft Word’s spell check tried to change this spelling to meet.)

I even discovered a poem (writer unknown).

Economics for Sausage Makers
"I buy a pig," the butcher said,
"And grind 'er up complete,
Excepting for the nose and tail,
For they ain't fit to eat.
That's why I'm always broke," he wept;
"I can't make both ends meat."

My third and final recent discovery came just the other day. While watching television with the closed caption turned on, to allow for a better understanding of the program with a screaming toddler in the room, I read below as the character on the screen discussed his fool proof plan. I always thought it was full proof, as in this plan is a proven one to its fullest capacity. It did not occur to me that the plan could also be a plan that even a fool could not compromise.

When researching this, I discovered that I am not alone in my rationale. Google the term full proof, and you will discover pages upon pages of businesses, ministries, and average Joes who agree with my thinking.

This leads me to my conclusion. Idioms are not a part of language, as I once thought; they are part of a culture. We should remember this when writing to a broad audience, such as Internet users across the globe. Perhaps over time, more idioms will become universally recognized, but until then…

Que sera sera. Whatever will be will be.


Yana said...

Great post! I have encountered this issue many times as a daughter of immigrants. My dad is constantly calling with questions about something he read in a book or heard on TV, such as: What does "too clever by half" mean? I have no idea! Does this mean the person is half as clever or one and a half times as clever? I had to look that one up on Urban Dictionary.

Just as a side note, I always thought that "come what may" meant "whatever may come," not the month of May. And I also thought "ends meet" and "fool proof" were correct. But then again, I can't for the life of me understand why it's "cut and dried" (not "dry" as I thought) and "all of a sudden" (not "all of the sudden"). I also don't know which is correct: "jerry-rig" or "jury-rig." English is a tough language to master!

Ima Hogg said...

I knew it was "make ends meet," but I never knew that "make ends meat" was actually something used at a certain time. How interesting to know that about this particular idiom. Thank you.

Zea said...

This is one of the reasons English is such a difficult language, even for native speakers! (Granted, as I am not fluent in any other languages, I can't rightly say that other languages don't have their own equally maddening idioms.)

I think that you're right, idioms aren't necessarily linguistic, but rather are cultural. I'd wager that there are some regional idioms across the United States that people not from that region would not understand.

One of the things that I've notice from being an avid reader my whole life is that the only way to really be comfortable with idioms is through encountering them while reading and just knowing the proper term/spelling/context through exposure. Hearing people say them really doesn't solve the issue when so many English words have multiple meanings or spellings! (May/may, meet/meat being such great examples!)

Mapa said...

I just read this post for the first time, and as to Zea's wager that "there are some regional idioms across the United States that people not from that region would not understand," I recalled a moment in college when my roommate exclaimed that if her mother knew what we were doing, she would be "like to bury." I had no clue about what she was trying to say, but I could only assume she meant her mother "would die," am expression I frequently used to exaggerate my mother's reactio to my teenage antics.