After writing a couple of somewhat controversial posts over the past few days, it’s time for a more lighthearted one.
Richard was recently accused of name calling when he used a common English idiom in a comment on Facebook. In response to a doom and gloom posting expressing a friend’s fear about what the newly elected NDP government would do to our province’s economy, he wrote “I just checked again. The sky is still safely in place, it did not fall.” He was, of course, making reference to The sky is falling!, an idiom which had it’s origins in the ancient folk tale, Henny Penny, or as it’s sometimes known, Chicken Little, about a chicken who believes the world is coming to an end. The phrase features prominently in the story, and has passed into the English language as a common idiom indicating a hysterical or mistaken belief that disaster is imminent.
I don’t know if our friend truly believed that Richard was calling her Chicken Little or if she was just very upset. The idiom is one that has been used frequently in discussions and articles in Alberta since the May 5th election. In fact, it appeared twice in one article that we read today. In any case, the misunderstanding reminded me again what a challenging language English is and how much fun we had teaching it in both China and Japan.
Some of our adult students in Japan were particularly intrigued by idioms. Kyoko was a librarian who was already quite conversant in English and who wanted to study nothing else! In my opinion, she was an adult student paying good money for private lessons and should have been able to choose what she wanted to study, but the school had a different philosophy and I couldn’t get away with that. We agreed to compromise. She would study the prescribed curriculum if I would include one or two idioms at the end of each lesson.
So what is an idiom? It can be defined as an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words, but that has a separate meaning of its own. The origin of many have been lost in antiquity, but our language is littered with them. Some people, Richard included, use them frequently in everyday conversation. I use them much less often, but I thought it would be fun to do a bit of research and share the stories behind a few of the more common ones here.
It’s raining cats and dogs! simply means that it’s pouring rain. There are many theories about the origin of this one, but the most probable is that it had it’s beginning in 17th century England. Public sanitation wasn’t what it is today and during deluges, rainwater coursing down the streets would often carry dead animals with it. As a result, even though cats and dogs never literally showered down from above, they became associated with severe rainstorms.
Mind your Ps and Qs means to watch your manners or be on your best behaviour. It dates back to a time when local taverns, pubs and bars served their patrons drinks by the quart and the pint. Bar maids had to keep an eye on the customers and keep the drinks coming paying special attention to who was drinking pints, and who was drinking quarts.
When someone uses the phrase, straight from the horse’s mouth, we know that they have heard something directly from the source. They are, therefore, to be believed. Horses have been a prized commodity down through the ages. In the past, a dishonest seller might lie about a horse’s age, but a potential buyer who knew anything about horses knew that you could tell the age by examining the size and shape of its teeth, literally getting the truth straight from the horse’s mouth.
Do you ever get up on the wrong side of the bed? If so, you start the day in a less than pleasant mood. In Roman times, it was considered bad luck to get out of bed on the left side. Hence if you got up on that side, your day was destined to be a bad one.
When you paint the town red, you go out and celebrate in a somewhat wild and flamboyant way that likely includes imbibing in alcohol. There are several suggestions as to the origin of this one, but the most common dates back to 1837 and a well-documented story about the Marquis of Waterford and a group of his friends running riot in the Leicestershire town of Melton Mowbray, painting the town’s toll-bar and several other buildings a bright red.
Do your kids like riding shotgun; running to jump in the front seat of the vehicle with you whenever you go out? If so, they are replicating a historically important role. In the days when stagecoaches were the primary mode of transport, the seat immediately next to the driver was reserved for an individual with a shotgun whose job it was to ward off any bandits attempting to loot passengers.
Do you ever fly off the handle? In pioneer days, handmade axes weren’t always the best examples of craftsmanship. Occasionally, a particularly poor design would result in the head unexpectedly flying off its handle. This became an apt metaphor for passionate bursts of rage or losing one’s temper.
If our friend’s predictions about Alberta’s NDP government come true, we may have to bite the bullet, accepting the impending hardship and enduring the resulting pain. This idiom has a straightforward history. In days gone by, when doctors were short on anesthesia, they would ask the patient to bite down on stick of wood or a bullet during a medical procedure to distract them from the pain.
Or perhaps we’ll have to tighten our belts, lowering our standard of living because we’ll have less money than we had before. This saying comes from the depression era when there was little money for anything including food so people had to tighten their belts in order to keep their pants from falling down.
I could go on and on. There are estimated to be more than 25 000 idioms in the English language!
Do you have a favourite?