I know I’m a little long in the tooth, and most of you believe that a leopard can’t change his spots or that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but you would be barking up the wrong tree, and you can eighty-six that idea because it’s fool’s gold, and I’m ready to let the cat out of the bag: I love idioms and always enjoy discovering new ones. 

For some of you, this sentence may have been Greek.  For those of you not fluent in idioms, I offer the following translation:


I know I’m old, and most of you believe that I can’t change my nature, but you would be making a mistake and you can discard that idea because it’s  false, and I’m ready to tell my secret: I love idioms and always enjoy discovering new ones. 

Most of you folks reading the idiomatic paragraph probably had no trouble understanding the figurative meanings of the idioms.  I’m not completely sure this is true for some of the younger folks because I don’t think adults interact with their children as much as they did at one time; thus, there are fewer chances for idioms to be introduced to them, and television, because it must be understood by all, is less likely to employ idioms.

An idiom is an expression that has a figurative meaning that is  different from the literal meaning of the words of which it is made.  For example, a piece of cake literally means, well, a piece of cake.  It’s idiomatic meaning is something which can be accomplished easily.

Can you imagine if English were your second language, how difficult these idiomatic expressions would make understanding the language?  You wouldn’t have a Chinaman’s chance.  That one’s probably dated and may be offensive.  Sorry about that.  However, Chinaman’s chance, which means little or no chance, does have a history that makes sense: Chinese migrant workers were employed by mines and construction sites to ignite dynamite which, of course, may result in serious injury or death: thus, a Chinaman’s chance.

Some idioms, because they are so commonly used, are  barely acknowledged as idiomatic: work out (for the best) meaning to end successfully (I believe everything will work out for those folks.); put out (something) meaning to produce or make something (The company put out a newsletter each month.); open to (something) meaning to be agreeable to learn or hear a new idea or suggestion (They were all open to the teacher’s suggestion.); on the other hand meaning in contrast or looking at the opposite side (He had bad luck, but, on the other hand, he wasn’t fired.); look up (something) meaning to search for something in a dictionary or on the internet (He looked up the meaning of he word.); hang out (somewhere/with someone) meaning to spend one’s time with no great purpose (I like to hang out with my friends; for good which means permanently (The school will close for good this fall.).  If you go back and examine each idiomatic expression, you’ll realize that the literal meanings of the words do not match their idiomatic meanings. 

Many idioms make us smile: bee in my bonnet (problem on my mind); all ears (listening carefully);  a bad egg (dishonest or bad person); having a bone to pick (having a point of disagreement); open a can of worms (expose serious problems); buying a pig in a poke (buying something without seeing it); in a pickle (in an awkward or embarrassing situation); bite off more than you can chew (take on more than one can handle); raining cats and dogs (raining very heavily); skate on thin ice (be in a dangerous or risky situation); go bananas (to act silly or crazy); snake in the grass (a liar, cheat, or sneaky person).  You have to admit telling someone that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew is more likely to be accepted as a friendly criticism than saying that they’ve taken on more than they are capable of handling.

The more important a subject is, the more likely there are to be idioms related to it.  Death is a fairly important subject.  I found over fifty idioms related to death.  The following ones actually mean someone’s died: gave up the ghost, met their maker, stone dead, as dead as a doornail, bit the dust, and bought the farm.

I like the following death related idioms: whistling past the graveyard (trying to remain cheerful in difficult circumstances); know where the bodies are buried (having knowledge of secrets that others would want to keep secret thus giving power); and gallows humor (trying to make fun or laugh when things are very frightening or dangerous or hopeless).

On the other hand, alive has far fewer idioms related to it.  Some worth mentioning are the following: alive and kicking which means well and healthy; lands sakes alive or sakes alive means my goodness! (a mild oath); be alive and kicking means to continue to exist and be full of energy; and look alive means to be alert and responsive.

Sometimes idioms are pretty local.  I suspect calling someone an old water moccasin is a Somerville thing.  When I first began working in Somerville, I recognized it as being a pretty common expression among working men at the Country Inn (local watering hole).  The first time I heard the expression was from Echmond Brantley, fine fellow now deceased, who shocked me one day when I ran into him at an auto dealership in Brenham.  Actually, what he said when he saw me was, “You old four-eyed water moccasin.”  The four-eyed part I readily understood, but I was a little unsure about the water moccasin part.  I’m hoping it meant hail fellow well met.

How idioms start and what makes them become part of our language is difficult to say, but some individuals must create idioms.  Why not me?  I’ll make a stab at it: goat in a boat meaning someone out of place; egg in a blender meaning changing to become unrecognizable; and pig in a hammock meaning someone without responsibilities and not seeking any.  I guess I don’t really have much hope for these jewels catching on, but you can’t say I didn’t try, have a crack at it, take a shot at it, take a stab at it, or take a whack at it.


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