Idioms for idiots

I do not believe in pure idioms. I think there is naturally a desire, for whoever speaks or writes, to sign in an idiomatic, irreplaceable manner. Jacques Derrida.

The word idiom, if one were to be pedantic, means ‘an expression whose meaning is different from the meanings of the individual words in it.’ I picked that up from one of the many dictionaries that are readily available to us if one made a reference to any of the established search engines on the internet. I would not set too much store on their spellings as most of them are locked into the American school of English, about which the less said, the better. Anyhow, getting back to idioms, we are also provided with a helpful example. The idiom ‘bring something home to somebody’ means ‘to make somebody understand something.’ As a quick aside, if anyone knows how to switch to English (UK) on my Word document from the dreaded English (US), please let me know pronto. The option is available but never works. If I take my eyes off my keypad for a heartbeat, ‘honour’ quickly becomes ‘honor.’ And to rub it in, ‘honour’ sports a red underline as if to say, ‘watch it buddy, we don’t hold with that needless “u”. Get rid of it. Then again, don’t bother, we will do the needful.’ Don’t miss the sneer. You see what we have to put up with? My response is clear. ‘Up with it, I will not put. My honour is at stake.’ I shove the “u” back where it belongs. Sorry, I digress, I ramble, but all in a good cause.

Let me get back to idioms. From a writer’s point of view, idioms are an excellent tool to drive home a point. In fact, to bring home something to somebody, as my digital dictionary so artlessly and inelegantly puts it. We employ idiomatic expressions all the time, often without even being conscious of it. They are so ingrained in our psyche. One assumes that many of these expressions have been with us for hundreds of years. The greatest writers of the English language have honed their writing skills by introducing homespun idioms which, over time, have become part and parcel of the way we speak and write. All fine and dandy, which ought to mean, everything is hunky-dory, but evidently it is now said in a patronising, sarcastic tone, meaning just the opposite of what it was originally meant to convey. Excuse me while I bang my head against the wall.

 That said, I do have a gripe against quite a few of these idioms that have gained currency over the centuries. If you examine them closely, as I am about to, you will find that quite a few of them do not make much sense. I could be inviting vitriol and the wrath of God to rain down on me. And the devil take the hindmost, to employ another idiom. Which is as good a place to start as any. I am reliably informed that the origins of the expression ‘and the devil take the hindmost’ date back to the 1500s. Apparently, the idea is that if everyone is running away, the devil will get its nasty hooks on those who are farthest away from the front. So much for nice guys finishing last! Implying, presumably, that those who get left behind from the group, are at great risk. From what? That is the question. The devil? Give me a break. For some obscure reason, from the 16th century onwards, the meaning of the expression was simplified to mean selfishness. Confusing? Of course. Which is why, at times, it may be better to employ some of these idioms without being overly conscious of its meaning. Let it just flow naturally, like James Joyce’s stream of consciousness passages. If you followed with clarity some of JJ’s outpourings from Ulysses, you are a better man than I am, Gunga Din. If people don’t quite get it, hard cheese. And the devil take the hindmost!

Did you notice what I just did, without even thinking about it? Hard cheese. An idiom, to understand which I have never sought any learned soul out to ascertain what it actually meant. By itself, hard cheese sounds nonsensical, but in the context of the flow of a running dialogue, you get the gist of it. I must have come across it in a book or a play or something. What it means, and I need hardly spell it out, is ‘tough luck, old chap,’ said sympathetically. It can also be used with a dose of irony, ‘you spurned my offer, hard cheese, go and cry on someone else’s shoulder.’ Just two words, and so much to explain.

How often have we come across someone who is described as being so gentle and soft that ‘he wouldn’t hurt a fly.’ This one really beats the bejeezus out of me. Let us assume, for one insane moment, that I actually wish to hurt a fly. Let’s face it, they are annoying things, flies, and we keep trying to swat the damn things with a folded newspaper, more in hope than with any real intent. But how does one go about hurting it? I suppose if you are one of those sadistic boys in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, you might be inclined to inflict harm to a fly, as they do to a pig, but that is fiction. If I did catch a fly, even by a huge stroke of luck, I will just let it out of the window, dead or alive. I make no such promises about cockroaches or lizards, but flies? I can take them or leave them. And the devil take the hindmost!

How about ‘burning the candle at both ends?’ A well-known, if idiosyncratic, idiom that means a person working his socks off, round the clock, virtually working himself to a standstill until he is drained of all energy. My question to the nutcase who thought up this phrase is this. Is it possible to burn a candle at both ends? And to what end? By definition, a candle has a wick at one end, and is flat at the other, such that you can make the candle stand on any smooth surface after a drop of wax from the wick end (if you are still with me). If you light the wick and show a flame to the flat end, surely the wax would melt, rendering your ability to make the candle stand upright, a non-starter. You are now free to call me a literal-minded idiot, as we are discussing idioms and idiots. I shall, however, firmly stand my ground. The person who burned the midnight oil (there’s another one) to come with this candle classic clearly did not think it through. He would have been better off lighting one candle at one end than to risk waxing lyrical by daftly burning it at both ends. As a complete non sequitur, I am reminded of a line one of my teachers wrote in my autograph book, ‘better to light one candle than to curse darkness.’ Make of that what you will.

When I first heard the expression ‘never give a sucker an even break,’ I could not make head nor tail of it. After much asking around and researching, I arrived at the conclusion that the idiom was just another way of saying ‘one should not suffer fools gladly.’ However, the ‘sucker’ idiom gained a great deal of currency after a 1941 Hollywood film starring the incomparable W.C. Fields, with the same title. The expression started appearing frequently in American novels, pop song lyrics and of course, movie scripts. To say nothing of P.T. Barnum’s immortal contribution to our idiomatic lexicon, ‘there’s a sucker born every minute.’ Now here’s the thing. Every time I have attempted to use this idiom (I refer to the W.C. Fields version) in casual conversation, people tend to look at me strangely. Whether this is because they did not understand it, or thought I was being pretentious, I cannot say, but I am a bit chary of using it these days to avoid being branded as a bumptious idiot.

I can go on in this vein till the cows come home, but then, all those carpers who are already fed to the back teeth with these tired, old aphorisms, will come crawling out of the woodwork, and I might end up laughing out of the other side of my mouth. Why in heaven’s name would you ask someone to break a leg, when you intend to wish him good luck? And why is something you are deeply impressed by, the best thing since sliced bread? The problem is that when it comes to scattering idioms about, everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon and grab a piece of the action. I bash on regardless, in for a penny, in for a pound. Tell you what, I shan’t beat around the bush anymore. I have bitten off more than I can chew and between you, me and the gatepost, I am ready to hit the sack. I am calling it quits.

Good night.

Published by sureshsubrahmanyan

A long time advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby. Deeply interested in music of various genres, notably Carnatic and 60's and 70's pop/rock. An avid tennis and cricket fan. Voracious reader of British humour and satire. P.G. Wodehouse a perennial favourite.

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  1. I have said this before but this is a piece which I would prescribe for general English BA \ BSc. You have such a flair for the language. I am beginning to wonder if you should not register for a doctoral degree and this could be the very subject of your dissertation .I don’t know if there is an age bar though in the Universities

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Good one! You should consider doing a dissertation on this subject.

    As to Word setting to UK version of the Queen’s language, I have also struggled likewise. Somehow, somewhere, I could resolve it and am at peace with myself. I think one has to go to ‘Review’, and then keep pressing on the ‘Language’ option till the time the cows come home and permanent results ensue. Worth trying, if not already attempted.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello Suresh

    Very good. I 100% agree about the dreadful US English. I think they changed it deliberately so as to seem to be different from England after the revolution. I know on this platform we have the spell check in US English and it is a right royal pain in the proverbial.

    I have noticed there are a lot of Germanic background people in the USA. Perhaps it is their influence. After all Germany caused us a problem in WW1 and there was a small argument a few years after.

    Re “I could be inviting vitriol and the wrath of God to rain down on me. ” God thinks you write very well and as ‘God is an Englishman’ according to R.F.Delderfield, God’s word is final!

    He says though that anybody can be an Englishman and still retain their national identity as well. Always fair he is, firm but fair.

    As regards idioms I note ‘idiom’ is an anagram of ‘I Modi’. Does this perhaps mean Narendra Modi is an idiom I wonder?

    However some people say he is something else rather similar.

    I have thought of doing a post on him. The link may prove helpful.

    Many thanks again, you help give people pleasure and also give me a new train of thought.

    Which makes me think is that an idiom? If it is a train (steam) then certainly I am ‘chuffed’!!!


  4. I have taken a print out of the idioms, but none the wiser as to where to employ them.


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