Tuesday, April 23, 2013 | By: Lynn

Why Do We Say That?

I love words. Seems obvious, since I'm writer. I love the sound of a well-crafted metaphor, the flow of a description that really resonates, the hit from reading a word that just fits.

One of my favorite thoughts about the love of words was spoken by Archer Mayor. The thought was given a title and printed in The Writer years ago. It speaks to the writer's love of words.
The Music of Language
"You must discover what writing is for you. I have never thought writing was fun, but have always found the music of words utterly beguiling and as necessary to me as writing and breathing."

It was my interest in words that prompted me to pay attention to a recent discussion about idioms that aired on public radio. The expert source for the topic was Christine Ammer, author of The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. According to Ammer, an idiom is a set phrase of two or more words with a fixed meaning that is something different from the individual words. It was clear in the way she talked about idioms that she has a love of words and their power to express. People who love words wonder where certain expressions come from, when they originated, and how they acquired the meaning they're given. For example, why do we say Break a leg, when what we mean is to wish good luck? According to Ammer, this expression dates back to a superstitious belief in spirits or sprites, who were believed to create chaos. To break a leg was a suggestion to fight the spirits.

Ammer pointed out that there is often a kernel of truth in the idiom, especially at the time it was first created, and that gives it weight. The use of idioms dates back centuries, she said, and are an enduring part of the public conversation. They express things succinctly because we all understand their meanings, even if they don't seem to make sense. We all accept that blood is thicker than water, and understand the reference to the strength of family bonds.

Sometimes idioms express a commonly accepted belief or attempt to sum up something inexplicable. The phrase absence makes the heart grow fonder is one of those kind of idioms. The expression originated in 1602 as a line in the book, "Poetic Rhapsody" and it is a statement that tries to explain the complexities of relationship. At the crossroads, an idiom that expresses the state of being at a decision point, dates back to 600 BC, as does Don't bite the hand that feeds you. And we may think of the idiom chasing the American dream as a modern expression that means the quest for prosperity, but it dates back to 1835.

Ammer said that the armed services have provided a wealth of idioms, as have the Bible and works by Shakespeare, who gave us sea change, meaning a radical transformation, in "The Tempest" in 1610, and It's Greek to me in 1601 in "Julius Caesar." It is better to have one bird in the hand than two in the bush originated from a Biblical Proverb that referred to mediaeval falconry and suggested that a bird in the hand (the falcon) was a valuable asset and worth more than two in the bush (the prey).

But Ammer said not all idioms are old. In selecting idioms for her dictionary, she uses several guidelines, but in order to qualify as an idiom a phrase must have endured for a number of years and must be a part of regular conversation. So the relatively new phrase "to go viral" hasn't made it yet into her dictionary, though it may in future editions. Some idioms have expanded their meanings over time. For instance, a Trojan horse, a reference to the wooden horse the Greeks used to surreptitiously enter the city of Troy, is understood to mean something duplicitous, but now also refers to a type of computer virus.

Getting to know the background on the idioms we use every day without thinking because they fit the occasion is a fun way to enrich language skills. So the next time you don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth or you refer to yourself as an empty nester while trying to avoid the elephant in the room, think about the crazy thing you just said.

Do you have any favorite idioms? Share?