The Beauty of Idioms

We hear them daily, whether it’s your mother telling you that, “your eyes are bigger than your stomach” after seeing your dinner plate, or that your uncle’s jail sentence was a “slap on the wrist.

” These colorful gems of the English language are phrases that have a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words. It is important that we understand idioms because they are almost inevitable when communicating, as well as helping to “spice up” our everyday conversations. The first encounter that I personally had with idioms was during my elementary school years, when I constantly had my nose stuck in the book, In a Pickle, and Other Idioms by Marvin Terban. I would say that it was this collection of the wonderful figures of speech that taught me my very first idioms–ones that have stuck with me to this day–as well as inspiring me to write a piece on them. It was the information that I gained from Terban’s book, as well as a few other sources that I decided to help educate others on the meanings of my favorite or most useful idioms, as well as the origins of them.

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There is a common struggle that everyone faces one time or another–not knowing or having words to use to express themselves. Maybe it’s because their vocabulary hasn’t expanded enough, or maybe it’s because they need a better way to say that something is expensive. They stumble on their words, racking through the empty files of their brain for something, and come up empty handed. They end up saying that, “The new car costs too much.” This is fine, but perhaps saying that the new car costs ‘an arm and a leg’ would have been more efficient.

Idioms are a great addition to the English language for this very reason: they help us communicate better. Imagine that you have a deadline in two days for a five page essay that you haven’t even began. You could describe yourself as being, ‘in a pickle.’ This figure of speech refers to a problematic situation lacking a clear solution. In the 16th century, “pickle” referred to a preservative that was created using spice, salt, and vinegar.

The vegetables preserved were later named pickles. In the past, ‘in a pickle’ was often a reference to tales in which the unfortunate characters were, quite literally, prepared to be eaten. In this version of the idiom, the ‘stewing’ part of pickling–the part where vegetables were submerged into a brine–would be applied to a human being. It was very apparent that Now, we have swapped the meaning of ‘in a pickle’ from showing the evil plots of an antagonist in a story to simply being a substitute for “in trouble”. One of the idioms that I have a specific memory of using is ‘keep your shirt on,’ an expression that I used in the second grade. I remember this specifically because of the trouble it caused for me.

It was a day that we were working in groups of three for what was supposed to be a ‘special project’. I was put into a trio with a naturally quiet boy, and a girl who was often in a sour mood. While we were working together, I found that only my quieter classmate was cooperating. Upon this discovery, I may have voiced my complaint with a few poorly selected words to the girl. She snapped at me, and I said, “Keep your shirt on.” Of course, because this particular second grader had not been previously exposed to the wonderful world of idioms, she whined to our teacher about the totally innocent expression that I used.

This, in my mind, was unreasonable because telling someone to keep their shirt on–whether meaning it figuratively or literally–is, in most cases, a sensible thing to say. It is clear to me that the problems that were created in that moment were due to the fact that that girl was not educated on the meaning of the idiom that I used. This example is proof that we should all attempt to learn as much of the expressions belonging to the English language as possible. Because of this, I will state the meaning, as well as the origin of ‘keep your shirt on.’ The meaning of this idiom is one that, at the time, I thought would be clear by the tone of my voice–to calm down.

In the 19th century, the collars and sleeves of men’s shirts would be stiffened with starch. This was viewed as stylish, but it was also an inconvenience. Whenever they grew angry, and wanted to take their frustration out on each other, it wouldn’t be comfortable for them to keep their shirts on during a fight. This lead to the men baring their chests and readying themselves to exchange a few punches with one another. The idiom, ‘keep your shirt on,’ is a reference to these times, and a phrase that tells others to calm down. Think back to the ‘in a pickle’ situation.

Your five page essay is now an outstanding assignment, and you’ve only just began to put your ideas out on paper. It’s apparent now that you’ll never get it turned in, so you decide not to fret on it anymore. Pausing to think about it, you wonder if there is an upside to this catastrophe in your life. There isn’t one, but in that moment you were searching for a silver lining. This idiom is its entirety is, ‘every cloud has a silver lining.’ The meaning of this expression is one that promises that you will find an upside to every bad situation.

While this idiom may seem as if it is setting false hope, this figure of speech is one that may help create optimism in an unpleasant situation. The phrase ‘silver lining’ dates back to 1634, originating from John Milton’s Comus. After this, literature took a liking to Milton’s use of the words, and began including ‘silver lining’ in books from then on out. Idioms are an essential part of our language. They are a part of how we communicate with each other, whether it be through music, literature, or just in everyday conversations. Furthermore, it is important to understand these figures of speech, as we need to be able to understand what others mean if they are using them as they speak.

Educating ourselves about idioms will allow us, as human beings, to understand one another better, in addition to allowing us to add emphasis on subjects we feel strong about. It is because of these reasons, as well as my own experiences with them, that I believe that we need to take time to learn about idioms.