30 Apr

I don’t speak any other language fluently enough to know whether idioms are common in, for example, French, German or Spanish, but they are common in English and they make the language more colourful and descriptive.

We normally use them without thinking about their origin, but I sometimes say, “I wonder where that comes from?” Many have obvious sporting connections: “knocked for six”, “sticky wicket” (cricket), “own goal” (football), “non-starter” (racing), “a lucky break” (pool), “throw in the towel” (boxing), but others are more obscure.

Some come from our mispronunciation of foreign words – to “bandy something about”, for example, comes from a French word bander, which was a term meaning to “hit a ball to and fro” in an early type of tennis – others from trades. My favourite of these is “mind your ps and qs” (take care to speak or behave well). The Dictionary of Idioms and Their Origins, by Linda and Roger Favell, gives several alternative origins for this, but I have always believed that it is to do with breaking up a page of metal typesetting and dissing (distributing) the letters back into the type case. Because the letters are all back-to-front it was very easy to put a p in the q box, and vice versa.

(I realise that the concept of setting metal type – particularly setting it one character at a time – is totally alien to a generation brought up on computers, but that’s how it was done, “back in the day”.)

I have two new “word” books, The Story of English in 100 Words, by David Crystal, and The Etymologicon, which says it is “a circular stroll through the hidden connections of the English Language”, by Mark Forsyth. No doubt they will provide food for thought, and for blogs.

Today’s picture


Entrance to a temple in Narlai, India


2 Responses to “Idioms”

  1. Worldly Winds April 30, 2012 at 4:57 pm #

    I love idioms – I am a freelance interpreter and I have attended workshops on how to translate idioms and their meaning – the most common one being, ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.’ It is so over used!!
    Thank you – very interesting 🙂

    • alswordsnpictures April 30, 2012 at 5:10 pm #

      Thank you. On a number of occasions I have written English copy for European companies (including eastern European), which is then translated into their languages. I’ve always focused on keeping it as straightforward as possible so that they don’t have to try to translate “you can lead a horse to water…”, etc!

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