Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Idioms and metaphors

The first rule for communicating in English with someone whose native language is not English is: avoid idioms. Idioms are those sayings that mean something different from the plain meaning of their words. They are closely related to metaphors, which are similar but shorter - I see metaphors as idioms that have been whittled down through long usage to just one or two words. ("Whittled down" is a metaphor.)

The idiom most often cited by English teachers is "raining cats and dogs," which means "raining heavily". In this context, "heavily" probably started out as a metaphor for "a lot", but now has come to actually mean that.

Sometimes we forget that our expressions actually are idioms (or metaphors). We often read in the newspapers that a building was "gutted by fire"; this ought to feel like a strange mixture of concepts, because the expression "gutted" is derived from the practice of cutting open an animal one is going to eat, and pulling out its guts because we prefer not to eat those parts. So the term "gutted by fire" originally meant that the exterior of the building remained standing but its interior had been destroyed. Today, "gutted by fire" may simply mean "destroyed by fire", and no longer retains any mental connection with the butchering of food animals.

If you are a native speaker of English, idioms can sneak up on you and be out of your mouth before you realize it. After you have used an idiom and realized that it has confused your listener, you may even catch yourself using another idiom to try to explain the first one. For example, if you say "I can pull this off" and see only a blank expression, you might explain that "pull this off" means "get away with this". You have simply swapped one idiom for another, and you are no closer to explaining the plain meaning, which is "I can do this without experiencing negative consequences, such as being arrested."

And then there are the cases where an idiom becomes confusing because the plain meaning of the words intrudes into the meaning of the sentence. It is one thing to say "she broke off her engagement to the sailor"; quite another to say "she didn't like the tattoo on his arm, so she broke it off".

News articles and headlines often contain idioms or metaphors for which the plain meaning is related to the topic. An article about birth control may use words like "conceptually", while one about guns may use words like "triggered". Psychologists say that writers do this unconsciously, which is more than we can say for the headline writers who give us such gems as
"Auto workers drive hard bargain," or "Fire chief marries old flame."

Sometimes the mental image caused by an inappropriate idiom or metaphor is very funny. I once read a technical book about the process of making pulp and paper. One of the first steps when a log arrives at the factory is to remove its bark. The book said this was usually done by hydraulic jets, but "in some older mills, barking is done by dogs on chains." I pictured rows of restrained rottweilers making a fierce din. What the author was really talking about was sharp metal objects, metaphorically called "dogs", attached to a bicycle-type chain that scrapes the outside of the log.

And yesterday, CBC Radio 1 interviewed a fashion designer who promoted one of her creations : "It looks like a sack on the rack, but it looks good on any body. Anyone can pull off this dress." You can imagine the mental images that brought to mind!

So if your goal is to be understood, speak plainly whenever you get on your soapbox. (Oops, see how easily they sneak in...)


Anonymous said...

Lovely piece of writing Alan... Hope things are going well at Southpointe.

Anonymous said...

Hehe . Interesting to know those funny stories and usages of idioms.I I don't know a lot of idiom cos' I am not a native speaker. I have a book from China that introduces different idioms taken from the Episodes"Friends", "Simpson" and so on ..