May 7, 2009

Idiomatic Englophone

Sounds like a good name for a band right? I started this post awhile ago but have debated whether to post it. At long last, here it is, and I hope you don't find it boring. My DH loves this kind of stuff, pretty much salivates over it (that, and Cool Ranch Doritos), and it's become a little bit of a game. "Did you know such-and-such-a-word came from such-and-such-a-background? Amazing, right?" I know, I know, you're thinking we need to get out more often. But, it's ok, we strike a good balance. Besides, being an English nerd can be a lot more fun than you would think.

Anyway, as I said, I wrote this post awhile ago, and it was inspired by this radio segment. Ralph Keyes (a man after my own heart) researched our idiomatic language. He focused on those idioms that have come and gone in the last century, which are more or less like Latin to most Americans now: unintelligible to all but a few. He documented these idioms, which he dubs "retro talk," and explains where they came from. It was interesting to me that I didn't recognize almost all of the ones he gave as examples on the talk show. His book is called I Love It When You Talk Retro, and you can read another interesting article about it here.

So, to commemorate Mr. Keyes fine efforts, I've done a little research of my own, using the dictionary-to-end-all-dictionaries of the Oxford English variety and another fun little database called The Phrase Finder. Just look at the cool things I found!

Fit to be tied
Definition: “showing extreme anger.”
First appeared: 1894

Fit, archaically had the meaning “inclined or disposed to” or more appropriately, “angry or troubled enough to.” Phrases like “he’s fit to freeze,” and “you are fit to sink,” came out of this definition. Finally, in Somerville and Ross’s novel The Real Charlotte, our idiom appears in writing: “The old devil was fit to be tied.” James Joyce also used the expression in Ulysses in 1922. The Phrase Finder suggests that the full expression is “fit to be tied down,” and of course, fit referring to the definition, “angry enough to.” Straitjackets were commonly used in the mid-19th century as a source of restraint for mental patients, people who were “troubled enough to be tied down.”

Tickle your fancy
Definition: “provides amusement or diversion for your imagination.”
First appeared: 1774

Tickle has a long history of meaning touching someone in a sensitive spot to induce laughter, we all know that. A figurative meaning also grew out of the word’s usage to mean “to excite amusement in.” Fancy was added to this verb to produce the idiom. Fancy is a shorter version of fantasy, meaning "imagination," which eventually came to mean "individual taste or interest." When the phrase first appeared in writing, it seems it was somewhat uncouth: “ . . . or, as we vulgarly say, tickling the fancy.” Sort of reminds of when I went through a chocolate museum in Germany and learned that drinking hot chocolate used to be considered sensual, compromising many a lady's reputation. Interestingly enough, strike your fancy, shows up much earlier in 1698, which means roughly the same thing.

Cut and dry
Definition: “being or done according to a plan, set procedure, or formula; routine.”
First appeared: 1710

The phrase cut and dry actually began as cut and drIED. This surprised me. It refers to the process of cutting wood and letting it dry out completely before burning it in a fire. Another source suggested that it referred to an herbalist, cutting and drying his herbs to sell, meaning they are void of freshness and spontaneity. The first implies that something “cut and dry” is all ready to go, without needing further preparation; the second implies that something “cut and dry” is routine. This is funny to me because I always thought “cut and dry” referred to something that is straightforward or easy, which kind of make sense if you take those too backgrounds and mush them together. Irish author Jonathan Swift used the idiom in 1730: “Sets of Phrases, cut and dry, Evermore they Tongue supply.”

Bee in your bonnet
Definition: “an eccentric whim, a craze on some point, preoccupied or obsessed with an idea.”
First appeared: 1845

This phrase is thought to have come from Robert Herrick’s Mad Maid’s Song (1648).

Ah! woe is me, woe, woe is me!
Alack and well-a-day!
For pity, sir, find out that bee
Which bore my love away.
I'll seek him in your bonnet brave,
I'll seek him in your eyes;
Nay, now I think they've made his grave
I' th' bed of strawberries.

Thomas DeQuincey first used the exact wording of the idiom in his book Coleridge and Opium: “John Hunter, notwithstanding he had a bee in his bonnet, was really a great man.” The phrase usually carries a negative connotation. Someone who has a bee in his or her bonnet is overexcited about something to the point that they act irrationality or make an idiot of themselves. I’ve usually heard it associated with “hyperactivity,” actually.

Beat around the bush
Definition: to go indirectly and tentatively towards an object, to avoid coming to the point.
First appeared: 1553

This idiom is tied to another definition: to beat the bush (appearing in 1440) which literally means—well, beating an actual bush to get birds to fly out of it. To beat the bush two people had to be involved. One person whacked the bush while the other held a net to catch the birds that flew out of the bush. So, from this process sprung a figurative meaning of beating the bush: “to expend labor of which the fruit is not gained by oneself.” So, I would imagine the serf saying he “beats the bush” for the apple farmer, from whom he gets zero apples, only oatmeal mush everyday and a damp floor to sleep on.

Then somehow, that definition morphed into beating around (or about) the bush, to mean stalling or avoiding something. I can’t imagine how it changed, but I wonder if it would be from the apple farmer trying to explain to the serf why he never gets any apples . . . and of course never really getting to the heart of the matter. Or maybe that’s a bad example because masters didn’t seem to care what servants felt back in those days. There weren’t any workers unions or labor laws to contend with. Maybe it harkens back to the original process. If you beat the bush full on, birds will come out of it; if you beat around the bush, the bird stay undisturbed and safely hidden. On any account, it’s an interesting history. =)

Up a creek
Definition: (a) in a tight corner, in trouble; spec. pregnant; (b) crazy, eccentric. slang.
First appeared: 1941

This is a favorite saying of my mother’s, although she says “up a creek” and not “up the creek” as it is categorized in the OED. And she would pronounce “creek” as “crik,” which always made me giggle as a little girl. I was surprised to find out that this idiom is the youngest of all ones I picked, first being coined in the 40s. The idiom began as a general term to mean being in a pickle (another searchable idiom, of course) or in a sticky situation. However, later (around the 60s) the term started to become synonymous with getting unexpectedly pregnant (ie. She’s knocked up. = She’s up the creek.). Hm . . . interesting, I guess that would qualify as a sticky situation. But, at least in my experience, time must have eroded that away again, because I’ve never heard the term in that context. Another unexpected usage is that of someone who’s a little crazy. Being up the creek meaning that the person is out to lunch, lost their marbles, has a screw loose, etc.

And that concludes this episode of idiomatic mysteries! Hope you enjoyed it. Idioms are an awesome part of language—any language—a little nugget of history behind each one. They describe so much more than the words that make them up. You can learn about a people's culture, mindset, the way they see the world, even what's most important to them through a country's idioms. On a smaller level, a particular region within a country can have their own language of idioms—or a family, even! So, the next time you catch yourself saying something figurative, just remember that you are doing your part to pass down a centuries-long tradition of idiomatic language. Because once we stop using them, they will melt away from our diverse dictionary of idioms, so keep perpetuating the cycle!


Michael said...

That sure tickled my fancy. Words are fun.

Gini+Eric said...

I love this stuff. So glad you decided to post it! I used to have a great book from my grandma called "Heavens to Betsy," that had explanations for idioms like what you've put here. Unfortunately, I lost it :( and haven't quite gotten around to picking up another.