Grammar Wednesday

Idioms! (no, not idiots – idioms – though some of these will sound pretty idiotic..)

An idiom, according to my favorite dictionary site, is an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements, as kick the bucket or hang one’s head, or from the general grammatical rules of a language, as the table round for the round table, and that is not a constituent of a larger expression of like characteristics.   In simpler terms, it’s a figure of speech.

Yesterday, Kizz emailed me with this:

My favorite quote from a fanfic that’s laced with goodies:

Gorya didn’t strike her as the philanthropic type, so he had to have an ulterior motif.

Of course, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would ever SAY that – motif is pronounced moe-TEEF and motive is pronounced MOE-tiv – but I have to admit that I’ve seen this before in writing.

Things that people DO say, however, are just as funny. I’ve got students who say (and some who write):

for all intensive purposes – those are some pretty serious and concentrated purposes! The saying should read “for all intents and purposes.”

the cost was astrologically high – I don’t think that the zodiac has anything to do with what they’re trying to say. This saying should read “the cost was astronomically high.”

she had a deep-seeded fear of flying – nope. That would be seated, as in the seat of emotions

I took the wrong tact with my boss – I should hope there would be tact with one’s boss, but the word they’re looking for here is tack, as in the course of a sail boat

I’ve also heard “it takes two to tangle (oh, at least two!) and “half of one and six dozen of the other” (there’s really no comparison here, is there?).

What are your favorite fractured idioms?

Happy Wednesday, Everyone!



Filed under funniness, Grammar

13 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. Not long ago I saw someone use “kitten caboodle” in a comment on a blog (as opposed to kit and caboodle – well, at least that’s what I believe they meant)

  2. All intensive purposes

    I always thought this was the expression, until I handed in an assignment for an honours year with this phrase included. It occurred to me that I’d never actually seen it written, in 10 odd years of knowing it spoken.

  3. “two to tango” = PG-13

    “two to tangle” = NC-17

    Another favorite from that same story was when she described a drug dealer’s business as being “on the up and up”. She meant his business was doing well and growing quickly not that he’d found some entirely legal way of dealing meth.

  4. These are eggcorns – respellings based on a misanalysis of the word or phrase. They’re due to more than just ignorance, they’re attempts to make sense of phrases that don’t make sense otherwise.

  5. My all time favorite is “flaunt” instead of “flout,” as in “I hate it when they flaunt the rules.” Well, I would hate that as well, but I don’t believe that is what they are doing.

    Well, they may be. In an intense game of Killer Bunnies, if someone is waving the rule book under your nose, while doing the happy dance after offing your bunny, then they ARE flaunting the rules.

  6. I must run into dozens of these daily, but my mind is blank at the moment. I will have to return when they occur to me!

    I like to say “after all, it’s not rocket surgery” to see if anybody notices. Since I do that on purpose, I’m not sure if it counts. (I stole it from a friend)

  7. i like “the whole kitten caboodle.”

    i’ve heard “six of one and a half dozen of the other” used more as a way of saying, “they’re all the same,” which made sense to me. i’ve never heard it used to actually compare, though.

  8. My approach to the analysis of idioms is essentially based on determining the etymology of the idiom. It is no better or more accurate than the determination of the etymology of any other word or phrase. However, the phonetic aspect is often easier because most idioms have more syllables than most single words.

    To use an idiom competently/properly does not require any knowledge of its etymology. However, this knowledge may help an L2 student remember an idiom and how/when to use it.

    When I was a young kid, all of my friends and I knew the meaning of “escape by the skin of my teeth” and not a single one of us knew it was the translation of B’3or SHinai, a Hebrew pun on the word B’QoSHi (which means barely, hardly, with difficulty) in the biblical book of Job 19:20.

    The majority of idioms are transliterated (not translated) from a foreign language directly into words that look/sound/feel like the target language. For English idioms, there are not a lot of foreign languages involved: Germanic, Latin, Aramaic (during the 600 years it was a lingua franca), French (1066), Hebrew & Greek (biblical translation), Arabic (7 Crusades, Spanish Armada 1588 => Black Irish), Yiddish (in England prior to the Expulsion in 1290; 1840s from Germany, early 1900s from Eastern Europe), etc.

    A minority of idioms are the translation of foreign idioms. These are more difficult to analyze because one needs to know not only the language of the source but also the foreign language into which the transliteration (sic) was made, which may or may not be the same. Additional intermediate translations should not affect the result if they were faithful.

    A cute translation idiom is “count sheep !” to go to sleep. This is probably the translation of a Hebrew pun S’PoR TSo@N on the Latin phrase sopor (as in soporific) sond (as in soundly / deeply). This English idiom has been retranslated back into Israeli Hebrew as LiSPoR KeVeS = to count sheep.

    In a few cases, the “original” was a euphemism and not “plain text”. I suspect this is the case with “kick the bucket”. It seems to be the direct transliteration of a Semitic euphemism for dying: to make love in Paradise. Using 3 for aiyin with its ancient G/K-sound: 3aGaV = make physical love + B’3aiDeN = in Eden. 3G => Kick, vB3Dn => BucKeT.

    In other words, this type of idiom formation represents the target languag-ification of a foreign word or phrase. It can be most easily illustrated with a foreign phrase that did *not* become an idiom: Latin e pluribus unum = out of many, one. This is a motto of the USA. If it had become an idiom, it might have become “a flower bush you name” but would retain its original Latin meaning. It would probably acquire a folk etymology, such as: we could give a flower bush many names, but we usually give it only one.

    Transliteration idioms are most easily formed at a time when most target-language speakers do not read and write. They hear a foreign word/phrase, understand its meaning in context, and convert its sounds into target-language words they do know.

    For a rare modern example, “face the music” is attested in the United States from the 1840s. This “music” is probably from Yiddish MoSKoNeh = inference, deduction, hence, consequences, from Hebrew MaSKaNah with the same meaning.

    Etymology is not an exact science. The three etymologies that a non-linguist is most likely to “know” are all false. Muscle is not from Latin musculus = a small mouse. Sabotage is not from French sabot = an old shoe. And cabal is from Hebrew het-bet-lamed = to plot, scheme, not from Hebrew Kabbalah = esoteric knowledge, literally, received (tradition). Porcelain has nothing to do with a porcine vulva, and gossamer is from Latin Gossypium = cotton, not from goose + summer :-). But that is another story.

    For more examples of idiom etymologies, do a Google search for

    Best regards,
    Israel “izzy” Cohen

  9. Aren’t all your examples of fractured idioms actually malapropisms?

  10. fermat

    My mother used this one:

    “Don’t kick a gift horse in the mouth.”

    I had a good laugh.

  11. I don’t know if this counts, but an old roommate of mine had a boyfriend who once said, to express eager anticipation, that he was “biting at the chomp.”

    It still makes me laugh out loud.

  12. Lately I’ve caught myself saying “fallen off the train/boat” instead of “fallen off the wagon.” I really don’t know why my brain has changed the saying around.

  13. “muscle” is indeed from the Latin for “small mouse”. “sabotage” is from the French “sabot”. “cabal” is from the Hebrew for “received doctrine”. These are well-established etymologies that you can look up. If Cohen has evidence to the contrary, I’d be interested to see it.

    I’d also be interested to see any evidence for his claims about English idioms being derived from Hebrew phrases.

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