We seldom utter a sentence that does not contain an idiom, yet much less than they deserve is written about them. I was reminded by a recent article in the Lewiston, Maine Sun-Journal, “Idioms add color to our language“.
So, what is an idiom? An idiom is a phrase that cannot be analyzed into separate words but makes sense only as a whole. For example, “Jill flew off the handle when she saw lipstick on Jack’s collar.” Jill, of course, must be a woman here and not the family canary, so she cannot fly. However, taken as a whole, “flew off the handle” simply means “got mad”.
Because they are treated as wholes and cannot be semanticallly analyzed into parts, idioms are stored in the right side of the brains of 98% of us, the side of holistic thinking. (Our knowledge of grammar and vocabulary is located on the left side, the side that analyzes sentences into their parts and relationships.)
At the end of dictionary entries, the major idioms in which the word occurs are listed. At the end of the entry for jump, we find the idiom jump the gun listed as meaning “start too soon”. Under shirt we find give the shirt off one’s back, meaning simply “be generous”.
Idioms should not be confused with metaphorical usage. Idioms are phrases of two or more words. We might think that window of opportunity is an idiom. In fact, though, window may be used in this sense with other nouns, such as a window in a tight schedule or a window in the development of an organism. Here, window is simply being used metaphorically to mean “opening” because, well, windows open. The meaning of window in these cases is not totally removed from the literal meaning of the word.
One of the greatest tricks of the comedian is to find situations where an idiom may, in fact, be analyzed, leaving the listener in a quandary—does the comic intend the idiom or the literal meaning? In an episode of the TV series Mash, hearing that a soldier has been dishonrably discharged, Hawk-eye asked, “Why? Was he rotten to the corps?” Now, when you hear this, it sounds identical to the idiom “rotten to the core”, which means simply to be extermely bad. Which did Hawk-eye mean, corps or core?
On our Punny Pages, we have many examples like this: She criticized my apartment, so I knocked her flat. The humor in this rides on the interpretation of knock as well as the ambiguity of flat. Flat may be an adjective meaning, well, “flat” or it can be noun meaning “apartment”. Knock means, literally, “to hit, strike” but it has an idiomatic sense, totally removed from the literal sense, of “to criticize”. To literally knock someone flat is to knock them down, hit them hard enough that they fall to the floor. However, in the idiomatic sense, to knock a flat means “to criticize an apartment”. (Great joke if you just laugh and don’t analyze it.)
The last example is based on the idiomatic meaning of a verb. As you can see, words with idiomatic meanings may also be slang. In fact, many consider idiomatic phrases slang and slang dictionaries usually contain idioms as well as slang. I remain unconvinced that the two are one and the same, however. Knock in the sense of “criticize” may be both slang and idiomatic, but many if not most idiomatic phrases may be used where slang would be avoided. Fly off the handle, go overboard, jump the gun are all OK in situations where we would not want to use gussied up, gum shoe, the pokey. However, there is overlap and the issue is not a settled one.
The important point is simply that a string of words may be a logical sentence or an illogical one which is still meaningful if the string is memorized along with a single meaning as a whole. When we are aware of this distinction and listen carefully to each other, life can be much funnier.