The Problem of Idioms

Not too many months ago, I was talking with a relatively new friend, who also happens to be a linguist, about idioms. I happen to be absolutely terrible with idioms. They’re one aspect of English that I’ve never quite mastered, despite speaking and working in English for decades — sometimes I feel like I missed the crucial age of idiom formation, just as I missed some critical age of pop culture influence. I’m set aside as strange and apart because of these knowledge gaps, even if people aren’t consciously aware of it; sometimes, the way I put things is strange, and people aren’t always able to put their fingers on it.

I speak of being ‘cubbyholed’ instead of ‘pigeonholed,’ for example, and my friend and I talked about how ESL speakers tend to slightly twist idioms that way. We’ve heard phrases and we try to mimic them, but we don’t get them quite right. We know there’s a common phrase, and we grasp for it, but it’s not precisely there. That’s even more acute for people who have moved around English-speaking regions, thus having to contend not just with the vagaries of English, but also with regional English. The same issue holds true in reverse, of course; anyone picking up a second, or additional, language is going to struggle with idioms because often they make no sense and it is difficult to know when and how to apply them correctly.

If you use them incorrectly, you will be noticed, and you will be censured. I’ve been criticised before for not using idioms right, often viciously, especially in comments sections on pieces I’ve written, and that’s despite spending years trying to familiarise myself with them. It’s frustrating for me, because if I feel this way for occasionally messing things up, I can’t even begin to imagine what ELLs and people who only more recently learned English endure. This is a region of the world where people are consistently mocked and tormented for being other, and having the wrong sort of English isn’t just being other — it’s also evidence of being an immigrant (for, surely, everyone born in the US must come out of the womb speaking English!), which makes someone even more suspect.

My friend and I talked about this, but we also discussed intriguing variations in how people use idioms from place to place. None of these usages are incorrect, but they are fascinating revelations of how people think about things between regions. For example, in Northern California, “everyone and their mother/mom” is a common slang usage, but in my friend’s region of Canada, it’s “everyone and their uncle.” We discussed, speaking of idioms, how one version made slightly more sense than the other — most people have a mother (well, everyone in the biological sense, not so much in the cultural or social sense), but everyone doesn’t have an uncle, so if you’re referring to an exaggerated form of “almost everyone,” one works, and the other doesn’t, really.

Most idioms, if you break them down, don’t really make much sense, which is one reason why they are one of the most difficult components of a language to learn, something that can still trip people up after years of speaking a language. People can learn parts of speech, they can learn conjugation, they can learn sentence structure, they can comprehend all the myriad and bizarre ways a language is put together through a combination of rote memorisation, the application of skills in sets of building blocks, the development of a deeper understanding through common usage and gentle (preferably) correction and modeling by native speakers.

But idioms stump people. They make reference to cultural understanding, myth, and folklore that people aren’t familiar with, or they use archaic words and sentence structures that the very people who use them natively don’t even understand, simply accepting them because they’ve been taught to use them through years of seeing them modeled by other people. It’s kind of cool, actually, and provides a fascinating glimpse into older eras of English, to see random words used unchanged or in slightly corrupted ways through idioms, which become strange ways of preserving language for the enjoyment, or interest, or study of future generations.

At the same time I love English because it’s a fascinating language that represents such a blend of culture, understanding, and past, willing to borrow freely and promiscuously from any and all linguistic traditions, it’s also immensely frustrating. It is an extremely difficult language to learn, and though I may be a writer, my understanding of it is by no means perfect or consistent, especially when it comes to the specifics of very esoteric (and not so unusual, honestly) grammar issues — when and how to use hyphens, how to structure certain sentences, how to fix a sentence I know is broken and can’t quite get a handle on. English is slippery.

English-language idioms fascinate me in particular because they’re collected from all over the world and they become so unique to so many regions. Some are widely used and understood (‘everyone and their mothers’ is, I think, fairly well-known in the US in general?) while others are extremely regional, comprehensible only in a very limited area. As a writer, understanding these regional idioms and how they’re used is a source of intellectual fascination for me, but also professional — because when you’re writing about a region, even if you’re an English-language speaker and you think you know what you’re doing, the easiest way to throw readers out of the setting is to use the wrong idioms. At times like those, I admit, I feel a small and guilty frisson of pleasure at the thought that now other people get to know how it feels.

Image: Electric Forest 2012, Alan Parkinson, Flickr.