By the end of the day, they’ll put their heads together

I was tagged into a discussion the other day about idioms, and whether it’s a good idea to remove them from writing in order to better ensure that the story doesn’t become dated.

After a bit of back and forth, it looked to me as if there was some conflation going on between “idiom” and “cliché.” It’s something like squares and rectangles, or porn and erotica, but not nearly as obvious as the first and somewhat messier than the second.

An idiom is a phrase (a set of words), the meaning of which cannot be apprehended from its component parts. In this post’s title, both “by/at the end of the day” and “put their heads together” appear in the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms and the Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms. However, “by/at the end of the day” is often called out as a cliché, a hackneyed phrase (a cliché in itself, for my money) best avoided.

It’s interesting, I think, that that phrase is quite new. The cite in the Oxford entry is from 1995. The OED’s cites date to the 1970s and ’80s. Contrast that with “put your/their heads together,” which dates to the 1300s.

“Putting their heads together” means “working as a team to solve a problem.” It’s about combined brain-power. Not about lying on the floor with heads touching (although I’ll bet somewhere, someone’s done that).

Is it necessary to strip your fiction of idioms? I don’t know. You’re the best judge of that. They can be difficult to translate from English, but … if there’s no corresponding idiom in the target language, the translator has other avenues. Every language has idiomatic expressions that make no sense to non-native speakers.

That’s how idioms work. Is it possible to strip them from your writing entirely?

Not by a long shot. (circa 1869, BrE, first used in horse racing circles, perhaps from archery)

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