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. Continue reading “By the end of the day, they’ll put their heads together”
“It’s raining cats and dogs.”
“He’s all washed up.”
“That’s straight from the horse’s mouth.”
At least two of those statements are always idiomatic in nature. That is, their meaning is not readily understood by the words composing them. Cats and dogs are not falling from the sky. Horses don’t speak human speech, and nothing I care much about comes directly from a horse’s mouth. (Horse saliva? Thanks, I got mine already.)
But what about “He’s all washed up” as an idiom? He could be ready to eat, and has washed his hands and face prior to coming to the table; he’s all washed up. There, it’s more of a regional speech than an idiom. The words mean (almost) what they look like they’d mean.
Now, what if he’s been given a task to complete on pain of losing his position in something (the workplace, a sports team, the HOA landscaping committee), and he’s failed to do so? We could say “he’s all washed up,” meaning “he failed,” “he’s done for” (an idiom in itself), “he’s finished” (ditto, especially if he’s washed up because he didn’t finish!).
And “I didn’t catch that” means “I didn’t hear you,” usually. Nothing’s been literally thrown, so it can’t be literally caught.
Think about it for a moment. How can one speak one’s peace? Peace is quiet, isn’t it? If you’re speaking, you’re not quiet. And what you have to say might well disturb the peace. I can hold my peace at a wedding (“speak now, or forever hold one’s peace”) to maintain the decorum and not embarrass the bride or groom (or their parents, or their aunt Maisie, or the dog . . .).
I can speak my piece, though. Perhaps it’s a piece I’ve memorized, or perhaps it’s a piece that just comes to mind during a heated conversation. Usually when we say someone spoke their piece, they weren’t necessarily being kind. “I went to the board meeting last night and spoke my piece about their stupid plans.” A common variant of this is “say one’s piece.” The meaning’s the same. You speak. It’s anything but peaceful.