Literacy Shorts: Idioms

An idiom is a common expression that possesses a meaning not explicitly clear in a grammatical or logical sense.  For example:  

Thinking-hats are, pedagogically and sartorially speaking, the best thing since sliced bread.

Here, the idiomatic reference to sliced bread helps to amplify my bold claim that thinking hats (all six of them) are useful and – bonus! – stylish too.  The sliced bread idiom is a familiar English phrases that, from time to time, we’ve all used or heard…  But where did it come from?  Answering that question is the tricky part.  Idioms are both clear and unclear: clear because they are widely understood and accepted within a particular country or culture, but unclear because the words or phrases that form them express something different to their literal meaning.  So, in the case of the example above, it would be reasonable to ask (with your white thinking hat on): why sliced bread and not something more exciting or noteworthy?  Well, get to the end of the bulletin first, but then click here to find out – exciting stuff!  In the meantime, let’s crack on (another idiom!).  Here’s an example from Othello, by William Shakespeare:

IAGO:  O, beware, my lord, of jealousy:

              It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock

              The meat it feeds on.

Othello ShakespeareIn the quote above, villainous Iago is warning Othello (whom he obsequiously refers to here as ‘my lord’) of the damaging effects of jealousy; he dramatically states that it is a ‘green-eyed monster’.  Very good.  Superficially, however, there isn’t a clear connection between the emotion of jealousy and the colour green.  It seems random: Iago might just as well have chosen red or purple.  So, why didn’t he?  There appear to be two main theories…  Firstly, that green is a colour associated with illness; your skin might be tinged with green when you’re seriously sick.  Secondly, that green fruit and vegetables are often unripe and, therefore, likely to cause unpleasant stomach cramps.  Either way, it’s reasonable to assume that the link between the colour green and physical pain is the reason why Shakespeare chose the image.

Here’s a final example, taken from a news story that appeared on the BBC website on the 19th February:

‘In a nutshell, dead men tell no tales,’ said Mr Cluley.  ‘Good luck to Mr McAfee trying to socially engineer a corpse into revealing its pass-code.’

John McAfeeThe article is about controversial computer programmer John McAfee’s offer to break the encrypted code on Syed Farook’s iPhone within a three week period.  High-powered stuff.  However, in a recent interview with the BBC, the wonderfully named Graham Cluley, a security expert, expressed doubts over whether McAfee would actually be able to do it using the proposed ‘social engineering’ method.  In the quote above, Cluley uses the nutshell idiom to help convey his view clearly and concisely: Farook is dead, so he will be unable to give away any clues that might help to reveal the passcode.  By using idiomatic language, Cluley is able to establish an informal tone and signal to his audience that he doesn’t want to overcomplicate his reasoning with jargon.  And quite right too.  Lest we forget, the average nutshell is pretty small: certainly not roomy enough for unnecessary verbosity.  Why not click here to find out more about the this particular idiom?

And when you’ve done that, why not also click on the link below for some thoroughly enjoyable idiom quizzes?

TL;DR: An idiom is an expression that possesses a meaning not explicitly clear in a grammatical or logical sense.

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