Archive for Tag: idioms

Friday, August 15, 2008

And the Answer is . . . Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

In a few previous entries on my blog, I listed some interesting idiomatic expressions, commonly used terms the origins of which most native speakers don’t have a clue about. I also listed some commonly heard errors that, at least for now, are mostly still considered errors. I’ve already listed some of the answers in “And the Answer is …” Now it’s time for me to list the answers to more of those interesting little bits and pieces that make English so much fun to delve into. The ones listed below are some of the quirks of English that I asked about in rhetorical questions for you to consider. I’m also including those commonly heard errors that may end up becoming acceptable one of these days. As English teachers whose bread and butter is the state of the English language, we should have some knowledge at least of the more commonly used idioms that pop up in conversation so frequently that our students are bound to ask us about eventually, and we should be thinking about changes that are going on right now in how native speakers use this language. So here’s information about some of those quirks and errors I mentioned in those earlier entries. I hope you continue to find them informative and entertaining.

1. Why is it that things like trees can burn up and burn down at the same time?
On the face of it, these do seem to be contradictory, don’t they? But they’re really not, of course. The particle up isn’t being used in its literal sense here. Up can be used with certain verbs to mean “completely,” so to burn up really means “to burn completely.” Here are some others that work with a similar meaning for up: blow up, clean up, cut up, drink up, eat up, grind up, grow up, lap up, and tie up.

Now down, on the other hand, is used in its literal meaning, so if a tree or a house burns down, we really mean that every part of it has come tumbling down to the ground. Some other verbs that work more or less the same way with down are blow down, bring down (in its literal meaning and one idiomatic meaning, i.e., to kill or disable a large animal), fall down, go down, lay down, lie down, put down (in its literal sense), sit down, and stay down.

2. Think about this: When an alarm clock goes off, it goes on.
This is a fun one! Once again, we seem to be looking at opposites as far as those particles are concerned, but they don’t represent their literal meanings here. The difference is that while both phrasal verbs mean that some sort of machine starts functioning, if it goes off, it begins working with an accompanying loud noise or explosive effect, whereas if it goes on, it simply begins working. So I suppose that’s why an alarm clock goes off, but a coffee maker goes on.

In those previous entries, I listed some of the most typically heard errors, which are so common nowadays that at least one has already been raised to the rank of “acceptability.” The others I’ve listed may follow suit, the way things are going. Who knows?

3. I think I’ll lay down for half an hour. Wake me up at 6.
Even though the more conservative of us grammar wonks still don’t accept lay and lay down as intransitive verbs, but feel that lie and lie down should be the only intransitives in this “contest,” how long can you fight City Hall? I, for one, hear lay and lay down used intransitively more than lie and lie down, so at this point I just sigh and move on. There are even dictionaries that have given in to this change!

4. This paint goes on real easy. / She does her work quicker than most of my employees.
Real easy should be really easily or very easily, and quicker should be more quickly. Although I don’t think these are considered acceptable alternative forms, the two of them tend to be moving in that direction. We’ll have to wait and see what the outcome is on these.

What’s very interesting to me is that I see a greater and greater trend towards using adjectives instead of adverbs in certain sentence environments and in certain collocations. I know I’ll be getting around to writing a blog entry on this issue at some point in the future, so please stay tuned.

5. If he didn’t move away from that tree, he would have been killed when the lightning struck.
I’ve noticed more and more that native speakers ― even educated ones ― are using the present subjunctive form in this type of unreal conditional sentence (didn’t move away) than the correct past subjunctive form, which in this sentence is hadn’t moved away. I find this a frightening trend, one I really don’t like hearing at all. If you pay attention every time you hear somebody utter this kind of unreal idea in the past, listen to how often the speaker uses the wrong form in the subjunctive (or if) clause.

This seems to be a relatively new trend, unlike the sentence construction that’s been around for a very long time in which people use two conditionals instead of a subjunctive and a conditional. For example when they say, I would’ve helped you if you would’ve asked me.

6. A: Do you know where’s the main office? B: Sorry, I’m not sure where it’s at.
Speaker A is demonstrating an interesting trend in the question above. This may be happening due to the influence of immigrants on the language, but I’m really not sure about the cause. The correct word order is Do you know where the main office is? but I’ve heard this kind of incorrect word order used more and more frequently.

As for what Speaker B says, it’s amazing how many people, usually in less educated groups, don’t feel they’ve uttered a complete idea in a question or statement with where unless they throw in at at the end of the utterance. If you happen to get that popular TV show Cops where you live, listen to how almost every single police officer throws in that at at the end of a question or statement containing where. Of course there’s absolutely no need for using at in an utterance with where.

7. We utilize at least a cord of wood in the fireplace every winter to make the living room warm and cozy.
It’s interesting how so many native speakers mix up use and utilize. I have a hunch they use utilize ― or should I say they utilize utilize ― to sound more “educated” or formal. But in reality they’re just using the wrong word. Our speaker should say We use at least a cord of wood … When you’re talking about the specific, direct purpose for something, you use it. When you’re talking about finding a way to accomplish something by means of using a thing not necessarily designed or planned for that use, then you utilize it. After all, utilize means “to make a use for” something. I ca
n choose to say something like I utilize an old toothbrush to clean the grout on my tiled bathroom walls. Of course, I could opt to say I use an old toothbrush, too. But it would sound odd to say I utilize a toothbrush to brush my teeth. I think you get the idea.

I hope you’ve found this entry informative and entertaining. And I hope it helps kindle that curiosity in you to look into where certain words and expressions come from, see trends that are developing for better or worse in English grammar, and think more about the proper or improper use of certain words. If any others come to mind, please feel free to mention them here.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Why Do We Say That? Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Awhile back I wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about the etymology of some idiomatic expressions we commonly use in English (Why Do We Say That?).

Since the feedback I’ve received said it was so much fun and so interesting, I think it’ll be equally as much fun to delve into a few more oddities of the language. Amazingly, just last week a student of mine asked me why we call the trip that newlyweds take a honeymoon. That student, a Spanish speaker, mentioned that it’s even the same expression in Spanish, “luna de miel,” and it turns out that the same term or a similar one exists in other languages, too from Italian to Hebrew to Persian!

Well, for once I wasn’t caught in that awkward position of having to say something like, “Why? Because that’s English,” or, “Hmm… I’ll have to look into that and let you know.” One of the possible explanations behind this term really makes us linguistic archaeologists! Here’s why:

It seems to have been a custom in ancient Babylonia (ca. 1000 BCE) for the father of the bride to give his new son-in-law as much mead as he wanted for a whole month after the wedding. (Mead is an alcoholic drink made with honey and still produced today in some countries.) Since the Babylonian calendar was lunar, this happy period when the new husband could imbibe all the mead he wanted was called the honey month. (It’s interesting to note that the word month is related to moon.) So that may be how we came to call this period the honeymoon. How it got from ancient Babylonia to us is another story, but eventually the meaning got cut down to only the period right after the wedding when the newlyweds traditionally go off on a trip. So there you have it!

Now, what about a proverb like, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water”? The proverb means basically that fools can sometimes try to rid themselves of a bad thing, but instead succeed in destroying whatever good there was as well. The proverb may be of German origin, going back at least to the 16th century. One theoretical story about its origin is that in the Middle Ages, bathing was not something commonly done in Europe, but when it was, it became a family affair. Customarily, a large tub was filled with hot water and the father had the privilege of taking the first bath. Heating such a large amount of water was not an easy thing to do, so the water would be reused. The father was followed by his sons, who were then followed by all the women in the family, the mother first, and then the daughters. You can imagine how the water kept getting dirtier and dirtier as each person got in and out of the tub! According to this customary pecking order for family bathing, the last ones to take a bath were the babies. (This seems logical as babies have been known to release their bodily wastes in the water – and nobody would have wanted to get into the water after that happened!) By the time they were placed into the tub, the water was quite murky and it was just about impossible to see down to the bottom. If you weren’t careful, you might not even see a baby in that water if you let go! So that may be a tongue-in-cheek explanation as to why people started saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” Isn’t that cool?

How about one more? Because I suffer from the occupational hazard of always thinking about words and phrases and remaining keenly aware of how odd they can be instead of just taking them for granted, I remember one day wondering about the word threshold. Our handyman had just put in a new kitchen door for us, and he also put in a new marble threshold. I suddenly began wondering where such an odd word came from and why we use such a name for that thing. Here’s what I found out:

Going way back to the time in Europe when royalty lived in castles, it was traditional for many of the floors of those castles and the houses of the rich to have smooth stone floors. (I suppose that was their equivalent of our ceramic tile floors.) The problem was that those smooth stones, like ceramic tile, can get very slippery when wet and therefore pretty treacherous. In the wintertime, it was hard not to have their floors constantly getting wet when people would track in the snow and ice that clung to their boots. To counter that, they spread a light covering of straw, also known as thresh, on the floors so people wouldn’t slip and fall. During the winter, they’d keep adding more and more thresh until finally the thresh would spill out the doors when they were opened. To stop the thresh from spilling out every time a door was opened, they started placing a strip of wood along the opening at each door, and that may very well be how we get the word threshold; it “held the thresh” from spilling out the door!

I just eat this stuff up, and I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I do. Now let’s see if you can do some linguistic sleuthing of your own. Take a look at the following goodies and see if you can discover some possible tales to explain why we say what we say. I’d love to get your results and post them!

1. Ah, poor old Mr. Riley. I hear he’s passed on. So when is the family going to hold the wake?
2. It’s wonderful how successful Karen’s been in business. Good for her! You know, I understand that her family was dirt poor when she was a kid.
3. Is that a bottle of tincture of violet I see on your bathroom counter? Isn’t that used to cure trench mouth?
4. I know my brother needed a new car, but I can’t understand why in the world he decided to buy a Jeep.

There you go. Four commonly used expressions or names that may have really interesting stories behind them. Here’s your chance to become a part-time etymologist and tell us why we say what we say. I think you’ll be very surprised at how these goodies may have come about!

Saturday, May 31, 2008

And the Answer is . . .

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

In a previous entry entitled “Why Do We Say That?” we had fun with some of the odder idiomatic expressions that go a long way to embellish and enrich the language. At the end of that tongue-in-cheek entry, I left five additional idiomatic expressions unexplained to ponder over. I guess it’s time now to reveal their possible, interesting beginnings to explain why we say what we say. Some people call such explanations “urban legends,” but whatever we get out of these little tales, they’re certainly entertaining and may, after all, contain some truth. So here goes . . .

1. That husband of mine! He’s not well educated, but he always manages to bring home the bacon.
5. You want to know what we did last night? We just sat around and chewed the fat.

In the Middle Ages, people could sometimes obtain pork, which would make them feel really special since all meat, including pork, was considered a luxury item for the dinner table. When company came over, they would bring out some bacon and hang it to show it off. It was a sign of some wealth that a man could bring home the bacon. They would cut off a little to share with guests, and would all sit around and chew the fat.

2. Mildred always tips extravagantly at restaurants. She acts like she’s a member of the upper crust.

Again in the Middle Ages, bakers customarily divvied up bread among their customers according to their status. Workers got the almost-burned bottom of very large loaves, families got the middle, and guests got the top, or the upper crust.

3. Good night. Sleep tight.

In Shakespeare’s time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. (I can testify to the veracity of that statement since I myself visited Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon and saw not only the ropes on his bed frame, but also the device used to tighten them.) When you pulled on the ropes, the mattress tightened, making the bed firmer to sleep on. Hence the phrase, “Good night. Sleep tight.

4. Here’s a rule of thumb for good cooks: Only add salt and pepper to meat right before cooking it.

The phrase rule of thumb is derived from an old English law which stated that you couldn’t beat your wife with anything wider than your thumb. (Aw, shucks!)

I’ve got to tell you . . . Whether those tales are true or just entertaining, my students have always enjoyed hearing them. And the most important reason for telling them these tales is that it always helps them remember the idioms and use them appropriately, so those tales definitely serve a good purpose!
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Moving right along, there are some juicy little sentences I left you with at the end of my last entry entitled “Is it a Change – or is it a Goof?” The idea was to see if you could spot the word in each of those sentences that’s open to debate about whether it represents an actual change in the language, or whether it’s just a mistake some speaker or writer has made. Here’s how I see them:

She’s an alumni of Duke University.

A goof: Here we go again with those Latin plural suffixes! To be technically correct, we should say, “She’s an alumna of Duke University.” For a guy we should say, “He’s an alumnus,” and for both of them we should say, “They’re alumni.” Most people these days don’t distinguish between the Latin masculine and feminine singular suffixes, just lumping them together with alumnus, so he’s an alumnus and she’s an alumnus. But we still distinguish between the singular and plural forms and say, “They’re alumni” or “the alumni association.”

The police found teeth marks on the victim.

A goof: I really don’t understand why this is happening, but some speakers don’t think it odd to say teeth marks. At first I thought it might be because of the irregular plural form (teeth), but I’ve never heard anybody say *feet prints, have you? So, if we don’t say *teethpaste or *a fine-teeth comb, why on earth do some people say *teeth marks? Weird, huh?

The media isn’t reporting this accurately.

A change: Here’s a perfect example of that phenomenon called “accumulation of error.” The singular is medium and the plural is media, but so many educated speakers and writers have continuously made the mistake of thinking that media is a singular noun that now it’s become acceptable to say the media is instead of the media are, so you hear both, although I do think the media is is winning out.

He shouldn’t talk like that about John and I.

A goof: Yes, I know you’ve heard lots of people say such phrases as “… about John and I,” but I don’t think this is considered acceptable ― at least not yet. After all, John and I are both objects of the preposition about in this sentence, and as such, I needs to be in the objective case, me. We all should say He shouldn’t talk like that about John and me. I think people have been making that goof because they think John and I sounds more “educated” or “elegant,” but it’s really just the opposite, if you ask I ― I mean me. This is a case that will prove very interesting in the future as far as “accumulation of error” goes. It remains to be seen whether this goof becomes a change at some point in the future. What’s your guess?

“Do you mind if I sit here?” “Sure.

A goof: This one throws me for a loop. It’s as if the meaning of that question has gotten lost to many native speakers. Do you mind if …? means something like “Does it/Will it bother you if …?” so the polite response should be “No,” which means “It doesn’t/won’t bother me.” The person replying to the question above is really saying, “Of course it will bother me.” Yikes! And yet that’s not what he means at all. Something tells me that if more and more native speakers keep forgetting the true meaning of this polite question which asks for permission to do something, it will become a synonym for saying something like “Is it all right if …?” And then, of course, one proper response will be “Sure.”

They hung Saddam Hussein in 2007.

A goof: I still don’t hear too many native speakers saying something like this. Most people still distinguish between th
e irregular past (hung) used to mean that something has been suspended from something else like a ceiling or tree branch or placed on a wall, and the regular past (hanged) used to mean “executed” with a noose tied around a person’s neck, etc.

So there you have it. We’ve taken a tongue-in-cheek look at the possible etymologies of some idiomatic expressions and scrutinized some oft-heard words under the linguistic microscope. There’s so much more that could be said, but so little time. Oh, well . . .

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Why Do We Say That?

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I thought I’d take a slight break from things strictly grammatical this week and talk tongue-in-cheek about a topic that’s always fascinated me, the etymology of words and names. Having been a history buff all my life, especially ancient history, I’ve found it interesting to discover where names come from or how idiomatic expressions got their starts. I mean, haven’t you ever wondered why we say It’s raining cats and dogs? That’s one of the early-on idioms many of us teach our students, but when a student once asked me why English speakers say that, I just gave him a blank stare and then quickly said something devilishly clever like, “Because that’s English.” See how quickly I can think on my feet? Hmm . . .

Well, okay, why do we say It’s raining cats and dogs? Here’s one of the most popular explanations, which may very well be what is commonly referred to these days as an “urban legend.” In England during the Middle Ages, most commoners’ houses had thatched roofs. That was the place where animals could keep warm in the colder months, so the pets, like dogs and cats, and other small animals lived on or in those thatched roofs. When it rained, the roofs became slippery, and sometimes the animals slid and fell off the roofs. That may be where we get the idiomatic expression It’s raining cats and dogs. Is it true? Well, maybe not, but it’s certainly an interesting story!

I remember many years ago wondering about the origin of my own first name. I used to joke that Richard must mean “a rich man,” and that’s what my folks had wished me to become when I grew up. Well, I was wrong. It turns out that the name is made up of two Germanic words, ric and hard, and they mean “brave power.” Other male names ending in (h)ard are also Germanic in origin. Howard means “brave heart” and Leonard means “brave lion.” I think that’s neat!

My students have always been fascinated by the stories I can now tell them surrounding the possible origins of idiomatic expressions, and I get a big kick out of being able to tell them those stories instead of cleverly saying, “Because that’s English.” Those stories open up windows into what life was like hundreds of years ago. They’re like small archaeological dig sites, only made up of words instead of artifacts you can hold in your hand. That story about the origin of It’s raining cats and dogs is a perfect example.

Here’s one more creative explanation that you might find interesting. What’s wonderful about this story is that it explains two idiomatic expressions at the same time: Because land in England was at such a premium even in the Middle Ages, people started running out of places to bury their dead. So they would dig up coffins and reuse the graves ― a practice that’s now illegal. Sometimes when reopening coffins, they’d find scratch marks inside. People quickly realized they had been burying some of their loved ones alive. To stop that horror from happening, they tied a string around the dead person’s wrist, brought the string through the coffin and up to the surface of the ground, and tied the string to a bell that was mounted on a stand next to the grave. Someone would be given the charming task of sitting next to the grave all night to listen for the bell. If the bell started ringing, he’d run to get help to dig up the “dead person” before he or she really was dead! That’s why on the graveyard shift, they knew someone might be saved by the bell. Interesting, right?

When I tell one of these stories to my students, I feel like a camp counselor gathered with my kids around a roaring campfire. I find these tales, whether true or not, to be a great tool to increase my students’ attentiveness, listening comprehension, and retention of the idiomatic expressions under discussion. Anything that works is fine by me!

As a change of pace, I’m going to list a few of my favorite idiomatic expressions. Let’s see if you can tell us how they came to be. Are you ready? Okay, let’s go!

1. That husband of mine! He’s not well educated, but he always manages to bring home the bacon.
2. Mildred always tips extravagantly at restaurants. She acts like she’s a member of the upper crust.
3. Good night. Sleep tight.
4. Here’s a rule of thumb for good cooks: Only add salt and pepper to meat right before cooking it.
5. You want to know what we did last night? We just sat around and chewed the fat.

There you go. Five commonly used idiomatic expressions with really interesting stories behind them. Let’s see if you can become part-time etymologists and tell us why we say what we say. I think you’ll be very surprised by what you may find out, and I can’t wait to read your comments on these great idioms!