Simply put, idioms are the way we say things, and there’s no rhyme or reason to them. Prepositions, for instance — those little words like in, on, by, with, for, etc. — they tend to be the most idiomatic parts of speech.
Take the word “with” for example: depending on the context, it can mean exact opposites. If a man says “I fought with the Germans in World War II,” we understand that to mean that he fought on the side of Germany. If a man says “I fought with my wife last night,” it’s unlikely he was on her side.
He may have been on her back about something, but not on her side. The meaning of an idiom comes from subtle contextual clues to which we are very well attuned in conversation.
In an early work called “Three Dialogues,” Samuel Beckett records a series of conversations about contemporary painting with his friend, the French art critic Georges Duthuit. Years later, the literary critic Martin Esslin asked Beckett if it was fair to say that he just wrote down the actual conversations. Typically enigmatic, Beckett simply replied, “up.”
Write it down, write it up—two idiomatic ways of talking about writing that say pretty much the same thing, despite the opposite denotations of the words “up” and “down.” Beckett plays with the idiomatic sense and uses the words’ diametric denotations to vaguely suggest that instead of writing it down (a matter of factual reporting) he wrote it up (a fictional creation). Clever lad.
Idioms are slippery things, sticky wickets. They’re the most difficult part of learning a foreign language and the easiest part of our own, because we don’t learn idioms in a classroom but out on the corner, down in the street.
That’s what gets me: We’re so good at communicating when we talk and listen, but the minute we sit down to write we seem to lose that fine tuning, that exquisite sense of words that we all exhibit in our everyday conversations. Mistakes we’d never make in speaking we make all the time in writing. That’s what I don’t get.
Of course, in speech we have other tools to convey the meaning of our words: vocal inflections, facial expressions, hand gestures—hand gestures, especially in New Jersey. In writing we’re forced to do without those, and that makes for difficulties. All the more reason that when we’re writing we should use everything we know from a lifetime of listening and talking about how to use words.
If someone is inviting you out on a date and says, “I’ll pick you up at 8:30 in my automobile,” your first thought is going to be “AUTOMOBILE??? Why did he say ‘automobile’? Why didn’t he just say ‘car’? What’s the big deal about his car? Ferrari, maybe? Why didn’t he just say ‘Ferrari’?”
You begin to suspect that this guy’s got a screw loose. Maybe you shouldn’t go out with this nutjob after all.
We should treat institutions the same way whenever they try to foist bureaucratese on us. If your university crows that it wants to teach you to “demonstrate oral communication skills,” back away slowly; wave your arms over your head to let them know you’re there, and, whatever you do, DON’T RUN!
You can tell bureaucratic bologna by its distance from anything like idiomatic speech. Where idioms create wordless connections between writer and reader or speaker and listener, bureaucratese says just the opposite. It says, we’re not like you. We’re not normal. We don’t put our pants on one leg at a time. And indeed they don’t. It’s not the voice of human beings. It’s the voice of beings who have given up being human and let themselves become part of the bureaucracy by sacrificing the kind of vivid and vigorous language spoken by beings of flesh-and-blood.
The wonderful thing about idioms is that they let us say so much more than the words themselves appear to say. The problem with bureaucratese is that it makes us say so much less.
Can you imagine ever telling your mother that you’re learning to demonstrate oral communication skills? She’d slap your pompous little face. And rightly so.
American poet Ezra Pound once remarked that just as music begins to atrophy the further it moves from dance, so poetry begins to atrophy the further it moves from music. So too with writing: the further our writing moves away from how we actually talk, the more it loses that vigor and the ability to cut through the crap and say what’s what: our seemingly innate facility and endless inventiveness with language.
When we stop talking and start demonstrating oral communication skills, we’re in big trouble.
Michelle recently noted that the airlines have their own idioms—a kind of technical jargon they use to sound official: they never call a plane a plane. It’s always an aircraft. And we’re always told to watch our step “when exiting the aircraft.” We get so accustomed to this kind of babble that it doesn’t trouble us anymore, and we neglect to ask what’s wrong with simply saying “when you’re getting off the plane.” What’s troubling is how easily such jargon infects us, the occupants of the aircraft, I mean, the ones on the plane.
I was recently in a little fender-bender, which is emphatically not what the insurance companies call it. Someone skidded on ice and slid into my fender. It was a pretty gentle tap, thank goodness. On the phone, the insurance agent told me where to go to make an appointment “for inspection of the vehicle.” When I let Michelle know, I found myself using the same words.
“The insurance agent told me where we can go to get the vehicle inspection,” I told her.
“What?!?” she asked.
I could hear the worry in her voice and caught myself: “. . . to get the car looked at.”
“That’s better,” she replied, with audible relief. That’s Michelle—she never gets on my back, but she’s always got it.
• Jim Hale can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website, https://www.jimhalewriting.com.