Idioms: A Look at Language and Culture

Merriam-Webster defines the word Idiom as,

an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (such as up in the air for “undecided”) or in its grammatically atypical use of words (such as give way)

“Idiom.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/idiom.

To put simply, an idiom is able to tell a story in just a few words. By using one, you are able to convey a message that extends past the words. The difficult part is that unless you know the exact idiom used, you won’t be able to guess what it means.

Language evolves and grows rapidly with a culture. It is so tied to a culture that it is impossible to learn one without the other. As the culture changes and evolves, so does the language and vice versa. A lot of idioms are steeped in tradition; a bygone time when things were done differently, but the message remains strong. Let’s take a look at some of the oldest idioms we still use!

Burning the Midnight Oil

Starting off with an easy one: before electricity and the light bulb, we had candles and lanterns to light our way. If you were working into the night, you were quite literally burning oil at midnight. Now-a-days we just use it to mean working late at night.

As Mad as a Hatter

This one is a little more interesting. From the 17th to the 19th century, hat-makers were exposed to an unhealthy amount of mercury. It was found that treating the fibers with mercury would drastically improve the felt. This prolonged exposure resulted in mercury poisoning which caused mania and dementia in many of the hat-makers. Before long, the psychosis became synonymous with the hatters themselves.

Pulling Someone’s Leg

More interesting still, this saying evolved greatly from its more nefarious origins. Originally used as a method for thieves to rob unsuspecting targets, they would use whatever tool they could to pull someone’s leg in order to trip them. Now when someone says this, it is most likely a joke. Depending on the joke; however, the receiver may not feel so different from the targets the thieves tripped.

Foreign Idioms

Of course, English isn’t the only language with idioms. Languages all over the world come full with their own fun and ridiculous sayings. Exploring these phrases gives us great insight into the mind of entire cultures and their way of life. Lets now go over some popular foreign idioms!

Me Como Mis Mocos – I Ate My Boogers

This idiom comes from Spanish; more specifically, the Spanish spoken in the Dominican Republic. Spanish is widely used in many countries in South America and, like American and British English, every country brings their own unique twists to the language. This silly idiom is commonly used after you’ve made a mistake. If you made a wrong turn, you might embarrassingly declare that you’ve eaten your own boogers.

Auf Einem Bein Steht Man Nicht Gut – There is no Standing on One Leg

This one comes from German. The basic meaning is: you need at least two drinks to have a good time. If you’re trying to keep the party going, this idiom might help you convince people to stick around.

对牛弹琴 – Playing the Harp to a Cow

A Chinese idiom generally used to describe someone speaking to the wrong audience. It can also be used when you’re having a hard time explaining something to someone. If you’ve ever repeated yourself at least three times, this might be the idiom for you.

When you’re at a loss for words, sometimes an idiom can help you find the right ones. If you are trying to learn a new language, studying their idioms can be a great way to familiarize yourself with the culture. Whether funny or serious, there is bound to be one for every occasion; and with each idiom comes a story, rich in the history of the language itself.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s