Getting the drift of idiom development

Syllabus week is over, and things are getting down to the wire for many students on campus. Crocodile tears won’t work on professors’ intent to hold their students’ feet to the fire, and everyone must settle down and face the music. Even when under the weather, students must stay on the ball and roll with the punches so that they can pass exams with flying colors. Students must bust their chops and not have a chip on their shoulder when completing assignments. So, break a leg this semester, get plenty of rest and sleep tight, it will all be over soon.

For most, what was just said was completely understandable. Idioms such as these have become so ingrained in the English language that many don’t think twice while using them. But, what do these common phrases mean and where did they originate?

“The origins of these things are somewhat speculative,” said Dr. Cooper Cutting, professor at Illinois State University. “Part of the issue that makes it hard is that these things often originated a while back and it’s hard to pinpoint who the first person was to use it and what exactly did they mean when they used it. But, for some reason some of these things sort of stick with us.”

There are a few different theories as to how and why people come to understand idioms, Cutting said. One theory centers around the idea that idioms come about because of the metaphorical way that people think about things.

“We think of the mind as being something like a container, and we think that anger is like heat,” he said. “So, if somebody’s angry … people make up phrases that reflect that underlying conceptual structure — things like ‘flip your lid,’ or ‘blow your top,’ or ‘let off steam’ and that kind of stuff.”

Another school of thought puts more emphasis on how people learn these idioms and then rationalize this learned meaning. For example, Cutting said, there have been experiments where researchers gave two groups of people a set of idioms. Researchers told one group the actual meaning of the idiom, and another group the opposite meaning of the idiom.

“They found that people were able to use those idioms and understand those idioms in either way, as long as they could figure out or make a theory about how the individual parts of those idioms match up to the meaning that they’re being told,” Cutting said.

Despite this widespread disagreement as to the origins of different idioms, and why they carry the meanings they do, a quick look at some common phrases and the possible origins that people have tried to prescribe them may shed some light on the subject.

*#1 A rule of thumb:*

“This probably comes from medieval measuring practices where people measured objects … in relation to parts of the body, so that it would be a thumbs width or an arm length,” said Dennis Baron, professor of English and linguistics at the University. “Basically, it’s using your thumb to measure something, and what it means is it’s a common practice.”

*#2 Mind your P’s and Q’s:*

“This is usually said to come from mind your pints and quarts … meaning, don’t drink too much,” Baron said. “(Today) it means to behave politely. So, the sense is that, if this is the actual origin, that if you’re drunk, you’re not going to behave politely and so don’t drink too much.”

*#3 Close, but no cigar:*

“(This) suggests an origin in some kind of contest where the prize was that you won a cigar,” Baron said. “Some kind of bet, you know, like, ‘I bet you five dollars you know the answer to this or that.’”

Therefore, from this possible origin, the phrase has come to mean “almost,” or “not quite” the cigar worthy or winning answer.

*#4 Take it with a grain of salt:*

“It means to not believe it, or to be skeptical of something,” Baron said. “Salt is used as a food preservative and it has been since humans knew about salt … And so the idea, I think, is that people would take rotten meat and salt it, and try to pass it off as preserved meat instead. So, it meant that if you got salted meat that you had to be skeptical about if it was safe to eat or not.

Today this phrase is used to mean something might not be completely true.”

*#5 Strike while the iron is hot:*

“(The possible origin) we’re talking about here is working cold metal, bending it into shape or annealing it or tempering it,” Baron said. “First you heat it in the fire, then put it on a hard surface and then you hit it with a hammer to beat it into the kind of shape that you want to have it in, and it only works if it’s hot. (This) means that you’ve got to do something when the time is right.”

Despite these possible explanations as to the origin of idioms, there is no way to ever know for sure.

“What is shared by most of such idiomatic expressions,” said Hans Hock, professor of linguistics at the University, “is that their origin is obscure.”

It may be impossible be clear as a bell in explaining where idioms come from, but some still try to figure them out.

“Everything is, ‘Well here’s the theory and here’s another theory and another theory,’” Cutting said. “There are lots of theories that are out there as to the origins of these different things. But they’re fun, that’s for sure.”