How to Crack the Code of Popular Expressions

English likes to pretend it’s a globalised language, which is sort of true when it comes to phrases like “Where is the toilet?” and “Is my plane on time?” But when it comes to idioms, even native speakers can come a cropper*.

It’s fine to be confused when you first hear brilliant local expressions like the Kiwi box of budgies**, but there are a great many sayings in common usage across the Anglosphere that still trip us up.

You Say Tomato…

In many cases, it’s because we don’t see the saying written down, we just hear it being used. Mispronunciations are easy – If you think that, you’ve got another think coming, meaning you should think again, becomes you’ve got another thing coming, which doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The same problem sees waiting with bated breath (holding your breath in suspense) turn into baited breath (having breath that smells of fish), just deserts (what you deserve) become just desserts (what many of us would love), and nip it in the bud (stop it before it develops) become a cheeky nip in the butt.

In other cases, we pronounce the words wrongly because the original has fallen out of use and we substitute something familiar that sounds similar. Be on tenterhooks is an obvious saying about suspense if you know that tenterhooks were hooks used to stretch woollen cloth over frames called tenters as the cloth dried. But if you don’t, “tenderhooks” is a reasonable guess.

A damp squib was a small explosive that wouldn’t fire, which is how the phrase came to mean a disappointing person. A damp squid is commonly said instead. Leaving aside the fact that a damp squid is better than a dry one for everything except cooking, the Harry Potter series is helping to restore the original saying with its Squibs: non-magical children of magical parents.

Hold Your Horses

It’s not surprising that equestrian sayings are so common: until recent decades most people lived horse-drawn lives. But within a century the car has become dominant, which leads to a lot of confusion when it comes to horse-related sayings.

Champing at the bit means eager to be off and comes from a horse champing or making a noisy biting noise against its bit, which it usually does out of impatience. But, like tenterhooks, the word has fallen out of favour, so chomping at the bit has become commonplace.

Rein-based idioms have their own problems. You’ll often see free rein as free reign, with people thinking it refers to ruling, but it comes from a rider letting a horse choose its own direction. It’s the same family of sayings as rein it in and on a loose rein.

And while on his high horse doesn’t suffer from the wrong words, its meaning has shifted. A high or great horse was the horse of a leader in mounted combat and the phrase originally meant one in command, but over years has come to mean someone snobbish or superior.

Breaking Bard

Confusion isn’t limited to common idioms, quotes get the muddle treatment, too, particularly Shakespeare’s.

H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885) has one character ordering another to “Lead on, MacDuff,” and in the more than a century since, the line has been often repeated. In Macbeth, the line is “Lay on, MacDuff,” a challenge to fight, not to show the way.

To the manor born is a bastardised version of Hamlet’s “but to my mind, though I am native here and to the manner born, it is a custom more honour’d in the breach than the observance.” The original meant “have grown up with the custom”, so the phrase’s change in meaning to “have grown up with privilege” works better with “manor”. However, the second part of the quote is often misused to mean a custom rarely followed. In fact, it means a custom it would be more honourable to ignore, such as drinking to excess, or stuffing ferrets down your trousers.

And then there is in one fell swoop, also from Macbeth. The Middle English word fell meant fierce, savage, cruel, and so it was a vicious swoop such as a bird of prey might make. It’s a much grimmer phrase than the common error one foul swoop. Though my grandfather was rightly proud of himself when one of the roosters leapt onto a hen from the top of the shed and he was able to declare it “one fowl swoop”.

Word on the Street

So should we be fussed when people get sayings wrong? I think the only reasonable answer is “sometimes”. When a mistake takes a sensible saying and makes it illogical, it’s worth correcting. But others, like to the manor born, show the phrase evolving in our ever-changing language and are more to be celebrated than censured.

This evolution goes on all the time. Dull as ditchwater has become dull as dishwater now most of us live miles from ditches, but it still works. In the same way, we have a hoard of sayings that are likely to be lost, or undergo shifts in meaning over the next few decades. How does like a broken record work for people who were born after CDs or MP3s?

Just as old Pony Club types have spent years saying, “actually, it’s champing…” those of us born before 1980 will one day find ourselves gently explaining, “No, it’s record. You see, music once came on these fragile pressed-vinyl discs …”

You don’t say

Some common sayings really do need an explanation.

  • Pleased as Punch: as happy as Mr Punch, the evil puppet who goes on a drunken murder spree.
  • Get off scot free: from Old English “scotfreo”, exempt from royal tax.
  • Show your true colours: naval ships would fly many flags (colours) in a bid to obscure their identities when under sail. But the British Articles of War declared that vessels must show their “true colours” before going into battle.
  • Worth their salt: from the Latin word salarium, which is derived from sal/salt and gave rise to the word salary.

*Come a cropper: originally fall headlong from a horse, now to fail.

** Box of budgies: cheerful and happy.

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