We're a long way from being fluent - I think one has to actually be immersed in a language to achieve that - but our vocabulary is downright respectable these days. We're able to read fairly smoothly, only stopping here and there to verify that certain words mean what we think they do.
However, there's one thing that still trips us up on a regular basis, and that's the idiomatic phrases.
But even though they often give us fits trying to understand them, I still think idioms are pretty cool. They're like a whole other language... using the same words, only with radically different meanings.
It always reminds me of the Star Trek episode where Captain Picard ends up alone on some planet with a guy whose species (the Darmok) communicates purely through metaphor and social reference. So while they can understand the each other's words, without knowing the cultural context, the words are meaningless. In order to communicate with him, Picard must learn the stories and culture of their people - which he, of course, does in a few days - he's Picard, after all... and all is well:
The phrase actually means: something is suspicious or hidden here and it apparently dates back to the 16th century when coin purses were known as "gatos" and people would hide them so as not to fall prey to robbery or taxation.
Anyhow, what fascinates me about idioms is how the phrase becomes part of the lexicon, and remains in common usage even after the original cultural reference has long ago fallen into obscurity.
It makes me giggle to think of people 100 years from now saying "she sounds like a broken record" but having no clue what a "broken record" actually is, or how it would relate to repeating oneself over and over.
Of course modern day English is filled with examples of just this sort of thing. Like, for example:
Close, but No Cigar.
Apparently, back in the wayback times, carnivals used to give out cigars as prizes for games such as shooting and the like. So if you almost hit the target, you were close, but didn't get the cigar!
Three Sheets to the Wind.
This phrase means to be stumbling down drunk, and it's actually a nautical reference. This may be obvious to folks in places where sailing is common, but to this land-locked chick it was a surprise. Apparently a "sheet" is the rope that controls the "trim of the sail." I don't know exactly what that means, but apparently if you have a sailing ship with three sails, and all three sheets break loose, your ship will rock and reel like a drunk.
Cost an Arm & a Leg
OK, this one was a surprise. The phrase actually relates to portrait painters. As it turns out, limbs are some of the most difficult things to paint - especially hands and feet. So portrait painters used to base their fees on the number of limbs appearing in the image - the more limbs, the higher the cost!
Being "in the limelight" means that you're the center of attention, but the phrase refers to a type of lighting that used to be used in stages and music halls. The light functions by pointing an oxygen/hydrogen flame at a cylinder of calcium oxide or quicklime... hence the name "limelight!"
But what I find even more intriguing are the phrases where the original reference has been so far lost that nobody can even agree on what it was!
Take for, example, The Whole Nine Yards a phrase meaning everything possible or available.
I had always heard that this was a reference to early machine guns whose bullet strings came in lengths of nine yards. So giving someone "the whole nine yards" meant to fire all of the bullets.
But according to the interwebs, this is one of those idioms that nobody really knows the origin of. People have claimed it refers to the amount of fabric needed to make a burial shroud, or a man's suit, or an Indidan sari, or a Scottish kilt, or a number of other garments. Some folks say it refers to the number of cubic yards that a cement truck can hold, or that must be removed from the ground in order to dig a grave. And the speculation goes on and on and on...
I'm not sure why, but this really amuses me. I mean, picture some poor linguist centuries from now trying to parse out the origin of a phrase like "voted off the island."
Well, you see, it dates back to a time when shipwrecks were common, and there was a tacit understanding among seamen that if a group were to become marooned with inadequate resources, a vote would be taken and those deemed least capable of contributing would be set to the sea in a lifeboat or raft. A cruel practice indeed, but life was tough back in the early 21st century.
There is also a danger of over thinking stuff like this. The other day I was on a long bike ride, and about 15 miles in I started to get a bit of a stitch in my side, just as we were heading into the most difficult uphill portion of the ride.
To occupy my mind I started musing over the word "stitch". My internal dialog went something like this: "Stitch... stitch... now that's an interesting word. A stitch in time saves nine... I wonder what that means... let's see... a stitch in time... a stitch in time... sounds like some sort of a temporal anomaly... perhaps a breach in the space time continuum! A stitch in time saves nine... wait... I know! it's a temporal wormhole!"
Did I mention I like Star Trek?
Good Gawd! Well, at least I amuse myself.
Anyhow, tell me... do you like idioms? What are some of your favorite idiomatic phrases?