Monday, December 12, 2011

Half an idiom is wanting

I'm in a British mood. I'm currently obsessed with a new television show, and no, it's not Canadian. It's British and brilliant. As I seem to have a struggle finding time for poignant posts that fit the original intent for this blog, I will share with you a fun one.

Maggie Smith is quite British.
There is much to be thankful for with the English language. We are so blessed with synonyms that we could potentially create 78,990 versions of one ten-word-long sentence, without repeating key vocables. Or locutions, or morphemes, if you prefer.

However, I often weep for the English language, at the same time I torture it. We're losing the ability to exchange intelligent thoughts, I fear. In looking for shorter, newer ways of speaking, we've lost a more eloquent tongue. One of the casualties of this slow murder has been the loss of significance in our idioms.

Here are several idioms that the show "Downton Abbey" uses in their entirety. You will probably recognize them, but you might not know they were longer than the version we throw around each day. Enjoy!
  • There are more fish in the sea than ever came out of it. - When one of the characters used this in the TV show, it was the first time I realized the phrase didn't stop with "there are more fish in the sea." With the tail (pun) at the end of the idiom, it's more specific, as it refers to the fisher (usually someone looking for a love) who might catch two or three fish (love-ees). This serves as a reminder that not only are there more fish out there to "catch" but that you haven't done a relative amount of fishing to find them. I won't comment on how that agrees or disagrees with TOB...
  • Shipshape and ready in Bristol fashion. - How FUN IS THIS IDIOM!? Try saying it with a British accent. Fun, right?! Bristol has been a prominent seaport town in the UK for centuries, though it is on a estuary river instead of at the coast. Therefore, the ships that came to Bristol had to be prepared to sit on dry land sturdily -- with carefully stowed goods-- as low tide went out (or came in, depending on if you're an English professor) each day. This phrase is a merge of two: ship-shape, which means just what it sounds like and has been used since the 17th century, and "in Bristol fashion" from the early 19th century.
  • You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. - You cannot make a good quality product using bad quality materials. Because I never really paid attention to this and just made my own guess for what it meant, I absentmindedly took this phrase to mean something similar to "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade." Funny how I had that backwards.... When life hands you lemons, go shopping for better quality fruit, so they say.
  • A drowning man will clutch at a straw. - I'm sure you know this idiom, or "grasping at straws," is used to describe the actions of someone in desperate situations. Its meaning comes from the former inference of "a straw" as it was once an accepted example to refer to anything flimsy or worthless, just as straw seems flimsy or worthless. So the language already had the word "straw" referring to anything worthless and we add the image of a drowning man clutch (derived from Wycliffe's 14th century English translation of 1 Timothy 6:12) at whatever might be able to prevent him from falling below the water, mix in several centuries and POOF we have "grasping at straws." Now you know what you're saying when you use that phrase!
  • Three sheets to the wind. - I was so excited to learn that this idiom, used when someone is very drunk, is derived from the "sheets" or the ropes that hold the sails in place on a ship. If these are too loose, they are blown by strong wind, making the boat unsteady and resembling a drunkard. Jolly ho!
  • One swallow doesn't make a summer. - One example or bit of proof doesn't make a pattern or truth. From Richard Taverner's transcription of the [Latin] proverbs of Erasmus - Prouerbes or adagies with newe addicions, gathered out of the Chiliades of Erasmus, 1539: "It is not one swalowe that bryngeth in somer. It is not one good qualitie that maketh a man good." And we thought we invented symbolism and imagery!
  • The best-laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry. - Tickle me pink to learn this is the whole phrase that we lopped off into two! It's directly from the Scotsman Robert Burns' poem "To a Mouse:" "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley." Gang aft agley, as you will have to trust me, means "go oft awry," or "often go awry." Just as we shorten idioms to "When in Rome," here we see that people can quickly use "best-laid plans!" as a quip to bring our fellow men and women to the trough for a taste of sweet, sweet humility. Other times, people tend to throw around "of mice and men," methinks carelessly and in a way that doesn't seem to fit with the origin. However, "the best-laid schemes!"
  • The darkest hour is just before the dawn. - A character from Downton Abbey used this phrase and followed it with, "But the dawn always comes." I've more often heard the intro to this phrase, "darkest hour," used as if it stands alone. I prefer knowing the entirety, because it packs in optimism while leaving it to the negative half of the equation suspends negativity indefinitely. That's the last thing our world needs.
  • The proof of the pudding is in the eating. - "The proof is in the pudding."  What?! "The proof is in the pudding" made me think of some piece of key evidence -- a credit card receipt, a murder weapon, or my little sister's neglected green beans -- swimming around at the bottom of the pudding bowl. I chalked it up (probably another misused idiom) to the goofy English language and moved on. Now I know that "proof" means "test," in this example (as we know we only get proof as a result of a test). This proverb can be traced back to the 14th century and basically means what it seems after we replace proof with test: until you have experienced something and done everything to learn as much as possible about it, you can't know its value.
  • The exception that proves the rule. - This never made any sense. Here again we need to remember that "proof" is the result of a test, so replace "proves" in the phrase. The phrase was intended to convey, "The exception demonstrates that the rule exists." It comes from latin legalese, circa 17th century: "Exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis," or "exception confirms the rule in the cases not excepted."


Julie Robison said...

I want to watch that show too!!!! Those idioms are the bomb-diggity.

Liesl said...

i loooooooooooove downton abbey!!! twinie twin twin! british shows are amazing. you should watch merlin - it's my fav :)

Allie said...

I adore Maggie Smith. She's awesome as McGonagall in Harry Potter and the Mother Superior in Sister Act. Could she be any more awesome?

Anonymous said...

You got the last one wrong. The exception does not establish or verify the rule as many take the idiom to mean. Nor does the exception demonstrate the existence of the rule itself as you suggest. The original meaning of the word prove was not to demonstrate or establish truth, but simply to test something. In other words, the exception tests or challenges the rule. The existence of the exception does negate the rule in general. That an ambulance can exceed the legal speed limit does not nullify the speed limit in general nor does it demonstrate the existence of the speed limit. The rule must exist beforehand for there to be an exception to the rule.

Christine said...

Dear anonymous, that is what she said.

Anonymous said...


Not so. The gist of what she said is "The exception demonstrates that the rule exists." What the phrase means is that the exception challenges the rule but does not negate the rule. Huge difference. I did notice a typo on my part, though. It should read "The existence of the exception does NOT negate the rule in general."

Indeed, the existence of speed limit signs establishes the rule (as does the authority that erects the signs), and the rule is not confirmed, demonstrated, or established by the fact that ambulances, under certain circumstances, can exceed the posted speed limit. Her interpretation would suggest that ambulances exceeding the speed limit establishes or demonstrates the existence of the speed limit. If ambulances were given no exception, does that mean speed limits would not exist?

Ultimately, the mistake she makes is to say that proof is a result of a test. The fact is that prove originally meant test, not the results of a test. To prove something meant to test it, not necessarily to confirm it. Something could be proved true or false.

Louise said...

I LOOOOOOOOOOVE Downton Abbey!! Thank you for this fascinating post!

Elizabeth Hillgrove said...

Julie - You would love this show!

Twin - I KNOW!

Allie - No, I don't think she could be :)

Thank you, anonymous. I'll work on my English skills because what you said is what I was trying to communicate. See? I told you I was losing touch.

Louise - IT'S SO GOOD! And it feels so much cleaner than most shows today. Maybe that's because I know what the social protocol was for the early 20th century, but let me keep my fantasy if I'm wrong.

Dianna@KennedyAdventures said...

Oh, I LOVE LOVE LOVE Downton Abbey! I'm on pins and needles for Season 2. Another GREAT British show is Doc Marten. My husband loves Merlin, too ... I've watched it a few times,and it's pretty cool!

David Hussey said...

Writing is an art form that reaches a multitude of people from all walks of life, different cultures, and age group. As a writer, it is not about what you want. examples of slang words

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