Wednesday, 7 August 2013


“It’s a strange world of language in which skating on thin ice can get you into hot water.” - Franklin P. Jones
A living language is a dynamic, vibrant system, which breathes the same air as its speakers do and undergoes similar transformations in its character as the people who speak it. Its changing face relies very much on shifts in word meaning and the generation of new words or phrases to convey new meanings as new situations or new discoveries require. Novelty thrives not only on demands of society for advances in technology and changes in lifestyle that require neologisms, but also the insatiable search of people for saying old things in a fresh way. Idioms are very much a part of this process, and together with age-old clichés, that can be demonstrated (in some languages, at least) to be thousands of years old, the new slang of today becoming the idiom or cliché of tomorrow, sometimes progressing to a well-entrenched part of formal language a few decades later.
The word idiom comes from the Greek “idivwma” and means “one’s own thing” or “peculiarity”. Idiom can also mean to a certain extent “dialect” as frequently in dialects, words in common with the parent language can acquire new meanings or be used in unconventional ways. More often than not, however, an idiom is an expression in a mainstream language, which, typically cannot be explained in a straightforward way – grammatically or semantically. It is in many cases distinctive to that particular language alone, and it cannot be translated word for word into another language. One could also say that an idiom is a “peculiarity of phrase approved by usage”; it is an unusual or even completely illogical way of saying something, which is accepted because by convention people use it very often and are familiar with its “hidden” meaning.
Idiomatic expressions are a lively part of almost all the world’s languages and underlying these phrases are historical, political, social or cultural events that have had a great deal to do with their creation. Myths and legends, folk stories, observations of nature and the endowment of animals with certain human traits will often create an idiomatic expression. Sometimes, a potent visual image underlies their origin, and metaphor, simile or hyperbole often underpins them. In a few instances the same image is conveyed across many languages, which demonstrates the universal need to colour ordinary speech with a powerful image whose common origin spans several cultures and linguistic groups. Idioms have sometimes been referred to as “miniature word poems” for these reasons.
One, however, should be wary of applying one’s own cultural yardsticks to another language and culture, since the same social situation, everyday object or common animal may be viewed differently in different cultures. A case in point is the fox, which in many Western cultures and languages is the archetypal illustration of cunning, craftiness and slyness. In other cultures, the fox may not be viewed in the same way! In Luke 13.32, Jesus uses the illustration of a “fox” to characterise the petty king, Herod Antipas. When the Greek term, Αλώπηξ, “fox”, was simply translated into English as “fox”, the intended meaning it had for Jesus’ hearers in the first century was missed, because the sociocultural connotations did not necessarily travel when this word was translated into another cultural setting.
Countless commentators have for years blithely assumed that “a fox, is a fox, is a fox” and that the idiomatic meaning underlying “fox” in all cultures is that of cunning and craftiness. The notion, “sly as a fox”, is assumed to be applied universally. However, many rabbinical illustrations reveal that in the ancient Judaean setting, and within the Hebraic sociolinguistic culture, the term “fox” (Hebrew shu’al) does not signify “sly” or “crafty” at all. Rather, it signifies “small fry,” “weak,” or “insignificant.” In Hebrew, the fox is the animal that is consistently used for contrast with “lion” (as an indication of someone strong or significant). In actuality therefore, Jesus was characterising Herod Antipas as an insignificant ruler rather than as a crafty or sly one.
The idioms that are unique to a certain language alone present a major stumbling block to foreign language learners when they encounter these offending phrases. To speak “idiomatically” is the aim of advanced foreign language learners. One’s competence in a language will often be judged, ultimately, on one’s command of the idioms of that language, as any solver of the English cryptic crossword will testify! Hence, familiarity with most of the commonly used idioms of a language is considered to be an essential feature of demonstrating competency in that language.


  1. Fascinating read, Nic. English must be a nightmare for foreigners to learn s it has so many idioms!

  2. Love that quote you start with!

  3. That is so true: familiarity with most of the commonly used idioms of a language is considered to be an essential feature of demonstrating competency in that language.

    But this is true in our own language as well. To the older generation, an "asylum seeker" is someone who miraculously survived WW2 death camps or Russian gulags and will do anything to live. Now people use the EXACT same words to mean an opportunistic queue jumper who wants to increase his economic opportunities in a new country.