The often-murky meaning of idioms


By Norman Riggs, Contributor

For those who missed my first column, a quick review: My mother, a hardscrabble Kansas ranch girl with little formal education, spoke largely in idioms, pithy historical sayings, many of which at first blush made no sense. They contained a general truth that wasn’t clear from the words. In contrast, I don’t remember my father, an astronomer, every speaking in idioms.

As a boy I’d eavesdrop on her family discussions and those with friends and neighbors. Many idioms were understandable on first hearing (“Six of one; half a dozen of another.”) But even for those that made no sense, the gist eventually became clear in the context of a larger discussion.

Growing up poor during the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression, Mom’s sayings resonated with color, earthy humor and wisdom. I learned the gist of her sayings but didn’t know the source. Here are a few more:

“Bats in the belfry.” Someone eccentric or insane. It is an American phrase referring to bats frantically darting about and screeching inside a belltower.

“Happy as a clam.” The phrase is believed to originally been referred to as a clam at high tide when it was unreachable and safe from human harvest.

“Full of beans.” A person full of nonsense. In earlier times horses were thought to run faster if fed beans to make them gassy. The phrase endured even after it was disproved.

“Loaded for bear.” Fully prepared for a serious confrontation. The phase stems from hunters of grizzly bears. The species is extremely dangerous and requires more powerful rifles than other types of hunting.

“Have a conniption fit.” Conniption is a version of corruption, as if someone is being corrupted by the devil.

“Fly off the handle” means seriously losing one’s temper. It refers to the head of an axe coming loose from the handle.

“Up the river.” Going to prison. It originally referred to prisoners being sent to Sing Sing prison about 30 miles up the river from New York City.

“Sell someone down the river” means to seriously betray someone. Unfortunately, it originally referred to capturing slaves above the Mason-Dixon Line and selling them back South to suffer the atrocities of slavery.

“Madder than a wet hen” is to be extremely angry. It’s rooted in the old-time practice of farmers dunking brooding, quarrelsome hens in cold water so they could collect their eggs.

“At the drop of a hat” means to do something rash with little forethought. It can be traced to the American West as the signal to start a duel or fight by dropping one’s hat to the ground.

“Like putting lipstick on a pig.” Trying to improve someone’s looks who is hopelessly ugly.

“For the birds” means something trivial or stupid. Inspired by the fact that birds often try to peck their or other animal’s droppings.

Sources: 50 Terms in Rural America. The Idiotic Joys of Idioms. 36 Classic Sayings Every Man Should know. Wikipedia. My own recollections.





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