Are you in a brown study?

Idioms beautifying language


By Vijaya Jayasuriya

The term ‘idiom’ has two main meanings. One, language of a people or country and the specific character of it. What we are here concerned with is the second sense of the word – succession of words whose meaning is not obvious through knowledge of the individual meanings of the constituent, words, but must be learnt as a whole’ or put more lucidly: ‘a group of words whose meaning is different from the meanings of the individual words’ (Advanced Learner’s dictionary by A. S. Horn by : editions 1974 and 2010 respectively.

According to Fowler (H. W. : 1926: Modern English Usage’: ‘"A manifestation of the peculiar" is closest possible translation of the Greek word (idiom)’. Collins in his valuable book ‘A book of English Idioms’ states: ‘sometimes a dominating factor in the formation of the peculiarity of an idiom must have been a desire for euphony (pleasantness of sound – eg. By hook or by crook; alliteration – (repetition of the same sound or letter in a succession of words) – eg. Rack and ruin; rhyme (a word with same sound as another) eg. High and dry.

"How the match ended beggars description’ means that the end of the match makes description impossible. The literal meaning of the verb ‘beggar’, according to Collins is-‘ to reduce to a state in which one has little or no money’. Figuratively the situation happens to be one so remarkable and strange that one cannot find words to describe it adequately. ‘beggar belief’ is also used about something too shocking etc. to believe.

‘A bird of passage’ literally means a migratory bird while idiomatically it refers to a person who passes through a place without stopping there long. Collins; description is more interesting: ‘a person who is constantly moving about without a settled home’.

‘Blood is thicker than water’ brings out the idea that a bond created by blood relationship is stronger than one built on other circumstances like marriage, friendship, business etc. An anecdote Collins mentions as the origin of this idiom is of an American naval officer who in 1959 finding the English in difficulties with the Chinese went to their help justifying his interference using these words.

‘Blow hot and cold’ describes an action of somebody first praising a person or thing and then blaming him: eg. ‘His attitude is strange blowing hot and cold’. There was an English film too a few decades ago by the title ‘Blow hot, blow cold’.

‘Our teacher used to blow his top if we made mistakes in English’ is to lose one’s temper and explode into angry words etc.

"To be in the blues’ means feelings of sadness, a condition of being sad and melancholy. Eg. ‘Monday morning blues’

"Officials visit schools only once in a blue moon’ means ‘extremely rarely’ Collins states: ‘Under some conditions both sun and moon have a deep blue colour’ and also goes on to set out a fascinating record of this extraordinary phenomenon that was seen in many countries: ‘... in Ireland in 1927, in England in 1950 etc. etc.’ He also explains that this happens when there is fine dust in the atmosphere with particles of suitable size may be from volcanic eruption etc...’

‘Her transfer came like a bolt from the blue’ refers to an event or a piece of news which is sudden and unexpected’. It is also used to describe a sudden, unexpected misfortune too. ‘ A bolt’ here is a thunderbolt while ‘the blue’ is ‘the cloudless sky’. bolt out of the blue’ is also used in the same sense.

A ‘contention’ being an angry disagreement between people, ‘a bone of contention’ is a matter of sharp division between two people or groups. The allusion is to a bone that dogs often fight for.

‘Let’s talk; I have a bone to pick with you’ is used in case of ‘a complaint, grievance or accusation’ that a person has against another. Collins also goes on to say ‘the idiom is not used with reference to a dispute that is grave’.

Among Buddhists there is a belief that bad deeds committed by someone are written in an imaginary book for punishment later. It is exactly this kind of notion that Collins suggests to have given rise to the idiom ‘bring to book’ meaning ‘call to accounts; bring to justices; bring to due punishment. The phrase seems to be based on the idea of an imaginary book in which a person’s bad actions are entered’ (ibid) ‘The police are trying to bring the culprits to book’ is how this idiom is often used.

I am in his bad books at the moment. I blamed him for indolence’ ‘in one’s bad books’ means in disfavour and seriously disapproved of’. Collins mentions of an old practice among shopkeepers to keep in separate books notes of good customers and bad ones, and good debts and bad. ‘His villainies are too many to be described in my lack books’ (Classical literature). To be in good books of somebody’ is used as the opposite of this: eg: I’m already in his good books. So he’ll help me willingly’.

That’s cheating in my book’ is another interesting idiom used for expressing one’s opinion. ‘In my book’ means ‘according to my point of view’.

‘She has turned over a new leaf in her life by marrying him’ means to make a new and better start or change for the better one’s previous conduct. In this idiom one is imagined as following a new rule or set of rules set out in a fresh page of a book of instructions for guiding one’s conduct.

‘You say he ought to have written to thank me, but the boot is on the other leg, for the obligation is on my side and it is I that am deeply indebted to him’ is Collins’s fine illustration of this idiom. The meaning is that the true position is, or the circumstances are, exactly the reverse. Hornby’s interpretation in the new edition (not found in 1974 edition) is a situation where the balance of power has changed. The explanation in 1963 edition is: The truth on the responsibility is just the contrary. A good example could be: ‘He boasts that he is the boss, but (in my book) the boot is on the other leg’ (on the wrong leg’ is also synonymous).

‘She is born with a sliver spoon in her mouth’ is of ‘a child belonging to a rich family and is so fed with a spoon made of silver instead of one made of baser material. The literal meaning is to be born in affluent circumstances and be brought up in luxury. Collins quotes from Goldsmith (1962) ‘One man is born with a silver spoon in his mouth and another with a wooden ladle’!

‘Don’t try to impress others with borrowed plumes’ is used to mean one who boasts to possess himself qualities, virtues, merits etc. possessed by another.

‘A bottle neck’ is a simple yet meaningful idiom used to illustrate particularly a narrow outlet for traffic. This comes is handy today when there are loads of them around the city with streets getting clogged up with hordes of vehicles. ‘I was inordinately delayed at the bottleneck near the bus stand.

‘The professor breaks new ground in democratic politics in his latest book’. Literally, breaking fresh ground with a spade etc., it is figuratively used to mean finding of new knowledge etc. in a subject.

‘Break the back (of a task) is tackling the most important or difficult part of it. The allusion is to the old method of killing an animal by breaking its back being the hardest part of the job. ‘I think we are about to break the back of this venture’.

‘Someone must try to break the ice among strangers at a party’ means to get people on friendly terms; overcome formality or reserve and take the first steps in a delicate matter –Collins describes it as a ‘putting a end to formality, stiffness, shyness etc. in one’s relations with people. The literal sense is ‘to break the frozen surface of rivers, lakes (and roads in winter) etc for the passage of boats and other vehicles.

Some of the English idioms have almost surreptitiously crept into Sinhala speech and ‘break the neck’ is one. ‘That’s something that breaks your neck’ one would say to mean an extremely difficult and even dangerous task. The 1974 edition of Advanced Learner’s dictionary defines it as ‘work extremely hard to achieve something. ‘A derivative is ‘at (a) breakneck speed’ meaning ‘at a dangerous speed’ eg: Enthusiasts drive at breakneck speed on the highway.

‘He is trying to breathe down my neck’ is to watch someone closely making him anxious or annoyed.

‘Bring something home to somebody’ is to make someone realize how important, difficult or serious something is. Eg. The TV pictures brought home to us the full horror of the attack’ ‘Drive’ or ‘strike’ home are also alternatives to ‘bring’.

‘You need not break the bank to buy a motor-bike’ – ‘not break the bank’ is an idiom of recent development of this particular meaning of ‘won’t cost a lot of money or more than you can afford.’

‘He doesn’t hear what we are talking. He’s in a brown study’ means that he is in deep thought and does not notice what is happening around.

‘He got his fingers badly burnt dabbling in the stock market’. The idiom stresses the idea of someone having to suffer for doing something without knowing its adverse results. This one is also found in Sinhala. ‘Don’t get your hand burnt’ (by trying to do something which you are not adept in) Collins also quotes a classical writer: ‘Never burn your fingers to snuff another man’s candle’.

‘Think carefully before you resign you don’t want to burn your boats’ this is to do something that makes impossible retreat from a course, policy etc. The origin is ‘The action by military leaders of burning the boats in which they had crossed the river so that the soldiers know they have to win or die, as retreat was impossible’ (Collins).

‘You are burning the candle at both ends’ One can warn a friend who is going to dangerously exhaust his energies by over working in two different directions. This refers to a person who ‘burnt the candle at both ends by sitting up till two in the morning and rising again at six’.

‘She burnt a lot of midnight oil to get this good pass at the exam’ to study or work until late at night is the meaning. Collins opines: ‘This idiom, at one time popular, is now rare when oil lamps are not much used’. Yet as it gives a powerful meaning it is still used and is found in modern dictionaries as well.

‘He is trying to bury his head in the sand whenever the matter is broached’ – Burying one’s head in the sand is to avoid facing facts and recognizing realities by pretending that they do not exist. Another meaning of this idiom is to refuse to admit that a problem exists or refuse to deal with it. Collins cites the allusion to the fable where the ostriches thrust their heads in the sand ‘thinking that because they cannot see their enemies, they cannot be seen by them’!

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