Idiom: The DNA of Cliché



We recently revisited the subject of the cliché, which dictionary.com defines as “a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse.”

All clichés begin as idioms, which are “expressions whose meanings are not predictable from the usual meanings of their constituent elements or from the general grammatical rules of a language.” Idioms are typically specific to a language, dialect, or style.

In American English, some common examples of idioms are fly off the handle, a dime a dozen, and speak of the devil. Such expressions are familiar to Americans, but they can be confusing to non-native speakers who might interpret the phrases according to word definitions as opposed to the collective idea.

Before we discuss idioms further, let’s start with an exercise that may be particularly useful and fun for our readers outside the U.S. Pair each idiom with the letter of its corresponding meaning. (Answers appear at the end of this article.)

Idioms Meanings
1. steal their thunder a. to submit to an affront or harsh treatment without resisting
2. twiddle your thumbs b. to have nothing useful to do while waiting for something to happen
3. strike while the iron is hot c. to perform a task or express something precisely
4. hit the nail on the head d. to take credit for another’s achievements
5. take it lying down e. to take immediate advantage when conditions are favorable

How Useful Are Idioms?

We use idiomatic expressions because they are instantly available and widely understood. For this reason, they are especially popular in speech, which affords less time for developing thoughts. When and whether an idiom becomes bothersome depends on the audience and how long the idiom has been circulating.

Idioms in writing are another matter. The Associated Press Stylebook identifies idioms as “the junk food of the literary pantry, much loved by lazy writers.” It also states that “platitudes … serve as signals to the reader to move along, there’s nothing to see here…” It further advises “Don’t push readers away … Engage them with original, specific phrasing.”

The Careful Writer author Theodore M. Bernstein cautions that “a writer tampers with idiom at his own peril, and the peril is great.” He further suggests that within the realm of idiom, it is better to be the coiner of a phrase than the echoer of it, as “it is the echoing that makes it cliché.”

Because nearly all idioms have destinies as platitudes, we would advise thoughtful writers to use them sparingly or avoid them. If compelled to include one, a writer might consider the timing of the reference. Some early adopters of a new idiom could be seen as woke. Beyond that short window, we mostly become echoers.

With that in mind, we’ll close with just a few more of the many idioms you might still often hear in American English.

Idioms Meanings
a blessing in disguise a good thing that initially seemed bad
beat a dead horse to give time or energy to something that is ended or over
burn a bridge to damage a relationship so it is beyond repair
cut corners to do something incorrectly in order to save time or money
feel under the weather to not feel well
go down in flames to fail spectacularly
it takes two to tango one person usually isn’t the only responsible party
miss the boat to miss one’s chance at something
on the ball efficient, prompt, responsible
sit on the fence to be indecisive

Quiz answers: 1-d, 2-b, 3-e, 4-c, 5-a

Posted on Tuesday, August 4, 2020, at 11:00 pm

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