Idioms: As American as Apple Pie!
December 03, 2012
My son-in-law came to America when he was 2. He's as American as "apple pie" - except when it comes to our prolific and incredible idioms! He was raised in his parent's home, and they did not use our "incredible American idioms." So, as we talked, he was often forced to say, "What does that mean?" or "I don't understand." I sent him a book (my answer to all of life's problems) full of idioms and their meanings... with good intentions... hoping it would help him comprehend his confusing mother-in-law.
When he received my well-meaning gift, he began to read. After a few minutes, he asked my daughter, "If I said this to you, what would you think?" He read example after example. and my daughter knew the meaning to each idiom - even the ones that seem to have no logic at all. Her husband was even MORE confused! How could you learn all of these nonsensical remarks, especially since you could not relate them to anything reasonable! Of course, this piqued my interest, and I had to research some of the odder sayings we use.
One of the most common idioms we use is "it's raining cats and dogs!" After researching, I discovered this was a phrase from the middle ages, when heavy rains would often flood roadways creating torrential rivers in the streets. After the water would recede, the local people often found the bodies of dead cats and dogs! So, it rained cats and dogs! Who would have thought that something easy would be a "piece of cake"? What?! The idea of cake being "easy" originated in the 1870s when cakes were given out as prizes for winning competitions. In particular, there was a tradition in the US slavery states where slaves would circle around a cake at a gathering. The most "graceful" pair would win the cake the in middle. From this the term, "cake walk" and "piece of cake" came into being, both meaning that something was easy to accomplish.
How about "neat as a pin"? Turns out, it really is "neat as a NEW pin." In the 1700s, pins were made of metal that eventually corroded, bent easily, and snagged cloth. But the new factory made pins were straight and clean. (At least, this seems to be the popular origins for this phrase)! "Dead as a doornail" seems to fit here also. Doornails never really seemed to provoke an image of "liveliness" anyway - but "dead"? When using the knocker on a door, the pounding wore down the nails holding the metal to the door - rendering it "dead." In addition to this, in Colonial time, nails were in short supply. Neighbors would occasionally "borrow" door nails in the night. So once a knocker was nailed to the door, the owner would go inside and bend the end of the nail so it could not be removed, again - rendering unusable or "dead."
I guess you could think "drop of a hat" and "easy as falling off a log" are almost logical. I mean, how hard is it to fall off a log? But it really refers to the loggers who walked on the logs in the rivers. It looked easy but was an acquired skill - so it was easy to fall off the log! Nice to know where to attach the phrase in history! When you drop anything, it usually falls rapidly to the ground (unless it is a feather or scarf or...). And "drop of a hat" has its moment in history also; it means acting readily or on some single signal. In the 19th century, it was occasionally the practice in the United States to signal the start of a fight or a race by dropping a hat or sweeping it downward while holding it in the hand. The quick response to the signal found its way into the language for any action that begins quickly without much need for prompting.
As you can see, most of the idioms appear to have some historic beginning. Some of these interpretations might be challenged for correctness. However, it is fun to dig back I find the "real" origins to these sayings. Still, it is hard for people who have not grown up hearing to these phrases used in context to comprehend what those using them are really saying. It is nice to note that America is not the only country with crazy idioms and phrases to confound those using their language!
English Idioms and Expressions for Foreigners, Like Me by Reza Mashayekhi
The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer