Idiotic Idioms

Photo by David Thielen on Unsplash

Idioms are not really idiotic, but they don’t make a lot of sense when taken literally. The two words have a common etymology. Idios in Greek means “one’s own, private, unique.” A Greek idiotes was a private person, that is, an uneducated workman or soldier, one who didn’t take part in public affairs like an educated man. You can see how the word came to mean “ignorant,” and developed into our word idiot. An idiom is a word or phrase peculiar to a particular language. English idioms are our own, private, and unique.

I always told my Latin students the following story in order to explain idioms. Our professor in my college French class asked us to write a paragraph in French describing something we had done over the weekend. As he read one student’s effort aloud in front of the class, he stopped short and then began sputtering and laughing over one hapless student’s attempt. When he regained control of himself, the professor explained that the student described a picnic with his family, during which they roasted hot dogs. Hot dogs in French momentarily struck my professor as “dogs in heat” (though the French actually have their own idiom for that). That’s where my professor stopped abruptly until he figured out the English equivalent intended by the student.

Wheelock’s Latin, our text at Cleveland State, introduces idioms with amabo te, literally “I will love you,” which means “please” in Latin. The book’s first example is adapted from the playwright Terence: Da veniam puellae, amabo te, which translates, “Give pardon to the girl, please.” Amabo te implies highly conditional love: Do this for me, and I will love you.

Idioms are vivid and useful, until they become cliches. That’s when we stop noticing how cool they are. “Read between the lines” was at some point startling, but no longer. “He ran off with his tail between his legs” originally created a word picture, but now it’s just trite.

Speaking of tails, Terence provides another of my favorite Latin idioms a few Wheelock chapters later. Auribus teneo lupum in literal English means, “I have a wolf by the ears.” It’s roughly the equivalent of having a tiger by the tail, or being on the horns of a dilemma. Thomas Jefferson once described American slavery as holding a wolf by the ears. He wrote, “We can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Tragic and telling that he saw the dilemma so clearly but never attempted to resolve it.

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8 Responses to Idiotic Idioms

  1. Kathy says:

    Roger–In Latin also, not surprisingly. Annoyance=molestia.

  2. Kathy says:

    Sarah–So interesting I had to look it up to understand it . . .

  3. Kathy says:

    Jewel–Jefferson is such an interesting case. But as I’ve been thinking about it, I realize we’re all in the same boat. We all know about the injustice and suffering around us but don’t do much to change it. Or maybe not “all,” but most of us. Reading a great book about slavery right now, so it’s on my mind: Clint Smith’s “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery across America.”

  4. Kathy says:

    Michael–Yes, it’s pretty telling about our culture, or maybe human nature, that a word meaning “ordinary person” or even “uneducated person” came to mean dopey imbecile.

  5. Michael Whitely says:

    The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that Nicholas of Cusa wrote the philosophical works Idiota de sapientia, Idiota de mente, Idiota de staticis experimentis (all 1450). I know what the middle one means because in section 2.2 it says Idiota de mente: The Layman: About Mind.

    Cusanus, the guy from Cusa, lived after the Middle Ages and before the age of science, so he didn’t mix with theoretical people but with sculptors and painters, the idiota. This wasn’t an insult because people like Michelangelo were pretty smart.

  6. Jewel Moulthrop says:

    Really appreciate your last line.

  7. Sarah Becker says:

    Here’s a Hebrew one:
    para para: literally “cow cow.” Means “slowly but surely.”

  8. Roger Talbott says:

    For some reason, this recalls my favorite story about false cognates. When we spent a summer working at a Methodist mission in Mexico, Jacquie, an about-to-become Spanish teacher in New York State, led classes for students learning English. I, frantically trying to cram enough Spanish into my tool bag to make it down the street, was helping an advanced student read Keats.
    Something caused him to ask me about the word, “bother.” I explained what it meant. He said that he had met a girl when he was an exchange student in Louisiana. They were writing back and forth, but then she stopped. He said he had asked a small favor. He did not know the English word “bother” but he reasoned that he could use the Spanish word “Molestar” which has the same meaning. So he asked her, “Could I molest you . . .?”

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