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Deepti Menon

 

A blog series exploring the etymology of some interesting words

Idiomatic Idioms

 
 
 

English is a language peppered with idioms, many of which are worded so amusingly that they pique the interest. For example:

  1. To give a dog a bad name and hang him:
    There are two steps to this one.
    1. Someone has been accused of a bad deed in the past.
    2. He is expected to continue behaving, thus. It is almost impossible to escape a tarnished reputation, even if the person is blameless.

“The public was used to blaming the politician for reneging on his promises. Give a dog a bad name!”

 

 

  1. To tar with the same brush:

This means to assume that birds of a feather flock together and usually end up with the same bad qualities.

“The spectators of the cricket match were asked to stop misbehaving. ‘Just because a few inane souls threw bottles on the field, they are tarring us with the same brush!’ one of them retorted.”

 

Etymology: This idiom might have been derived from the practice of tarring sheep in order to distinguish one from the other. The more gory allusion is to the time when hot tar was poured over the shaven heads of felons, and feathers attached to the tar while it was still hot. This was referred to as the “tarring and feathering” of criminals.

 

  1. Chickens come home to roost:

There are two steps to this one too.

  1. Someone has done something embarrassing or wrong in the past.
  2. His past is now catching up with him.

“As students, they were known to harass their teachers. Now that they are teachers themselves, their chickens have come home to roost.”

Etymology: This phrase was used by poet Robert Southey (1810) on the title page of his poem ‘The Curse of Kehama’. “Curses are like young chicken: they always come home to roost.”

 

 

  1. A wild goose chase:

This refers to a mission or a journey which is fruitless, where a person wastes time searching for something that he has no chance of finding, a wild or absurd pursuit.

“The police tried to hunt down the person who had tipped them off about a false bomb scare, but it turned out to be a wild goose chase.”

 

Etymology: Maybe this phrase came from a horse race in the 16th century, where a set of riders followed the lead rider, no matter where he took them, much akin to a flock of geese flying in a symmetrical formation after their leader.

 

 

  1. Dead Man Walking:

This refers to a person who is going to be in hot water soon, or in deep trouble, maybe because he is in danger of losing his job or position. It refers to trouble ahead.

“The Vice President of the company is a dead man walking because of the inept way in which he handled that all-important deal.”

 

Etymology: It is believed that this usage originated from the times when, in American prisons, guards would escort a condemned prisoner down the hallway to his place of execution, announcing, “Dead man walking! Dead man walking!” In this case, it referred to death, but in other scenarios, it could also refer to a grave, irreparable loss ahead.

 

 

  1. Can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs:

Very often, it is impossible to affect changes without causing effects that are unpleasant, or create something without destroying something else.

“Due to the economic meltdown, the company is going to lay off a large number of employees. However, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”

 

Etymology: During the French revolution, Francois de Charette, one of its leaders, was part of the War in the Vendee region, which resulted in an immensely large number of casualties. In 1796, when the Frenchman was captured, put on trial and questioned about all those deaths, he nonchalantly remarked, “Yes, omelettes are not made without breaking eggs.”

 

 

Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’ also has a reference to this usage, where “the Commander explains that ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs; – there will always be pros and cons’.”

To put it in a nutshell, idioms are phrases which people use in everyday language which do not make sense literally, but we understand what they mean. They are a fun way to describe mundane, everyday situations.

 

 

Deepti Menon ia an editor and author based in Chennai. She has written two books, Arms and the Woman and Shadow in the MirrorMany of her short stories can be found within the pages of popular anthologies like 21 Tales to TellChronicles of Urban Nomads, Mango ChutneyCrossed and Knotted (India's first composite novel that has found a place in the Limca Book of Records), Rudraksha, Upper CutDefiant DreamsWhen They Spoke, and many others.