The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, July 03, 2015

Idioms: a post of two halves (Part 2)

In the first part of this post, I mulled over how useful (or not) it is to teach the more colourful end of the idiomatic spectrum (of the raining cats and dogs variety). My thoughts were prompted by a Twitter chat last week about teaching lexical chunks. As we bantered to and fro in 140-character bursts though, I was struck by how many idioms we employed ourselves to get our points across. Now admittedly, we were trying to outdo each other in seeing how many idioms we could shoehorn into the discussion. Nevertheless, I still found myself using them even when I wasn’t consciously trying to. And it got me thinking about the role of idioms in communication via social media.  

Part 2: Are idioms more prevalent in social media?

Let me start off by saying I haven’t done any kind of research into this, but my linguist’s intuition tells me that it could just be the case. Journalists and other writers who want to make a quick impact on their audience have long understood the power of a well-placed idiom:

They’re colourful: idioms generally conjure up vivid images (think of those cats and dogs falling from the sky), which makes them more salient than other types of language, they jump out at the reader, they paint a picture and may even raise a smile. When you’re trying to stand out amongst the jumble on someone’s newsfeed, that’s exactly what you want.

They’re much more than the sum of their parts: as I said in the first part of this post, an idiom often carries a whole load of connotational baggage along with it. Sometimes they just add a bit of emphasis, but frequently they say a lot more besides. Say, you wanted to describe someone who isn’t ‘normal’, each of these idioms might tell quite a different story:
off his rocker
has a screw loose
has lost the plot
a few sandwiches short of a picnic
mad as a box of frogs
a bit off the wall
... and of course, they say all that extra stuff in well under 140 characters!

They appeal to a shared culture: because idioms tend to be quite culturally-bound, when we use them, we’re saying something like “see, we have the same cultural background”, whether that’s quite broadly or as part of a sub-culture. At the extreme end, idioms are even created out of quotes from popular culture (apparently called snowclones; thanks to Hugh Dellar for that nugget), think “what have xxx ever done for us” (from Monty Python) or even the title of this post (which for those of you who don’t know comes from British football punditry). It’s probably also one of the reasons why idioms are so beloved of soap opera scriptwriters; by cramming the characters’ speech full of idioms, we’re perhaps inclined to think they’re “just like us”.

All those characteristics make idioms perfect for getting across a message concisely but with impact when space is limited. I’ve been keeping an eye on my Twitter and Facebook feeds over the past week and it’s difficult to say whether there are really a lot of idioms or whether I’m just noticing them. I was struck a few days ago though when I was trying to follow a Facebook thread in French and found myself struggling, not just because my French is a bit rusty, but because it was full of idioms I’d never come across. I learnt that “nous ne sommes pas sortis de l’auberge” (which Facebook rather unhelpfully translated word-for-word as “we haven’t left the hostel”!) apparently means something like “we’re not out of the woods yet”.

You just know you’re going to be spotting idioms everywhere now, don’t you? ...

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