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Saturday, 9 July 2016

How Sweet To Be An Idiom

I used a phrase in a story the other day, which I thought was fairly commonplace, but someone commented that they were now going to add it to their lexicon (see comment).  It made me realise just how much I rely on the use of idioms in my everyday speech, and in my writing.  Frankly, I blame Readers Digest.  Whenever I was waiting, either at the Doctor's surgery or the Dentist's (and waiting used to be the main feature of the NHS) as a child I always used to make a bee-line (there's an idiom already) for the Readers Digest magazines, of which there were always a plentiful supply.  I never used to read the articles very much, on the grounds that they might prove too long and I might have to depart for my appointment before completion (although, from experience, you would usually have ample scope for 'War and Peace' and still have time to kill).  I usually read those little sections that contained jokes that readers had contributed or that section called something like 'Toward More Colourful Speech' which encouraged the use of idioms as a means of brightening the otherwise dull conversation of the typical Readers Digest subscriber (presumably).

I like idioms.  I do think they add colour to any story.  The trouble is that I pepper my speech (another one!) with them and this infiltrates my writing.  All of my books have idioms as titles (see examples on the right), largely because they are based on things my mum and dad used to say, which struck me as amusing as a child.  I like saying "I'll go the foot of our stairs" to express surprise, even though it means nothing at all.  I think the description of someone looking as if they had "lost a bob and found a tanner" perfectly sums up a hangdog expression, as well as being delightfully anachronistic.  An old friend of our family used to say, of someone who was a little confused, that he didn't "know whether his a*se was bored or punched", which I thought was terrific.  I'm sure every family has their own collection of such phrases, they sort of act as the family jargon - a mode of speech that everyone in the family instantly understands but which can confound (but also, hopefully, amuse) the stranger.

Where you really encounter potential difficulty, if you're as wedded to idioms as I am, is when you are trying to convey your meaning to someone for whom English is not their first language.  Idioms are rarely a feature of formal language classes and, anyway, it would be impossible to learn all of the possibilities for every region of the country you are visiting.  I found that, when I was teaching a class of students which comprised mainly non-U.K. citizens, I had to police my language carefully to remove any trace of the vernacular.  Even so, I was always aware of a widening gulf of incomprehension.  I remember one particular class, which consisted primarily of Chinese students, in which I became increasingly convinced that I was only getting through to a handful of the class.  At the end of the session, I half-heartedly indicated the notes I had written up on the white board, summarising the key points of the lesson, and asked, without much hope, "Does that all sort of make sense to you?"  This was the sort of vapid question I often asked the U.K. students and they, being no strangers to the English concept of saying one thing and meaning another, would nod and smile brightly and, in all probability, leave the class none the wiser.  In this instance, one particular student had been sitting on the front row and frowning at me throughout the lesson.  When I asked my question, she answered firmly "No", which quite threw me as I'd never had that response before.  At least it was honest and we spent the next 20 minutes or so trying to summarise the content of the three hour session in a manner that she could understand.  I'm not sure that we succeeded.

Another time when idioms rather let me down was with my Subject Administrator at the time.  Subject Administrators are the fine rain that falls upon the groves of academe which keeps knowledge burgeoning.  Without them, the whole system would fall apart. 

On this occasion, my invaluable assistant originated from Portugal and there were many times when I could see that we were not necessarily singing from the same hymn sheet (sorry!)  On this particular day I had a number of interviews arranged with prospective students followed by an interview with a rather recalcitrant current student.  Amazingly, all of the people booked for appointments actually turned up (quite a feat) which only left the recalcitrant student to be seen at the end of the day.  As the Subject Administrator and I were walking up to the interview room, I remarked on how well the day had gone so far and then said, "We only need Sunshine [meaning the recalcitrant student] now to turn up and it will have been a good day"  I knew immediately that we had wandered into the thickets of mutual incomprehension by the deepening frown on her face.  She looked at me, and then stared out toward the darkening Nottingham skyline and said, very earnestly, "Yes, we do need sunshine."  Which, I decided, was a statement you couldn't (and shouldn't) argue with.