Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Today's Grammar Lesson: Idioms

"Mamma, what's the difference between an idiom, a simile and a metaphor?" Ethan asked me not long ago.

Oh crap, I thought, the English major guilt creep in; similarly to the way I feel about having never read The Grapes of Wrath OR Of Mice and Men. I should know this, but all I could think of at the moment was how similes use "like" or "as."

"You're talking about this in school already?" I asked.

"Yeah. In Lexia." Lexia is this computer phonics program that I'd call roughly a modern version of those mimeographed phonics sheets the teacher used to pass down the aisles...when I was in FOURTH grade, not first. Sheesh.

"It's raining cats and dogs, that's one," Ethan pointed out. "Or if you say someone's in hot water."

An idiom, Wikipedia tells us, is a phrase or a fixed expression that has a figurative, or sometimes literal, meaning. An idiom's figurative meaning is different from the literal meaning. Well, THAT makes it perfectly clear.

Okay, wait a second: smart-words.org defines idioms as "a collection of wise sayings that offer advice about how to live and also transfer some underlying ideas, principles and values of a given culture/society."

However you want to call them, Ethan loves them, so we've been going on idiom hunts in our conversation, from time to time.

"Down in the dumps!" He'll call out. "That means someone's feeling bad."

"A piece of cake means easy!" I'll shout back. "What about 'costs an arm and a leg'?"

"Rub someone the wrong way?"

"Hold your horses!"

And on and on and on.

We'll continue these conversations until they run their course (idiom, yes?), and along the way I feel as if every time we identify another one, we're slaying dragons (now would that be an idiom or a metaphor?). "Take THAT!" Ethan is saying, each time we pluck an idiom out of the air. There's one less mind-bafflingly confusing phrase in the English language to trip him up (idiom?!). And this is important because, and I think I've written about this before, the English language is so darned tricky.

"That word's a rule breaker!" Ethan has said to me on multiple occasions lately. He always sounds almost personally offended, questioning why "they" had to make the word that way. And I can't say I ever have a good answer; never mind not really knowing who "they" actually are, or were.

So, it's all about the idioms these days. I'm learning something. I'm learning that there are way too many idioms. There are hundreds! I'm using them and not realizing all the time. Arrrggghhhh! I didn't know "state-of-the-art"was an idiom. Never mind that it's a tired and old clich√©, now I'm really never going to use it in my freelance work, if I can help it!

I've still got to get around to (wait -- is that one?) explaining to Ethan the difference between a metaphor, idiom and simile. I'll get right on that. Once I figure it out for myself.

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