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  • Donald J. Bingle, Writer on Demand

Idioms for Idiots

Truth told, I don't like to call anyone an idiot (except for the occasional bad driver), but I'm trying to be catchier with the titles for my blog posts and, well, it must of worked, because here you are. This particular blog actually grows out of my experience as a judge on Project Publish (see earlier blogs for details), a reality show for writers and performers. One of the writers used the expression "drank the Kool-Aid" in one of her stories to denote someone who was blindly doing what they were told. When comment time came, I noted that I wasn't marking her down for using the idiom as she had used it correctly, but that I had the same reaction to it that I always have to it: I felt sorry for the fine folks who make Kool-Aid. It's not that I'm a particular fan of Kool-Aid. I probably haven't had any in forty years. And it didn't figure prominently in my childhood memories. No, the idiom bothers me because it is inaccurate, even though it is based on a fairly recent historic incident, the mass suicide of 918 residents of the Jonestown settlement in Guyana in 1978. The inaccuracy is simple. No one drank any cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in Jonestown. No one. They did drink cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid, a poor cousin to Kool-Aid in the powdered drinks for kids market. As far as I know, neither product causes gullibility or mind-control, so using the name of either product to indicate such seems kind of unfair, but to use the trademarked name of a product that had nothing ... not even an innocent connection ... to the horrific events of Jonestown seems mind-bogglingly derogatory to the fine folks at Kool-Aid. Of course, that train has left the station long ago and is still gaining steam. To my chagrin, my comment, though it aired live, was dropped from the edited re-broadcast of the Project Publish shows (unclear whether for time or because showing too much knowledge of mass suicides from more than thirty years ago is not considered family friendly entertainment in the suburbs). But it did get me thinking about idioms, you know those expressions you use to quickly convey a thought or view without really thinking where they came from. Expressions like "the whole nine yards" and "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" or "having your cake and eating it, too." Some of these phrases were once apt metaphors and the derivation of others are lost to history. (You can find sites and publications which attempt to trace the origins of such phrases, though, in my mind, the key isn't so much what the first use of the phrase is, but what popularized it so much. Check-out the derivation of o.k. (aka okay) for fun if you like.) Some are pop cultural references (even though Rick never said "Play it again, Sam." in Casablanca) or folk/fairy tale references, etc. And, if you've ever learned a foreign language, you know that not all idioms translate particularly well. That suggests a couple of things for writers. 1. If you are setting your story far in the future or on an alien or fantasy world, you need to think about the idioms you use. Not only should you avoid modern English idioms, especially ones based on pop culture, but you should have idioms from the culture in which you are attempting to immerse the reader. 2. Some idioms should at least make some sense when you think about them, because a certain number of idioms are based on metaphors or descriptions derived from actual factual situations. Throwing out the baby with the bathwater may not be an obvious choice for a phrase used to mean that one should not get rid of important, essential things when discarding the unimportant, but you can at least parse that out. 3. Some idioms should have literal meanings which are not necessarily obvious, but which could be explained by some bit of history later inserted into your story. In fact, sometimes that can be the story: I'm thinking of "Shaka, when the walls fell." (Feel free to comment if you know the reference.) 4. Other idioms can just make no obvious sense, whether because no one really knows or because the phrase has gotten twisted round about over the years. Somehow "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride" has gotten perverted to "If wishes were horses, pigs would fly" in some quarters. Heck, most people use the phrase "once in a blue moon" to indicate infrequency even though they have no idea what a "blue moon" is (the second full moon of a calendar month, which doesn't occur all that often). Author Elizabeth Vaughan does a great job with idioms in her Chronicles of the Warlands series, beginning with "Warprize" Warprize, by making the idioms of the warriors of the plains derive from their surroundings and their nomadic life. Terrific worldbuilding for lovers of fantasy, with a bit of romance. I hope to start blogging a bit more often. Your comments and encouragement will help. Aloha! Don

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