Wordwatch Towers

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Technical stuff – part 12: idioms

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Idioms are words or phrases that have a particular meaning, even though the actual words used do not explain the meaning. For example:

It’s raining cats and dogs. (It’s pouring with rain.)

The exam was a piece of cake. (The exam was very easy.)

Let sleeping dogs lie. (Don’t do or say anything further.)

He’s wet behind the ears. (He’s inexperienced.)

The Phrase Finder is a brilliant resource, providing the origins and meanings of numerous phrases, sayings and idioms.

Oxford Dictionaries on idioms

Verbs, adjectives and nouns

That won’t pass mustard…

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Written by Wordwatch

22/02/2010 at 9:45 am

Word order, wrong words, and old chestnuts

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Wordsworth, the butler here at Wordwatch Towers, likes things to be in good order. Including words. So, reader (hope you’re OK, Gladys), we have him to thank for this one.

Why don’t we write: “the blue big boat”? Or: “a square huge table”? Or: the “meal French lovely”?

As Mark Forsyth, author of The Elements of Eloquence points out, these are examples of ‘hyperbaton’ – or putting words into an odd order.

He explains that certain words have to be put in a certain order or the whole thing sounds wrong. For example, in the case of adjectives (descriptive words), the order has to be:

opinion – size – age – shape – colour – origin – material – purpose – with the noun coming at the end. So our phrases above should be:

  • the big blue boat

  • the huge square table

  • the lovely French meal

We can hear they sound right, but it’s nice to know there’s some method in the English language madness.

Geniuses can do what they like …

Hyperbaton is not always a complete no-no. As Oxford Dictionaries points out, it can be used as a stylistic tool. For example, to emphasise something as in: “This I must see” instead of “I must see this”.

And as Mark Forsyth points out in his book, the line “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” (Henry IV, Part II) has far more impact than the correctly ordered “The head that wears the crown lies uneasily”. But then Shakespeare was a genius; it’s probably best if the rest of us stick to the right word order, unless we want to a bit like Yoda sound.

 Not music to my ears …

The BBC, eh? They’re usually very good at getting words in the right order, but selecting the correct ones appears to be more of a challenge. This old chestnut slipped into the latest issue of the Beeb’s Music magazine while the editor was taking a nap (and not reading my previous post on this topic):

New York’s Met Opera has a long association with Wagner’s Parsifal as it was, in 1903, the first opera house to stage it outside Europe, flaunting the composer’s wishes …

Flaunting? No. In fact, the New York Met would have been flouting Wagner’s wishes. Flout means to openly disregard  a rule or convention; flaunt means to ‘display ostentatiously’.

 One thing leads to another …

The phrase ‘old chestnut’ is an idiom. While writing this post I became curious about why ‘old chestnut’ came to mean ‘a joke, story, or subject that has become tedious and uninteresting through constant repetition’. (See Oxford Dictionaries) Thank you, Wiktionary, for the answer.

Written by Wordwatch

10/02/2018 at 12:06 pm

Reign or rein?

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Elizabeth I of England, the Armada Portrait, W...
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There’s nothing like setting children a good example, and this is nothing like setting children a good example:

How many times do you get to draw and customise whatever you like on a T shirt?! Hardly ever I bet, but this is your chance — we are giving you total free reign!

This generously punctuated piece of text appeared on a BBC website dedicated to the children’s programme Blue Peter.

Free reign should be free rein. It is a very common error to confuse these two words.

A queen reigns: a horse wears reins. The idiom free rein is derived from the latter meaning, as is rein in which you will also see wrongly written as reign in.

More commonly confused words and phrases

Wordwatching

Spelling tips and tricks

Heated conversation

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A cooked hot dog garnished with mustard.
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Recently heard in a somewhat tense business meeting:

That won’t pass mustard.

This is, of course, a conflation of two common sayings:

‘Cut the mustard’ (To reach the required standard — see Oxford Dictionaries)

‘Pass muster’ (To be accepted as satisfactory — see Oxford Dictionaries.More neologisms (new words and phrases).

Find out about idioms

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