A crack in the idiom

My parents schooled me well on matters of language. Often they told me preemptively about common errors, so that I might avoid them later on. I’ve told you about some of these before (e.g., “waiting on” versus “waiting for”).

Coincidentally, as I was remembering another erroneous expression about which my father warned me long ago, I came across a column on the same subject.

Here we’ve covered malapropisms and funny mixed metaphors. We’ve even discussed useless phrases. But there is another category–expressions that are commonly accepted though, when examined more closely, make no sense. That’s what the column I read on Johnson, The Economist’s language blog, was all about.

I love the way Johnson describes it: “a reasonably common starter phrase that can evolve into a variant catchy enough to take root but close enough to the original and wrong in a subtle enough way for most people not to notice.”

There’s no name for such a thing, as best I know, but there are some examples to consider.

The one my father brought to my attention oh, so long ago: “It fell between the cracks.” Think about it. “Between the cracks.” To fall between the cracks, or slip between the cracks, has come to mean that something was lost—by slipping into a tiny space. Say you drop a small object on the floor. If it slips between the cracks, it’s not lost at all. Why?  Because what’s between the cracks? The wood. Even though “between the cracks” is commonly accepted, what we mean to say—and should say—is “through the cracks.”

By the way, the Johnson column begins by observing that, in British English, the words “between” and “among” do not necessarily have two different meanings, as they do in American English. I am going to assume my American readers know the difference. See me after class if you don’t.

The piece also discusses “head over heels,” another common expression that should really be “heels over head.” Visualize it and you’ll see why.

What other faulty idioms—English or American—can you think of, based on Johnson’s description? Is there a chance we can start a movement?

First, we need to come up with a name for it.


Filed under All Things Wordish, Family and Friends

3 responses to “A crack in the idiom

  1. crgardenjoe

    How about calling them “flutterbies,” which sounds better than “butterflies?” Anyway, another one: “I could care less,” when you mean you care the very minimum or not at all, so you could not care less. And I always liked the opening discourse in “A Christmas Carol” where Dickens notes that a door nail is, as nails go, not a particularly dead one. A third: Mice can make quite a bit of noise, as anybody who has been startled by their scratching or scampering or even alarmed squeaks can testify, so “as quite as a mouse” leaves many less noisy things unused. I enjoyed your blog post, interesting topic.

    • That’s a good idea. There is a term for something like flutterbies, though the name escapes me. I love the Dickens line; it’s always been one of my favorites. See my post on “I could care less,” as it has a treat embedded within. Thanks for your comments.

  2. English, unlike Russian, if full of idioms. Some of them do sound funny to me and if they don’t make sense they are very difficult to remember. Now only one of them comes to mind. It is “arm in arm”. I can easily visualize “hand in hand” but I always fail to do so with “arm in arm”. That is why I find difficulty remembering the preposition and always have to look that up.

    Monica, thank you for your posts about language.

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