Tag Archives: idioms

Never let it rest

On several occasions recently, I’ve made a mental note to look up a specific rule of grammar pertaining to comparative and superlative adjectives. As is often the case, once I go searching, I find it’s not that easy.

In elementary school, these adjectival forms were presented in a nursery rhyme beginnig with “Good, Better, Best.” If it weren’t for the fact that I often hear the superlative used incorrectly, I’d say there’s no need for a refresher. (Better, the comparative, pertains to two items, as in “She is the older of the two children.” Best, the superlative, pertains to three or more, as in “He is the tallest boy in the class.”) I’ll come back to violation peeves in a moment, though I’ve griped before.

Here’s the use about which I was uncertain. Maybe you know.

Is it “one of the more…” or “one of the most…” and is there a difference? Finding a definitive—and authoritative–answer has taken deep mining.

To the ear, or my ear anyway, “one of the more” seems incorrect, simply because there are likely more than two nouns being compared. Without thinking too hard, I’d be inclined to say “one of the most.”

In fact, I was editing something yesterday when I came upon “one of the more” and changed it. Oops?

As I always do, I combed through my various style guides and grammar books and found nothing firm on the subject. However, I did read through volumes of online debate.

Some of the word usage bloggers insist that “one of the biggest” is absolutely incorrect, but I found their logic a bit flimsy. Others argued to the contrary.

I invite your comments on the subject. Does either comparative or superlative prevail when following “one of the” and why? Your opinions are welcome, but I’d really appreciate it if you’d cite your sources. Please don’t support your position with the notion that the other one sounds funny. We all know there are plenty of correct phrases in English that sound funny. As much as we might wish otherwise, not sounding funny is no basis for grammatical correctness.

Back to basic comparative and superlative, I wish people with two children stopped referring to one as the oldest and the other the youngest, when one is the older and the other the younger. Easy enough.

One blog I read cited lexicographer H.W. Fowler‘s assertion that exceptions can be made for idioms. I’m not sure I buy into that.

For example, if comparative (the –er form of an adjective) applies to only two, then why do humans put our “best foot forward?”

Likewise, why do we strive to have “the best of both worlds?”

This is one of the things that most keep me up at night. Or is it more?

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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.

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Got your nose

Yesterday we talked about shooting ourselves in the foot (or is it feet?).  I hope you won’t mind our carrying this idiomatic conversation into a second day, as there’s another expression that goes hand in hand with the foot.

“Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.”

Haven’t we all been handed this admonition at least once in our lives?  I recall hearing it at as a young girl, too shy to ask what it meant.  I never considered cutting off my nose or spiting my face.  Whatever that meant.   

It’s been a little tricky to pinpoint the origin of Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.  In looking into it, I stumbled on to some interesting sources, each with a different take on the phrase’s birth.  My, it’s easy to get sidetracked.  I had ordered a copy of the Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, written by Francis Groce in 1796, when I remembered I was in the middle of writing a blog.

The sources agree on what it means to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face—essentially, to engage in an act of anger or revenge that will hurt you more than it hurts anyone else.  Where it came from is a little fuzzier.

The origin of shooting oneself in the foot, while painful and untidy, is an image we can readily envision, whereas the historical events that involved nose-cutting and face-spiting are almost too gruesome to fathom.

It seems that, in the Middle Ages, there was a group of nuns who cut off their noses to disfigure themselves to become unattractive so they wouldn’t be raped during Viking pillages.

It has also been posited that the idiom was first used in 1593, by a courtier who advised King Henry IV of France not to destroy Paris because of its citizens’ objections to his reign.

Before we move on from body parts, does anyone have a different understanding?

Then there we have it.  We’ve covered the shooting off of feet and the cutting off of noses. I am up to my eyeballs in cultural dictionaries, urban slang and ancient tomes and still can’t seem to wrap my arms around it all.  I stand on the shoulders of all those who have already tackled the question. 

At least my nose is still intact.

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