Mad as a hatter by Sandy Leong

The English language is full of idioms; these are phrases, sayings or a group of words with a metaphorical, not a literal meaning and which have become accepted in common usage. These figures of speech will be used by every one of us every so often in our every day conversations and yet, we completely take it for granted that the person we are talking to will understand what we mean when we use them. However, imagine what someone learning our language  might think if we were to say ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’  or why don’t you ‘bite the bullet’ …. deeply confusing or what?? What we’re saying is actually nonsensical if the receiver is without knowledge of the implied and widely accepted meaning behind it.

Obviously, we know better than to take the phrase literally however, even as a native speaker, I was unaware of some of the origins of these sayings, so it was a most interesting eye opener to hear Sandy Leong unfold their derivations which more often than not, were truly amusing, surprising and fascinating.

I don’t remember ever being taught to use idioms so I guess I must have ‘picked them up’ over the years from hearing other people use them or from reading stories and articles. As Sandy explained, many of our sayings stem from past historical and military events, sport, religion, legends and even social class, so understanding their roots allows us to step back in time to when people’s lives were very different from our own today. Not only do these ‘wise sayings’ offer advice about how to live, but they also pass on a selection of underlying ideas, principles and values of our culture.  

Many of the stories behind these idioms were highly entertaining so it was a pleasure to hear Sandy’s elucidations from the comfort of my armchair. I personally enjoy using idioms in my writing and conversation as I believe they can sometimes help express an abstract idea in a more succinct and understandable way. They also have the ability to add mystery and a sense of fun to our language by transforming flat descriptions so, long may they continue to be used.

About Nadia Dawson

Retired primary headteacher now working at Lincoln University
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