Where do they get these phrases? – by Ray Hudson

Ray Hudson

You Don’t Say – Vol 25

Ray Hudson
Ray Hudson

Idioms evolve in languages over time or (in this time-compressed age) over eons of nano-seconds. They represent a description of some action that adds colour and texture because of its direct or indirect reference to common phrases most people understand literally, or through nuance.

I remember a broadcast colleague of mine, mother tongue French who spoke flawless English, had one little slip once, where the phrase he used to describe an act of subterfuge (that’s a big word for doing something hidden like spying or deceiving) as “cape and dagger.” Close but no prize! The correct idiom (phrase) is “cloak and dagger” as in an assassin hiding their weapon. But you say, what is the difference between cape and cloak? Nothing – but the idiom is cloak and dagger and ‘cape’ just doesn’t do it. Subtle huh?

I went in search of a few of these I heard in everyday conversation this week and hope you enjoy the result. I hear these things but don’t know where they come from. As with other trivia, it’s a great conversation starter at parties and definitely beats the lampshade on the head thing.

“Face the music” means to confront unpleasant ramifications for past actions. He stole the cookies and will have to face the music when dad gets home from work. Several different sources claim the origin as English or American (who said the war of independence is over). One likely origin is when an officer is ceremonially drummed-out of a regiment due to misconduct. A second belief has a theatrical base and refers to actors on a stage, as they turn to the audience, they must face the orchestra in the pit at the front of the stage and thus, face the music, and the critics in the audience – and everyone is a critic after all.

“Catch 22” describes a situation which is a paradox from which you can’t escape. It is an elegant idiom originating from the 1961 Joseph Heller novel, Catch 22 (if you haven’t read it – read it!) paraphrasing Wikipedia, the term is introduced by an army psychiatrist who invokes a (rule), “Catch 22” to explain why any pilot requesting mental evaluation for insanity—hoping to be found not sane enough to fly and thereby escape dangerous missions—demonstrates his own sanity in making the request and thus cannot be declared insane. It’ll dawn on you.

“Trail blazer” Describes a leader, a pathfinder, marks new ground for others to follow in life or in a profession. Everyone knows what a trail is, but what’s with the blazing part? Is this someone who moves ahead with a scorched earth policy, burning a path where they go? We do know these types, but as incendiary as they are, they are not what we’re talking about. When explorers (early pioneers or boy scouts) traverse rough country, they chop marks in the bark of trees at intervals, so that anyone following will see that this the right trail to follow. It’s origin, although claimed by Americans (in at least one source), is more likely from around 1655-65 from Old Norse blesi, Dutch bles, German Blässe which is a white mark on a beast’s face.

So I will blaze on through the idiomatic jungle and see you next week.