'Taylor' Your Writing: Curious Idioms Abound in the English Language Print

August 31, 2011:  Ah, the dog days of summer--picnics, summer camp, and kicking back.

Idioms abound in the English language almost as much as construction and gardening work in Bronxville.  As I am jolted awake by steady sledge hammering next door, my mind wanders, albeit in shock waves, to wonder about the origins of several commonly used American idioms and proverbs.

How exactly did "dog days" come to mean that hot, lazy time when one could "kick back" and relax?  The Romans called the hottest weeks of the summer "dog days" because, according to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, their theory was that "the dog-star, or Sirius, rising with the sun, added to its heat, and the dog-days  bore the combined heat of the dog-star and the sun (July 3rd to August 11th)."  These days coincided with times of disease and great discomfort. "Kicking back" has only recently come to mean to relax, and I was unable to locate a source for this meaning.

Two common idioms regarding speech have opposing meanings.  To "shoot the breeze," or to chat without purpose or meaning, appears to have originated in the 1940s as meaning "idle chat."  "Bite your tongue" appears as early as Shakespeare:  "So York must sit and fret and bite his tongue."  Henry VI Part II (1.1.319).  Next time you hold back what you really want to say, you are in good company.

Then there's "to split hairs," or to make meaningless distinctions.  Not to be confused with the more problematic "split ends," the idiom actually originated as early as the 1600s from the early difficulty of cutting hair because of the lack of sharp tools and the necessary stubbornness attendant in attempting to cut hair.

We all know that "time is money," but so did the Greeks, who recorded this notion as early as 430 B.C.:  "The most costly outlay is time."  The phrase evolved through the English up to Benjamin Franklin, who is commonly credited with creating it: "Remember, that time is money."  (Advice to a Young Tradesman, 1748.)

Then there's the clever phrase, neither an idiom nor a proverb, but interesting nonetheless, and a favorite of mine:  "If you think [you're going to the party], you've got another think coming."  Many people mistakenly say "If you think . . . you've got another thing coming."

An interesting but dense article comparing the linguistics of "think" and "thing" demonstrates that most English speakers do not enunciate two separate "k" sounds for the ending of the word "think" and the beginning of the word "coming."  Rather, most speakers elide the two into one pronounced "k" sound, which makes the words run together as if the speaker is saying "thing coming."  This could lead to the confusion in the phrase, but the article points out that the first printed usage was "think coming."  I encourage the reader to try this with a friend or family member to see if the distinction can be heard.

Finally, as much as I wish the workers next door would quit pounding the pavement, literally, I realize that time is money, so I won't split hairs and tell them they can't work on weekends, nor will I shoot the breeze with them, but, rather, I think I will bite my tongue and kick back during this dog day of summer.  But if you think I will sit here and listen to their incessant pounding, you've got another think coming. (Didn't think I could string these together, did you?!)

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