Finding the Perfect Phrase: A Linguistic Hunger Games

By the way, I love idioms.

Seemingly nonsensical phrases that nonetheless convey colorful pictures that are easily understood worldwide. They have crept into our lexicon over centuries. Even today there are dozens of generic terms that have been adopted into the English language, suggesting that waves of idioms are being formed for future generations.

Here’s a sampling of our most common sayings…

Close, but no cigar!

Steal someone’s thunder!

Mad as a hatter!

Turn a blind eye!

Here’s the rub for me, an idiom-starved writer of historical fiction. Every article I’ve read, every writing conference instructor I’ve sat under, and every author’s program I’ve used have discouraged me from using idioms. It’s the quickest way to get prospective agents and publishing houses to round file your manuscript, they say.

I think some idioms are cool. They communicate. So, I’m going to take out my pent-up frustration on you.

🤔 As the sun rose on a new day, Sarah decided to seize the bull by the horns and tackle her to-do list head-on. With butterflies in her stomach, she knew she couldn’t just sweep her responsibilities under the rug any longer. Armed with determination, she hit the ground running, eager to kill two birds with one stone and make hay while the sun shines. Despite feeling like a fish out of water at times, she refused to throw in the towel. Instead, she rolled up her sleeves and put her best foot forward, knowing that every cloud has a silver lining. By burning the midnight oil and keeping her eyes on the prize, Sarah was determined to break the ice and turn over a new leaf, proving that where there’s a will, there’s a way. 😏


Confession time. ChatGBT wrote that.

Perhaps it’s helpful to define an idiom. According to the Oxford Dictionary, an idiom is “a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g. rain cats and dogs, see the light).”

Idioms are not to be taken literally. People who say “break a leg” certainly don’t wish you any harm.

“Idioms are democratic,” says one writer. The originator of an idiom can’t dictate its place into the language. The word or phrase must connect with enough people for the expression to become recognizable and widely used.

There are approximately 25,000 idiomatic expressions in English.

The story behind any given expression may or may not be remembered, but I love reading about how many of them got started. To wit…

Mad as a Hatter. (We all know this to be someone who is behaving unpredictably; insane.) Hat makers from the 18th through the early 20th centuries used the toxic substance formally named mercurous nitrate to turn an animal hide into the felt used to make hats, especially top hats. Mercury is a cumulative poison—the longer and more often one is exposed, the more it builds, and the sicker one becomes. Prolonged exposure can cause mood swings, loss of coordination, memory loss, paranoia, and erratic behavior. Many hat makers experienced the symptoms of acute mercury poisoning, but were thought to have gone insane or “mad as a hatter.” (Remember Lewis Carroll’s novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. By the time Carroll published his novel in 1865, the expression was commonly used.)

Close, but no cigar. Carnival games nowadays give out stuffed animals as prizes, but in the late 19th Century, the games were targeted to adults. Instead of getting a giant teddy bear, winners might get a cigar. If they almost won but didn’t earn that prize, they’d be “close, but no cigar.” By the 1930s, the phrase extended beyond fairgrounds to everyday close shots. (Readers Digest)

Many corporate brands have morphed into idioms or generic terms used in everyday language: Who hasn’t said “Google it” to verify a fact. Or “Hand me the Kleenex?” (The specific brand of facial tissues now used generically to refer to any brand.) There’s Post-it, a brand of sticky notes now used to refer to any kind of sticky notes. The list goes on—Band-Aid, Xerox, Coca-Cola, Tupperware, Uber, etc. All words indicating brands that have since become “genericized.”

Some well-known phrases have been trademarked. “Let’s get ready to rumble” has reportedly earned Michael Buffer, famed wrestling and boxing announcer, some $400 million since he trademarked it in 1992. “Let’s roll,” trademarked by the Todd Beamer Foundation, now named Heroic Choices, is used to sell merchandise. All proceeds are given to charity. And there’s more.

I asked Chat GBT to summarize the role of language in culture. Here’s what she said, and yes, I’ve decided Chat GBT is a she: “Language is integral to culture, facilitating communication and preserving cultural heritage. It shapes identity, fosters cohesion, and reflects shared values, serving as a conduit for the exchange of ideas within societies.”

I like that. Then I asked her about the role idioms play in language.

Quoting again, “Idioms are essential linguistic tools that convey cultural knowledge and enrich communication with depth and imagery. They serve as markers of fluency, connecting speakers to cultural traditions and shared experiences while succinctly expressing complex ideas or emotions.” I like that, too.

Okay, then. “Why can’t I use idioms in my manuscripts?” I asked. I’ll let you guess her answer.

For now, I’m sure you’ve had enough of all this.

So…I’ll just put a lid on it.