Saturday, May 8, 2010


We use more "expressions" than we realize. I'm constantly having to say to my kids, "well, see that's an expression." An idiom is a phrase, usually with most of its words fixed in value, that is used to express a state of mind or other condition in a very specific kind of context. Longer ones might include

"the straw that broke the camel's back"

which, interestingly enough, is an allusion to a story. Those of you who have read my first Analog story, "Let the Word Take Me," will probably understand why I find this enjoyable. The idea of a language that consists entirely of references to canonical stories originated (to my knowledge) with Star Trek TNG's episode "Darmok" - but if you think about it, it's just a logical extension of something that is already going on in our language, with idioms.

Here are some more.

"waiting for the other shoe to drop"
"out of the blue"
"a wolf in sheep's clothing"
"a toss-up"
"[X] has your name on it"
"six of one and half a dozen of the other"
"keeping in touch"

In many cases, the individual words in an idiom are starting to lose their literal meaning. We don't pay much attention to them, only to the overall effect of the expression in context - the meta-meaning. This is one of the things that makes an idiom different from a proverb to my mind, because a proverb is a complete statement that sends a message and stands on its own, daring the listener to figure out the meaning of the whole like a puzzle or a tiny story. [An example would be "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."] If you visit , for example, you'll discover that their list actually includes both idioms and proverbs.

When you're writing a story in a world that isn't related to our own, watch out for idioms. Because they're losing their literal meaning, they'll sneak right under your nose - but very often, they'll make direct reference to elements of our world's history and technology. Or to the Bible. To sailing or shipping. To the Earthly sky or elements or climate. Even to human physiology and behavior. Stick one of those in the wrong place and you'll be sticking a hook into the picture of our world that exists in the reader's mind. If it's bad enough, you'll pull your reader right out of the story.

So when you're writing a story in an alternate world:
1. Keep your eye out for idioms.
2. Alter existing idioms if necessary. In my underground Varin world, people say "out of the dark" instead of "out of the blue."
3. Come up with new idioms if you would like. They can really give a wonderful richness to your world.

And if you're NOT writing a story in an alternate world:
1. Keep your eye out for idioms.
2. Make sure your use of idioms fits the regional sensibilities and/or dialect of your chosen setting

It's something to think about.


  1. A great point. I created cuss words for my world, but I didn't consider idioms. They are much like slang, though, so I "avoided them like the plague." ;-)

  2. Another alternative might be to briefly have one character explain the idiom to another. Granted, that's at the risk of alienating all the readers who understand the idiom; however, not everyone does. My Singaporean wife, who has a Bachelor's in English Literature, doesn't understand all the idioms I use in my daily speech. Yesterday, I mentioned that our 21-month-old daughter crawled through "my five hole" to get past me. But my wife, who's not familiar with ice hockey, didn't know that a "five hole" means between a person's legs. Cross-cultural encounters are filled with confusion and misunderstandings about unfamiliar idioms (as I know you're familiar with on a personal basis). One would think that a story, even set on Earth, should include these confusions and misunderstandings, if only to increase the tension and verisimilitude.

    As I wrote the above paragraph, I was reminded of a scene out of Errol Morris' documentary, The Fog of War (about the life of Robert McNamara), in which McNamara described his post-war meeting with Thach, the former Foreign Minister of Vietnam:

    The former Foreign Minister of Vietnam, a wonderful man named Thach said, "You're totally wrong. We were fighting for our independence. You were fighting to enslave us."

    We almost came to blows. That was noon on the first day.

    "Do you mean to say it was not a tragedy for you, when you lost 3 million 4 hundred thousand Vietnamese killed, which on our population base is the equivalent of 27 million Americans? What did you accomplish? You didn't get any more than we were willing to give you at the beginning of the war. You could have had the whole damn thing: independence, unification."

    "Mr. McNamara, You must never have read a history book. If you'd had, you'd know we weren't pawns of the Chinese or the Russians. McNamara, didn't you know that? Don't you understand that we have been fighting the Chinese for 1000 years? We were fighting for our independence. And we would fight to the last man. And we were determined to do so. And no amount of bombing, no amount of U.S. pressure would ever have stopped us."

    The point being that knowing the history of the "Other" is probably just as important as understanding the Other's idioms, especially as "historical" events, whether real or mythological, are often a source for idioms in the first place (a la Darmok).

  3. I'm so glad you referenced the Darmock TNG episode. That's one of the episodes that stood out from watching the show growing up. I'm not sure if it was the repetition of some of the phrases ("Darmok at Tinagra" etc.) or the fact that the alien race only communicated by locating everything within their mythic structure - a fascinating, and as you pointed out, not so unrealistic concept. But it was a powerful episode and made me really think about how language works, and considering I was in my early teens when it first broadcasted, it was pretty formative too.

  4. Thanks for your comments, everyone. Great examples, Deb and JDsg.

    Bluestocking, if you liked Darmok, you might like my post entitled "Darmok and Me." My first published Analog story took the same language concept and fleshed it out in the context of my anthropological experience. It appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of Analog and was called "Let the Word Take Me."