I've written about idioms before. I've explained them to my kids plenty of times. "That's an expression," I'll say. "It means this..."
is full of little expressions that aren't literal, and a lot of these
make reference to metaphors. I have a list of English examples in the
post linked above and I'm not going to do a lot here, but take for
example "I'm off to the rat race." That expression is all about
metaphor. A person is a rat. Life, or at least work, is a race for rats.
The metaphor then comes along with a whole set of implications about
how the person feels about heading off to "the rat race," that it's
pointless, exhausting, demeaning, etc. Depending on the character of the
person who uses them, and how that person feels about work, for
example, the implications of the expression may be interpreted somewhat
This is an enormous opportunity for worldbuilders.
idioms might be cute, and some might be serious, but any way you
approach them, they are incredibly illuminating of a culture and
characters who belong to it. I personally feel that idioms are so
closely linked to the culture of which they are a part that, if they are
used outside their original cultural context, they stick out of a story
when I'm reading it. If you're creating a world, you should be giving serious attention to idiomatic expressions.
type of idiomatic expression is the aphorism - a phrase intended to
give people behavioral guidance. "The early bird gets the worm" is used
constantly in English, but this set of words, in this order, is so
recognizable as belonging to our culture that I would hope I'd never run
across it in a story world not directly linked to our own. If there are
no birds, or there are no worms, you're in serious trouble. And even if
there are, and your people place value on rising early or acting early,
don't use it just as is. Change it. What are the primary motivators for
your people to be getting up early, or acting fast? Create something that makes reference to that.
Off the top of my head I'll give you this: "First arrow names the
kill." This would be a society in which people hunt with arrows and
whoever has their arrow hit first gets to receive some kind of honor.
I'd work out the details with naming as I went. Story cultures can also
have their own special values that will be honored with aphorisms. In
Varin, the servant caste is guided by the expression, "Imbati, love
where you serve." This is a big deal for members of the caste who have
to struggle with their own identity and with cruel masters, etc.
type of special phrase arises around extremely common activities. In
this context I think instantly of the phrases "log on" and "log off"... I
mean, seriously. "Log"? I'm thinking this use of "log" goes back to the
idea of a captain's log, but what you've got now is something where the
expression is used so often that we don't really think about what the
individual words mean, only what the phrase as a whole refers to.
Because of the underlying connection to idiosyncratic activities of our
own world history, this kind of phrase can't always be imported
wholesale into a story world (hey, there's another expression!).
Whenever you have a really common activity in your world (and it may not
be common or have an associated idiom in ours), see if there's a
special way people would refer to it, and how that might be connected to
cultural details or cultural metaphors. I have used two different
phrases involving the word "foot" in this context. In "Cold Words"
(Analog Oct 2009) I had Rulii use the phrase "take foot" instead of
"arrive." In my Varin world the servants don't "run errands" but "take
foot assignments." This kind of tiny alteration can really help your
world feel like it doesn't have to owe anything to ours, and can also
create a wonderfully unique atmosphere.
I found myself listening
in the other day on a forum conversation about a world that was using
Chinese culture as its basis, and the writer was very concerned about
whether to use Chinese idioms. Here's another very fascinating question.
My own bias would be to say this: if your culture isn't actually a
version of a culture, don't use actual idioms from that culture.
Those idioms are going to broadcast the fact that this culture is at
very least a fantasy or science fictional analog of Chinese culture (to
use this example). Then if other aspects of the culture are non-Chinese,
or if the language they use is not Chinese-derivative, the idioms will
stick out by a mile. You can always alter or "translate" idioms. If you
want to retain a Chinese flavor, one thing you can always do is have idioms play the same cultural role in your story world as they do in China.
This is a link on the meta-level that won't actually require you to
link your story world directly to China, but will give it some flavor
that people will link with China. After all, one of the parameters of
idioms is how often they are used and what they are used for.
I'll let you all think about this while I go off and take some foot assignments.