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Historical significance of idioms


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The thing to remember about idioms in English (and I'm sure other languages) is that they're usually based in some kind of historical or cultural significance, which explains where in the world they came from.  Yet most English speakers don't even know where these idioms came from in the first place -- they just repeat them. 

For example, the phrase "this is the last straw" means something like, "The situation is now unbearable because of this newest circumstance."  It relates back to a story/parable about a camel that was loaded up with a lot of items for market.  It was so overloaded that a single grain of straw added to the stack made the camel collapse.  Which is also the source of the idiom, "The straw that broke the camel's back."

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I would like to add the idiom taken from other thread on this forum: "Kick the bucket"

The most likely explanation refers to a now-obsolete method of slaughtering animals for food. A "bucket" consisted of a wooden frame, from which the pigs or sheep or other livestock were hung, and the "kicking" element comes in when the expected neurological struggles ensue after death.

Kinda creepy:)

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really interesting posts Fabrice and Ersatz.

If you interested in idioms and metaphors, I suggest you to read the book called "Metaphors we live by" by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. This book is like the holy grail when it comes to metaphors. When I did a thesis about metaphors at university, I ran into this great book. You will find lots of examples in there and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson are really making an effort to show everyone that metaphors are a fundamental mechanism of our minds and that metaphors shope our perception (without us even noticing).

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Lakoff and Johnson's book is fantastic. If we want to accept that idioms and metaphors are a fundamental mechanism of the human mind then all it takes is to compare the infinitely rich collection of metaphors from all the diverse languages in the world.

The sheer brilliance and creativity of idioms used by various unrelated languages is mind-boggling. For example there is a Native Athapaskan language spoken in Alaska (I forget which one but I think it could be be either Ahtna or Dena'ina) where the traditional way to say "He has a birthmark" is literally translated as "A ghost slapped him". How's that for creativity?

The Japanese say of a person who has many friends or is well-connnected, "Kao ga hiroi" which literally means "He has a wide face" while the French say "Il a le bras long" (He has the long arm).

Idioms often reveal the peculiarities of the culture in which they evolved. They are true masterpieces of centuries of human thought.

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  • 2 weeks later...
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I had not even an inkling of a clue about the origins of 'kick the bucket' before reading this thread. That's really interesting. I wish I knew more about the ontology of all of those kinds of idioms and phrases....I'll definitely be checking out that Lakoff book. Does anyone have any further book recommendations as far as the etymology of  English words? Like where the roots, prefixes, and suffixes originate from linguistically/historically? I just have no idea where to begin to research that kind of thing.

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  • 1 month later...

Not having English as my first language, the historical significance of idioms actually help me in remembering idioms. It places a context for which the idiom makes sense, which would sometimes (or most of the time?) is lacking given my language background. It would also help me explain these to my friends who would usually just stare at me blankly when I use one of those.

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Idioms say so much without hurting you ego, that is why they are so important. Like say :

When fools are talking, the wise keeps mum.

A reminder how to behave when in office meeting so many fools are present with so many foolish ideas.

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Not having English as my first language, the historical significance of idioms actually help me in remembering idioms. It places a context for which the idiom makes sense, which would sometimes (or most of the time?) is lacking given my language background. It would also help me explain these to my friends who would usually just stare at me blankly when I use one of those.

I find even as a native speaker of English that I enjoy learning about the historical significance and origins of idioms.  I have an interest in history anyway, and so such study is particularly fascinating to me. And I agree that knowing the origins really helps in remembering them. 

Here is a great site for looking up the meanings, history and first use of idioms and other phrases and expressions in English:

http://www.phrases.org.uk/index.html

It's a fantastic resource. :)

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These threads have introduced me to so many I had never heard or really didn't think about in terms of origin.  I will definately be looking into the link and print resources, as I am now so fascinated I want to search out some of the more obscure ones.  "Kick the bucket" as explained above peaked my awe too...would have never conceived that as the origin.

As to the non-native speakers I can see how explaining these would in fact reinforce not only the literal meaning of words but the sort of fanciful usage and explanations.  I am really hooked on this area now.  Purely fascinating!

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Had to come back to this thread.  I used "stabbed in the back" to a non native speaker who look horrified.  I said it was actually a phrase meaning betrayel by one close to you.  My understanding is Caesar's "Et tu Brute" is one source that is credited with the history significance of this phrase.  "And you Brutus?" Caesar exclaimed in response to a friend stabbing him in the back.

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Wow, I actually had no idea about the actual meaning of the "kick the bucket" idiom. I know what it means but I had no idea about it's origins. And yeah, it is a bit creepy :tongue:.

To "Bite the bullet" is also one idiom that has been around for so long that it's historical meaning has almost been forgotten. It is thought that this idiom originates from the war ships in the 1700s and later, where injured soldiers ( or pirates in some cases ) where given a piece of leather to bite on while bullets where surgically removed from their bodies without any anesthetic, thus "bite on the bullet". This idiom has other explanations, but this is the most plausible.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Idiomatic expressions originate from a combination of words but not taken literally for they have hidden meanings. Yes, they have some cultural or historical origins and each country has its own set of expressions used while others have a few similar ones with another country. :)

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  • 5 months later...

That is a very interesting story. I recall my dad telling me a story like that once, except it's about a tortoise who got covered in leaves during autumn.

Hahaha. Anyway, an interesting idiom with a historical origin I would like to share is:

'To turn a blind eye' which means to pretend not to have noticed something.

Interestingly, this expression is said to have originated as a result of the famous English naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson, who, during the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, is alleged to have deliberately raised his telescope to his blind eye, thus ensuring that he would not see any signal from his superior giving him discretion to withdraw from the battle.

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I would like to add the idiom taken from other thread on this forum: "Kick the bucket"

The most likely explanation refers to a now-obsolete method of slaughtering animals for food. A "bucket" consisted of a wooden frame, from which the pigs or sheep or other livestock were hung, and the "kicking" element comes in when the expected neurological struggles ensue after death.

Kinda creepy:)

The idiom "kick the bucket" has been used here time after time to refer to the fact that someone has past. The explanation certainly make sense as I am lead to think of the kicking away of the bucket which was used as a balance, therefore causing death.

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The thing to remember about idioms in English (and I'm sure other languages) is that they're usually based in some kind of historical or cultural significance, which explains where in the world they came from.  Yet most English speakers don't even know where these idioms came from in the first place -- they just repeat them. 

For example, the phrase "this is the last straw" means something like, "The situation is now unbearable because of this newest circumstance."  It relates back to a story/parable about a camel that was loaded up with a lot of items for market.  It was so overloaded that a single grain of straw added to the stack made the camel collapse.  Which is also the source of the idiom, "The straw that broke the camel's back."

You are certainly right about people using idioms without knowing where they come from. "The straw that broke the camels back has been use here on many occasions to mean that the latest action has caused a particular decision to come about. I am now quite interested in finding out about the derivative of other idioms.

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  • 4 months later...

It was Shakespeare's work who brought to the English language almost a third of the idioms used today, and that should be acknowledged in my opinion as his mastery of language was greatly valuable and is an endless inspiration for language lovers.

A few notable ones are

"a fool's paradise" which denotes a state of happiness based on false hope. was used at first in "Romeo and Juliet"

"In stiches" meaning laughing uproariously and was used by Shakespeare first in "the Twelfth Night" from 1602

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