Idioms can be an effective way to communicate a thought in a few pithy words. They also can be puzzlers that baffle some members of your audience, especially younger people.
Many colorful idioms remain familiar in our everyday lexicon, even though their origins have been forgotten or blurred. Most contemporary Americans understand the meaning of idiomatic phrases such as “easy as a piece of cake,” “it’s not rocket science” and “shoot the breeze.” Only a few would know – or could guess – how the phrases came about.
“Piece of cake” as something sublime and easy can be traced to an Ogden Nash poem; “rocket science” gained credence as the United States put a turbo-charge into its space program; and “shoot the breeze” dates back to the 19thCentury when “breeze” was slang for rumor. Shooting the breeze these days means casual conversation.
The source of idioms may not matter as long as the current meaning isn’t too far astray of the original meaning. We talk about “twisting someone’s arm,” but really don’t mean actually twisting their arm, even though that’s likely how the phrase arose. What we mean to convey is a gentler form of persuasion.
“Stabbing someone in the back” strikes a strong note of betrayal, not a death stroke.
“Raining cats and dogs” is on its face a meaningless phrase, which we can have come to associate with a drenching rainfall. The phrase may actually be a perversion of the Old English word “catadupe,” which meant waterfall. The Old English word may have been a knock-off of the Greek expression “cata doxa,” which translates as something hard to believe.
“Pipe dream” to modern ears translates as an improbable aspiration, not like the original mean of the hallucinations of people in opium dens.
Technology has wrecked a lot of expressions, though some of them hang on in common use. Back in the day, we literally “hung up” phones and “dialed” phone numbers. With smart phones, we can hang up and dial with our voices.
When someone is sick, we often say they are “under the weather.” We’ve lost track of the phrase’s seafaring origin when the number of sick crewmen exceed the number of sick bays, forcing some ailing sailors to suffer out in the cold, rain or sun. We still refer to “rolling down” the windows in a car even though we push a button instead of turn a crank.
“My neck of the woods” can be another puzzling idiom, in part because we think of necks as something to hold up our heads, not a small stretch of wood or marshy areas. “Thick as thieves” conveys to contemporary ears something vaguely collaborative, not the 18th Century meaning of “thick” that meant aligned in a conspiracy with criminals.
The word “sucker” is part of a number of idiomatic phrases. The notion of gullibility fits with “a sucker born every minute,” but is slightly off key with the phrase “sucker punch” that is delivered to someone who isn’t looking or deserving of a blow.
That should be enough examples to make speakers wary of relying too heavily on idioms. They should be even more leery of using colloquialisms that hail from discrete regions. Such as “table tapper” (amateur preacher, North Carolina); “slicky slide” (playground slide, West Virginia); “sewing needle” (dragonfly, Michigan); “spiedie” (marinated meat sandwich, New York); and “dope” (dessert topping, Ohio).
In CFM’s media training, we encourage speakers and presenters to paint vivid and familiar word pictures to connect and resonate with audiences. Visual storytelling in the form of familiarity is a tried-and-true way to imprint your message on your audience. Idioms can play a role, but make sure it is positive role that builds understanding, not confusion.
The English language is a marvelous treasure trove of words and phrases. However, many people aren’t students of language and range from befuddlement to anger when confronted with language they don’t understand or perceive as elitist. Your language, especially swollen in idiomatic expression, can infuriate audiences and make you seem out of touch or unempathetic. That doesn’t advance the object of your speech or presentation.
The best advice you can get is to choose your words advisedly and wisely. Idioms can be a powerful ally as well as a puckish companion. If you want to use an idiom, study it carefully and understand the facets of meaning it can convey. Weigh the risks versus the rewards. Know your audience and put yourself in their seats. The goal of a speech or presentation should be too important to sacrifice at the altar of clumsily selected words and phrases. Indifferently employing an idiom isn’t worth alienating the rapport with your audience.
Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.