Friday, 20 May 2011

Meaningless exchanges?

A few weeks ago I read a press release in which a company announced its intention to use a “no holes barred” approach regarding a certain activity. “It should be ‘no holds barred’,” was my immediate thought, but because I’ve learned through long experience (and sometimes humbling experiences!) not to believe that “my” version is necessarily the only correct one, I went where I often go when I’m in doubt: to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, and was relieved to find that I was right (this time!). The literal meaning of the expression as given in the Oxford, namely “(in wrestling) with no restrictions on the kinds of holds … [i.e. grips] used”, also helped me understand the figurative meaning better: “without rules or restrictions”.

Inevitably, I suppose, the original meanings of idioms will become obscured as some words become less frequently used or fall into total disuse.

For many years I had a problem with the idioms “You can’t have your cake and eat it” and “I can’t see the wood for the trees” – both seemed really dumb! If someone gave me some cake, and I therefore had it (in my possession), why could I not also eat it? The expression seemed rather strange, given its meaning. Then, one day, I heard someone say, “You can’t eat you cake and have it.” Revelation at last! The word have had to be interpreted as “retain”; thus: you cannot eat your cake and still retain it … you can’t have it both ways.

About the second idiom: it seemed not to make any sense to say that there were so many trees that you could not see the wood (the material of which the trees consisted). I would have thought it should be the other way round: you can't see the trees for the [amount of] wood. Again it took having to hear the idiom expressed slightly differently for me to see my problem: when I heard it as “I can’t see the forest for the trees” I realised that the word wood did not refer to the material, as I had assumed. Is wood as a synonym for forest falling into disuse in modern English (at least in South Africa), or did my misinterpretation stem purely from the word's marginal status in my vocabulary?

I wonder how many other people out there have possibly misheard or misinterpreted a word in an idiom and then haven’t been able to make sense of it in that context. –ws–


Pat Pike said...

Loved this post Nicky. Did you ever get called a Gormless idiot at school? I can remember Jack Field calling us all Gormless idiots. What is a gorm? It must have some value, but for the life of me, I cannot find the original meaning. Gaelic has a gorm as being a colour blue, mmmm obviously not a thing that requires intelligence. The expression pops into my head when I do something idiotic and I can almost see old Jack Field in his size 13 shoes pointing his finger at me saying 'Pat, you gormless idiot, why did you do/say that?'

Nicky said...

Hi Pat, thanks for the comment; I'm glad you liked the article. I don't think Mr Field ever used that word in our class – I'm sure I would have remembered! He was such a character, wasn't he? I Googled the word, and this was one of the entries I found: gormless [ˈgɔːmlɪs](adj) Brit. informal: stupid; dull [variant of C18 gaumless, from dialect gome, from Old English gom, gome, from Old Norse gaumr heed]

Kerry said...

Speaking of teachers comments to the class. I had a Standard 4 teacher who often told students to "use your savvy child!" Have never heard anyone else being told to use their head/brains in quite the same way ever again.

Kerry said...

I have always wondered about the saying, "things are going pear-shaped" to politely say that things have gotten messy/events are getting out of control! It does not seem to make any real sense and have aften argued with my husband that any other word would make just as much sense (things going pie-shaped for example)! Have you heard this one I even have the right word in the first place?

Nicky said...

Kerry, yes, you do have the right word. If you go to
you'll find quite a few suggestions about the possible origins of the phrase.