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Getting to grips with idiom

Idiom is hard to nail. Even as a native speaker.


Many idiomatic phrases don’t necessarily make sense: often they hark back to times and contexts long since passed, or use archaic language that’s no longer in circulation.

But why do we get expressions wrong when we’ve clearly heard them so often?


Simple. Because mistakes are perpetuated unless there’s cause to interrupt the cycle.


If nobody ever highlighted to you the difference between bought and brought, mute and moot, bear and bare when you were young, then it’s likely these mistakes will follow you into adulthood.


The main reason why we don’t recognise any error is because often the wrong version is incredibly viable – it probably makes better sense to us than the accepted version. And if we understand it, why would we ever question it?


Below is a list of common sayings, phrases and expressions that people regularly get wrong, along with reasons for why or how we might have come to mislearn them.



INCORRECT off her own back

CORRECT off her own bat


I never even mentioned the charity sale; all the fundraising ideas were off her own bat.


This figurative phrase means that nobody asked you to do it and it was down to your individual effort alone. It has nothing to do with people’s back and off my own back is simply a mishearing of the original, although it’s a widespread error that purists decry!


The confusion perhaps comes from having symbolically carried something worthy on your back – the sense of shouldering something important or it being physically connected to you.


The bat reference here is to cricket, where scoring runs is the triumph worthy of being attributed to one’s own bat.



INCORRECT you’ve got another thing coming

CORRECT you’ve got another think coming


If you think I’m letting you go out dressed like that, you’ve got another think coming!


In this expression the speaker warns the listener that if they think X, they’re mistaken and another thought should swiftly replace the first.


Here, think is used unusually as a noun, instead of the more standard another thought. We expect to see think as a verb in English so this may explain why this has become muddled.


Although it’s incorrect, the another thing coming version is now so commonplace that it’s only a matter of time before it becomes acceptable usage.



INCORRECT beckon call

CORRECT beck and call


No matter what she demands, he’s always at her beck and call.


I can see why beckon call feels right: to beckon someone means calling them over to you so beckon call seems like a reasonable pairing.


Outside of this phrase, beck isn’t too familiar to us these days but it means a gesture that summons or signals to someone – really it’s just a shortened form of beckon. So the beck is the physical gesture and the call is the verbal signal, and by using both you’re guaranteed to get someone’s attention!


INCORRECT on tender hooks

CORRECT on tenterhooks


We were on tenterhooks all day, waiting for the diagnosis.


People often use this expression when they’re vulnerable, perhaps waiting for good or bad news, so it’s easy to see why tender might spring to mind.


In fact, the now archaic word tenter was a wooden frame to which wet cloth was hooked, stretching it under tension to dry out, which is why being on tenterhooks symbolises a sense of anxiety and extreme tension.



INCORRECT baited breath

CORRECT bated breath


I waited with bated breath to see what would happen.


We often use this idiom in this kind of way and I wonder if the spelling confusion comes partly from visual associations. The ‘ai’ in waited, along with the homophone confusion over bait/bate, could easily lead us to misspell bated as baited.


The now obsolete verb bate (a shortened form of abate) means to restrain, hence bated breath conjures up a sense of suspense, excitement or anxiety.



INCORRECT first come, first serve

CORRECT first come, first served


Tickets will be issued strictly on a ‘first come, first served’ basis.


The incorrect first come, first serve uses two active verbs, suggesting that those who arrive first will also serve first.


But in the correct version first come, first served, the passive form of serve is used which means that the people who get there first will be served (by someone else) first, rather than being the ones to do the serving. It’s the difference between being a ‘servee’ (getting the service) and a ‘server’ (giving the service).


INCORRECT free reign

CORRECT free rein


The students were given free rein to plan and run the Christmas Extravaganza as they wished.


When you visit our luxurious hotel, you will have free rein over the grounds and amenities.

The reins on a horse control where it goes. So to give a horse free rein means allowing it the freedom to go wherever it chooses. The idiom is therefore used metaphorically to imply a lack of restriction.


It’s clear to see how the misunderstanding lies with the homophone reign, as there may be a general perception of kings and queens (who reign over us) having the luxury of doing as they please, perhaps therefore enjoying the same freedom as having free rein.


INCORRECT wet my appetite

CORRECT whet my appetite


Watching the trailer really whetted my appetite for seeing the film.


What on earth is whet? Yes, admittedly it’s an archaic word. It boasts origins from around 725, in the book Beowulf, but by 1200 whætten meant to sharpen or make more acute. So, something that whets our appetite is something that sharpens our desire for eating. Of course it is also used figuratively, as in the example above.


The error could come from a number of assumptions and associations: the idea of saliva in the mouth being wet; the expression to wet my whistle meaning to have a drink to lubricate the throat/voice; simply being unfamiliar with the word whet.



INCORRECT nip it in the butt

CORRECT nip it in the bud


The conflict between these colleagues needs to be nipped in the bud before it affects office morale.


From a horticultural perspective, removing buds from plants prevents them from forming flowers or fruits. So, to figuratively nip something in the bud means to stop the potential problem before it escalates.


Perhaps bud has been misheard as butt, or perhaps the association comes from the idea of telling someone off (equivalent to a clip round the ear), but it has absolutely no relevance to butts of any kind!


INCORRECT damp squid

CORRECT damp squib


The guest of honour never showed up, the food was awful, and basically the whole event was a bit of a damp squib.


Since squid live in the sea, it’s a reasonable assumption that they are all damp. This might point to the faulty linguistic assumption.


A squib, on the other hand, is a firework that hisses before exploding. Damp fireworks naturally won’t light properly and will lead to disappointment, hence using damp squib to show that someone or something has fallen short of expectations.



INCORRECT peaked his interest

CORRECT piqued his interest


The talk on Degas piqued his interest in Impressionist painting.


To pique means to stimulate/excite interest or curiosity in something. Therefore, peaked here is purely a misspelling. However, piquing interest suggests just starting to sow the seeds for an interest in something, whereas peaking interest suggests having already reached the summit of one’s interest, so they have a very different sense of magnitude.


Homophones pique, peek and peak all function as verbs and nouns, so muddling them up at some point is fairly inevitable.



INCORRECT mute point

CORRECT moot point


Whether this poem can be attributed to Blake is a moot point among experts.


In this age of muting/unmuting yourself on Zoom calls, and pressing mute on the remote control, you’d be forgiven for replacing a more obscure word with one you know better. Mute means silent, so perhaps people think a mute point is one that has fallen silent and is no longer discussed.


In fact, the opposite is true.


Moot is an adjective meaning debatable or undecided; hence a moot point is one which invites discussion.



INCORRECT piece of mind / peace of my mind

CORRECT peace of mind / piece of my mind


If he breaks the window with that football, I’ll give him a piece of my mind!


It gives me peace of mind to know that we’ve booked a hotel for the night we arrive.


These are simply two similar-sounding expressions which are frequently mixed up.


I don’t doubt people know how to spell each of them, but if you’re in a rush it’s easy to confuse which peace/piece you’re after. Peace of mind evokes a sense of calm, whereas a piece of someone’s mind suggests a sense of aggro.




And finally ...

the luck of the Irish


Just so we’re not unlucky with 13 expressions here, I thought we’d better cover off the luck of the Irish.


This isn’t something we pronounce or spell wrongly, but many people suggest it’s used in the wrong sense.


The stereotypical Irish person is considered to be full of soul, warmth and fun and I’ve heard many Irish people cheerily quoting this expression when things go well.


However, there is more than a tinge of irony in the phrase the luck of the Irish since the Irish have historically been a supremely unlucky bunch.


During the famine in Ireland (1845–1849), many of the Irish tried to emigrate to countries like the US on ‘coffin ships’. They were so starved that other nationalities saw them as weak, plague-ridden and diseased, so they were often met with disdain. Landlords were particularly hostile towards them and some boarding houses in London continued to post ‘No dogs, no Irish’ in their windows as late as the 1950s.


In the Gold Rush years in the latter half of the 19th century, some of the most successful miners were of Irish or Irish-American heritage and the expression the luck of the Irish was spawned because of their mining fortunes. But this carried with it a sense of mockery, as if their success were based purely on luck rather than resourcefulness or brains.

Fortunately, their luck seems to have improved since then.


Cheers!


... or should that be “Sláinte!”?


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Georgina Fradgley is a professional web editor, copy-editor and proofreader, based in Hampshire and offering a range of services. She is an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP).


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