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Learning American Idioms

Don’t Tell me the sky is the limit when we have left footprints on the moon!

American Idioms Drive Me up the Hall

What is an idiom?

English is a very hard language to learn. This is why so many parents teach their little children English (or 小さい 子供 英語) from a young age because it takes a long time to learn it lfuently. To make things worse, English is filled with idioms. An idiom is a non-literal expression or group of words in current usage having a meaning that is not deducible from those of the individual words. These expressions follow no obvious or set rules, and therefore, are problematic to non-native English speakers, English as a Second Language (ESL) learners, and beginning readers. These difficulties are illustrated in popular children’s books like the Amelia Bedelia book series written by Peggy Parish, and popular television series like CBS’s NCIS. I have a friend who has been living in the US for years after she became a Cultural Care Au Pair for a family and she still has trouble working out what the idioms the children she looks after say.
There are two features that identify an idiom. Firstly, the meaning of the idiom cannot be deduced from the individual words. For example, the phrase “to rain cats and dogs” means “to rain very heavily,” and “over the moon” means “extremely happy.” Understanding the real meaning of these phrases would not be possible if you did not already know these idioms. Secondly, both the grammar and the vocabulary of the idiom are fixed, and if we change them we lose the meaning of the idiom. Thus the idiom “pull your socks up” means “improve the way you are behaving” (or it can have a literal meaning); if we change it grammatically to “pull your sock up” or we change its vocabulary to “pull your stockings up”, then we must interpret the phrase literally – it has lost its idiomatic meaning.
In the CBS television series NCIS, Special Agent Ziva David’s (formerly an Israeli Moussed Operative) idiosyncrasy is her misuse of American idioms. Although Ziva David is fluent in English (and many other languages), she has a hard time grasping and correctly using American idioms. This is why learning a new language extensively can be really helpful. Visit the AJ Hoge homepage, if this could be useful to you. When Ziva says, “You’ve got to cut the man some slacks,” she illustrates how one simple grammatical error; slacks (plural); instead of slack (singular); changed the idiom to a humorous literal translation. These verbal expressions give many multilingual English speakers the greatest difficulty.

Difficulties Learning Idioms

Idioms must be learned one at a time either by memorizing or constant English-language immersion. Many idioms originated as quotations from well-known writers such as Shakespeare; “at one fell swoop” comes from Macbeth. Some are mythological or religious in origin. The phrase “knock on wood” is used by people who superstitiously rap their knuckles on a piece of wood in order to starve off bad luck. The wood is associated with the trees that have good spirits in mythology, and with the Christian cross. In Britain it used to be considered good luck to tap on the trees to let the tree spirits know you were there. The phrase “apple of his eye” meanng someone cherished above all others first appeared in Old English in AD 885; however, its existence pre-dates this appearing several times in the Bible. Shakespeare used the phrase in A Midsummers Night’s Dream in 1600, as did Sir Walter Scott in the popular novel Old Mortalitiy in 1816.
To add to this linguistic challenge, idioms may be used in a slightly different form in different varieties of English. “Knock on Wood” in American English becomes “touch wood” in British English. Likewise, “a drop in the ocean” in British and Australian English becomes “a drop in the bucket” in American English.
Difficulties with idiomatic expressions are not confined to non-native English speakers; they are problematic for young children and beginning readers as well. The most difficulty arises when children attempt to literally interpret these expressions out of the context of a sentence or story. Peggy Parish’s character, Amelia Bedelia, has many of the same difficulties. The popular children’s book series illustrates the challenges that children face when learning the English language either as a native-speaker or ESL learner.
Amelia Bedelia is a literal-minded maid in Cameroon, who repeatedly misunderstands various commands of her employee. Her misunderstandings cause her to perform wrong actions with comical effect. When idioms are problematic, often homonyms and polysemous words pose similar difficulties. Amelia Bedelia did not know other meanings of the word “draw” when she was asked to “draw the drapes when the sun comes in.” Instead of pulling the drapes together, she draws pictures on the drapes. Prior to reading this portion of the text, my second-grader translated the phrase “draw the drapes” literally by drawing a picture of the drapes hanging on the window. After laughing hysterically at Amelia Bedelia’s blunder, he was able to understand the meaning of the phrase using the context of the story.

Idioms and Austism Spectrum Distorders / Asperger’s Syndrome

Learners with Austism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) such as Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), continually struggle over what they perceive as utterly pointless turns of phrase. Idioms are a minefield for these very literally-minded learners. Often children with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) respond to idiomatic expressions in a way that is perceived as “sassy”; however, the truth is, they do not understand idiom, metaphors or figurative language. The following is one Asperger’s Syndrome (Adult) learner’s response to common idioms: (response are in italicized)

“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch” – Well, if they are chickens they’re already hatched.

“Easy as Pie” – How easy is that?

“I’m all ears” – Then what are you talking to me with?

“He’ll get a taste of his own medicine” – Isn’t medicine supposed to be good for you?

“You can’t have your cake and eat it too” (This one is a personal pet peeve of mine) – What kind of sick person would give you a cake, but not allow you to eat it?

These particular idioms are especially troublesome because literally they are illogical, which poses an extreme challenge to Asperger’s children and adults alike.
Idioms are a challenging area of linguistics. There are literally hundreds of idiomatic phrases in the English language. Multilingual English learners have the most difficulty with them because they cannot be translated literally, and the smallest mistake in grammar or vocabulary changes the meanings of the phrase. Many first-language English speakers struggle with idioms as well; this is most evident in younger beginning readers. These younger children often make tremendous intuitive leaps interpreting figurative speech as their exposure to different expressions increases.

FUN STUFF: Ziva-isms (a term coined by NCIS fans – Ziva David’s misused idioms)
NCIS Season 5, Episode 15: “In the Zone”
McGee: Think she did it? She is the one that called us.
Ziva: Well, it would not be the first time a murderer tried to throw us up that way.
McGee: Off. Throw us off.
Ziva: Exactly.

NCIS Season 5, Episode 15: “In the Zone”
McGee: Think she did it? She is the one that called us.
Ziva: Well, it would not be the first time a murderer tried to throw us up that way.
McGee: Off. Throw us off.
Ziva: Exactly.

NCIS Season 4, Episode 06: “Witch Hunt”
Gibbs: Marital problems?
Ziva: Well, according to someone called Scuttle Butt, he caught his wife cheating on him.
Gibbs: Scuttlebutt’s not a person, Ziva. Scuttlebutt is what Marines call gossip.
Ziva: And then you wonder why I have a problem with your language.

NCIS Season 3, Episode 12: “Boxed In”
Tony: I’m not getting any reception. How about you?
Ziva: I’m braless.
Tony: I noticed that earlier. But on your phone they’re “bars.”
Ziva: Don’t you have anything better to do than correct my English?

NCIS Season 3, Episode 20: “Untouchable”
Ziva: This woman is a total turd! A geek, yes?
Tony: The term is nerd.
Ziva: Whatever.

NCIS Season 6, Episode 21: “Toxic”
Ziva: His finger is in many eyes.
Tony: Pies…

NCIS Season 7, Episode 18: “Jurisdiction”
Tony: Davy Jones. Used to sing with The Monkees.
Ziva: Real monkeys?
Tony: I envy your brain sometimes.

NCIS Season 5, Episode 14: “Internal Affairs”
Ziva: I would hate to be misunderstood.
Fornell: Does that happen often?
Ziva: Once in a blue lagoon.
Fornell: I think I’ll be able to translate.

NCIS Season 6, Episode 15: “Deliverance”
Ziva: We canvassed the area. No one is talking. There is a smurf war…
Tony: Turf war.
Ziva: …between two competing gangs.

NCIS Season 3, Episode 23: “Hiatus (Part 1)”
Ziva: Ducky, drip it!
Ducky: Do you mean: Drop it or Zip it?
Ziva: Ah, American idioms drive me up the hall!
Ducky: Well, actually… never mind.
The help of PTE Plus can assist you in becoming more confident in your ability to understood idioms of the English language. Post your favorite and/or most irritating idioms.

Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.