Idiomatic Thoughts

Idioms are referenced all the time and we never know their meaning…

idiomsSomewhere in the past someone made up an expression to explain the obvious, or mystery, and the saying sort of sticks around. Maybe it’s used to describe the same situation, or applied to other similar situations. Maybe it keeps the same meaning, or can be easily applied to other situations with totally different meanings.

An idiom is said to be: “a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words”. It’s not to be confused with other figures of speech, i.e., Metaphor, Simile, or Hyperbole…. Nor, are they Proverbs which are “simple sayings that express truth based on common sense or practical experience” – much like those one-liners we find in the Wisdom books of the Bible (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon).

Actually, reading a list of idioms may make more sense than reading about what they are, or are not. You may ask for a list of popular idioms and some come to mind easily, and others I really have to think about.

How many of these have you heard, or used?

  • A dime a dozen
  • A drop in the bucket, Ace in the hole
  • Achilles heel
  • Actions speak louder than words
  • Add insult to injury, Basket Case
  • All ears, or All thumbs
  • It will cost you an arm and a leg
  • At the drop of a hat
  • Kicking the can down the road, Kick the Bucket
  • Back to the drawing board
  • The ball is in your court, Barking up the wrong tree
  • Method to my madness, Beating a dead horse, or, Preaching to the choir

Get the drift. Here’s a thought about idioms… They work in the language culture they were developed in, but they may not work in other places. Someone who never heard of Achilles may never understand that idiom, or maybe they do not have “dimes” in their money system, or would be overly curious why an Ace is hiding in a hole…

I’ve said all this to make this observation.

Our language is replete with idiomatic expressions that fail to reach those of another culture, or language group.

I have some good friends from the deep south, and they probably grew up with expressions that will make no sense to me who grew up in the south…Texas, that is. As a kid we played “Kick the Can”, not to be confused with “Kick the Bucket”. Imagine getting those two confused!

How about taking idioms from Hebrew or Aramaic, back in the bible days, and making sense of them on the fly?

For example, it was shared over and again that Israel would end up in a promised land “flowing with milk and honey”. In this case, translators often left this alone but would make notations to say this meant they would occupy a “fertile land” or a “land of plenty”.

The Apostle Paul wrote about a persistent difficulty he experienced that was an annoyance. We take the phrase, “A thorn in the flesh” from:

And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. (2 Corinthians 12:7, KJV )

Other translations describe this thorn as a handicap (MSG), a painful problem (ERV), a painful physical ailment, (splinter) or thorn (AMP), a problem that caused pain (NIV)…

thorns-bushI prefer the image of a thorn because I’ve experienced thorns.

Around a pond in the Trinity River bottom just outside of Ace, TX… Fish Gill pond, I think is the way we would have spelled it. Camping, hunting snakes, fishing and just enjoying being in the woods. Barefoot was often the normal transportation mode, but old and not good tennis shoes when required.

Regardless, a thorn goes into the foot whether a shoe is on the foot, or not…

It was painful. Several inches long, or was it a foot long? I was about 10 or so and I remember the rest of the trip hobbling around a wound that kept me from being as fast as I might normally be…

Even Jesus experienced thorns. He taught a parable about the various grounds a planter experiences in his job of sowing seeds.

And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow; And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear. (Matthew 13:3-9 KJV)

Those way side areas were hard packed trails that snaked through the various fields from one owners land to others land. Stony places had no earth to speak of. And the thorny places where it was possible to grow a crop, but the thorns choked out the good seed… Each of these were understood by the audience, but Jesus later instructed his disciples as to the complete meaning of his parable.

Therefore hear the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside. But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles. Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful. But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” (Matthew 13:18-23 NKJV)

A person who wants to be fruitful understands that each corner of the field can be made profitable with some hard work and “keeping one’s nose to the grindstone” (Idiom!!).

Jesus even experienced a crown of thorns on his brow as a mockery of his kingship.

thorns-crownSo then Pilate took Jesus and scourged Him. And the soldiers twisted a crown of thorns and put it on His head, and they put on Him a purple robe. Then they said, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they struck Him with their hands. (John 19:1-3 NKJV)

Having a thorn in the flesh takes on new meaning! From the beginning of man’s failure in the garden (Genesis 3:18) thorns and thistles have been the bane of productivity. Punishment for failure was often described as a “thorn in the eyes” (Joshua 23:13). The list is endless.

My thought for the day is learning to take care of the words we have grown up using and think about the root reason why we use them… As I heard from a friend who quoted a proverb (words of wisdom) the other day, “He is the best speaker who can turn an eye into an ear.”

A side note about what Jesus said, “He who hat hears to hear, let him hear” is probably a modern (to his time) wisdom saying that comes from words of God to his chosen people…

Yet the LORD has not given you a heart to perceive and eyes to see and ears to hear, to this very day. (Deuteronomy 29:4 NKJV)