A Brief Look at the Origin of English Idioms

Category: Achilles, Culture, Iliad
Last Updated: 19 Apr 2023
Pages: 4 Views: 312

Idioms appear in every language and their meaning is often confusing. Because the meaning of the whole group of words taken together has little to do with the meanings of the words taken one by one. In order to understand a language, one must know what idioms in that language mean. If we want to figure out the meaning of an idiom literally, word by word, we will get befuddled as we have to know its “hidden meaning”. Most of the idioms do not coincide with their direct meanings but hundreds of years ago they actually did.

If we search into the origin of the idioms, we can obtain a great deal of information about that nation’s culture, history and even policy. Idioms come from different sources, from the Bible to horse racing, from ancient fables to modern slang. Sometimes famous authors such as Homer, Geoffrey Chaucer, or William Shakespeare made them up to add spark to their writings. Some idioms came from Native-American customs and others from African-American speech. Several popular idioms began as folksy sayings used in particular regions of the country and spoken in local dialects.

However, the name of the first author or speaker who used particular expressions is not often obvious. Some idioms go back in time to the ancient Greeks and Romans, thousands of years ago. For instance, Achilles’ heel- the meaning is the weakness, fault or vulnerable spot in one’s strong character. But the origin of this idiom goes back to the times when Greek poet Homer wrote his famous work “Iliad”. In the “Iliad” the famous story about the Trojan War Achilles was a great hero and warrior. However, he had one weak spot, the heel of one foot.

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When he was a baby, his mother wanted to be certain that her son could never be harmed, so he dipped little Achilles upside-down in the magical river Styx. Wherever the water touched his body, he became invulnerable. But since she was holding him by his heel, that part of him never got wet. Years later Achilles was killed in the Trojan War by the enemy who shot a poisoned arrow into his heel. Nowadays, this idiom is still used to show one’s weakness. For example, I like reading historical books, but science fiction is my Achilles’ heel.

There is also another example of the idiom which originates from the most famous poem by English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”, written in 1798. Albatross around your neck- the meaning is a very difficult burden you can’t get rid of. In the poem a young sailor shoots a large seabird called albatross. In those days that was considered very lucky. A lot of bad things happen to the ship, and the crew blames the young sailor. They hang the dead bird around his neck.

From that time, this idiom is used to speak about a burden or a reminder of something you did that was wrong. Wherever I go, my sister follows me. She is an albatross around my neck. We can find a lot more examples of idioms which have very interesting origin and give us new information of that time customs. For instance, Wear your heart on your sleeve-the meaning is to show one’s emotions and feelings openly. William Shakespeare used this expression in his famous tragedy “Othello” around the year 1600. In those days, it was the custom for a young lady to tie a ribbon around the arm of her boyfriend.

The boy then wore this favour on his sleeve, one of the visible parts of his clothing, to display the feelings of his heart for the entire world to see. Today, it is used not only to show love, but also another emotion too. Everyone in our office knows that Mel doesn’t get along with the boss, because he wears his heart on his sleeve. Another such example is, pull the wool over your eyes-the meaning is to fool, deceive, or trick someone. In 19th century Europe many men wore wigs made of wool. In British courts today, some lawyers and judges still wear them.

If you pulled the wig over the person’s eyes, he or she couldn’t still see what was happening and could easily be tricked. It was said that if a clever lawyer fooled a judge, he was pulling the wool over the judge’s eyes. Now, we use this expression to describe any act of cheating or trickery. Jacob was trying to pull the wool over his mother’s eyes by saying he was working at the library with his friends. Some idioms have originated from political actions and their origin can give us information about certain historical events. For example, Read the riot-the meaning is to severely scold or warn someone.

In 1714 the British Parliament passed what was called the Riot Act. It said if twelve or more people gathered “illegally, riotously, and tumultuously,” a magistrate could command them to break up and leave just by reading the opening words of the Riot Act. If they didn’t leave within an hour, they were guilty of breaking the law and were given a severe punishment. As the years went by, “reading someone the riot act” came to mean warning a person in the strongest possible terms of severe punishment if he or she did not stop a certain activity.

When students came to class unprepared, the teacher read her the riot act. Another example is Dime a dozen-the meaning is very common and inexpensive; easy to get and available anywhere. In 1786 US Congress officially named the ten-cent coin a “dime”. The dime soon became a popular coin. Millions were minted and everyone had them. Since they were so cheap and so common, the phrase “a dime a dozen” became a natural way to describe any everyday thing that was easy to get and of small value.

And “dime” and “dozen” begin with the same letter, which makes the saying catchy through alliteration. I thought those books were rare, but they were a dime a dozen. All above mentioned examples show us that idioms teach us not only the language but also give us information about customs and traditions of a certain time. When we learn idioms, we should also take into consideration not only their meaning, but also their origin. Learning the origin of idioms will help us read and speak with new understanding.

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A Brief Look at the Origin of English Idioms. (2018, Sep 11). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/a-brief-look-at-the-origin-of-english-idioms/

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