It’s so-called knowledge that’s been crumpled into a neat ball of words and thrown at us: that’s what a saying is. The gift of lazy philosophers everywhere – or perhaps your dad or nostril tapping uncle. But first it’s important to know the difference between idioms and proverbs, since some people might equate these two.
Idioms are phrases like “a chip on your shoulder”, “a house divided against itself cannot stand”, and “cup of joe”. Proverbs are ones like “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, “don’t cry over spilt milk”, “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”. As you’ll notice if you re-read those phrases, idioms don’t make literal sense but proverbs do. You can’t have a “divided” house or a “cup” of someone called Joe. Well, you could, but you might be arrested in some countries. You can eat an apple a day, you can cry over milk, and you can throw stones in glass houses.
But for both groups, knowing what they mean is what makes them no longer impotent tools. But we still use some of them wrong.
For example, the phrase “curiosity killed the cat” is usually used as a way of caution. Don’t investigate too much or something bad might happen. We still don’t know why it’s specifically a cat. However, the original use, as seen in Ben Johnson and Shakespeare, indicates it was “worry” which led to “heart-attacks”. This was actually sound medical advice, not a warning that curiosity is bad. Curiosity and finding out how things work is the basis of science after all, so it’s not a particularly useful sentiment in that sense either.
It also seems that the notion of “blood being thicker than water” is actually backward. It turns out “water” originally referred to the diluted and “useless” relationships of family; while blood – as in literal blood, not genetic relation – related to a convenant you formed with fellow political fighters. As Sandra Douglas highlights an earlier phrase: “‘The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,’ meaning two men who go through a blood ritual of bonding have a stronger bond than two brothers who shared the waters of the womb.”
So this whole time, we’ve been using this phrase wrong it seems.
But phrases are also spelled wrong and can sometimes completely distort the meaning. For example, you’ve probably heard the phrase “Hung in there like a trooper”. The image you conjure is probably one involving a brave soldier. However, the word is “trouper”, as in travelling actor – this the mentality of, no matter what, the show must go on.
To “tow the line” gives a sense of holding on tightly, as in towing cars. But it’s actually “toe”, though we’re not sure where the origin comes from. Some think it’s “toe” as in an oldish measurement of boundary.
Or how about the popular “he’ll get his just desserts”? We like to associate food with various aspects with what people should get (revenge is a dish best served cold, for example). However, it’s not in fact food but what one deserves, which is “deserts” – a homophone for the big dry places.
Interestingly, people still somewhat get the point of the sayings despite spelling them incorrectly or using the wrong word. This shows the power of phrases, premised on the imagery, that language has – however, it might be a good idea to maybe try a bit harder to learn just what you’re saying.