Wednesday 23 October 2013

Phrases That You Almost, But Don't Quite Use Correctly

Word Nerd

So I was doing some editing the other day and reflected that there are a bunch of phrases in English - quotes, popular coinages and so on - that are widely (but generally only by a small degree) misunderstood. So widely, in fact, that the distorted meaning is the generally accepted one, and most people don't know the original sense at all. They don't irritate me - English is a wonderful, fluid language, and usage changes all the time - but they fascinate me nonetheless.

So I thought, heck, I'll just blog about it. Here are four of my favourites: 

Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw

Where It's From: Tennyson's In Memoriam A. H. H., a lengthy elegiac to his friend Arthur Hallam, who'd died suddenly in 1833. It's a long, meandering discourse on love, loss, and human nature. 

How It's Used: Usually to describe the violent and impersonal nature of Nature; them animals, they do so love to bite and scratch and stuff. Grr.

What It Really Means: It's actually about people! Tennyson was struggling with humanity's tendency to selfishness, and the growing materialistic worldview that was doing such a good job of explaining what it saw. If we are all driven by the simple mechanisms of evolution, then where can we see proof that love - God's ultimate law - does or should govern us?

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravin, shriek'd against his creed 

Turn the Other Cheek

Where It's From: A little thing I like to call The Bible. Matthew, chapter 5. It's from the middle of Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount," where he passes down the law on how people are gonna behave from now on. 

How It's Used: This is something your mum or teacher used to tell you if you were bullied or provoked at school. It suggests stoicism and self-discipline; just look away ("turn your cheek") and ignore them.

What It Really Means: Jesus was going a bit further than just "don't rise to their bait." He's telling you to actively participate in your own victimisation; if a man hits you on one cheek, he says, then turn the other cheek so that he can hit that one too. Your mum should not be telling you to do this. The Sermon is famously one of the most challenging parts of Christian doctrine, presenting such an extreme model of virtue that it's usually seen as rhetorical rather than intended literally.

I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.

The Game is Afoot

Where It's From: Shakespeare, baby. Specifically, Henry IV Part 1, Act 1, Scene 3. Although it's also probably Sherlock Holmes's most-quoted line (from The Adventure of the Abbey Grange) after "Elementary, my dear Watson."

How It's Used: Generally, to suggest a game - you know, with dice and a board, and cards or something. It means something interesting and challenging has begun in earnest.

What It Really Means: It's a hunting metaphor. The "game," in this instance, is an animal hunted for its meat (as in "game bird" or "game pie"). When the game is "afoot," it's on the run and the hunt has begun. Holmes most certainly used it in that sense - his "game" being Sir Brackenstall's murderer - but hunting is less relevant to most of us than it used to be, and so nowadays we mostly assume he's talking about chess or something. He liked chess, right?

"Come, Watson, come!" he cried. 
"The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!"

(Good) Samaritan

Where It's From: The Bible, natch. Luke, chapter 10. It's one of the "Parables," which were sort of moral riddles that Jesus used to tell his followers. He was crazy about riddles.

How It's Used: A Samaritan, "good" or otherwise, usually means someone who helps a stranger - especially one in dire need, who others are ignoring - with no expectation of reward or recognition. Aww. There's even a suicide charity called The Samaritans - without the "Good," which makes me insanely suspicious of them.

What It Really Means: The Good Samaritan of the parable behaved in exactly that way, sure enough. But the point of the story was that Samaritans were famed for their selfishness and officiousness; "good Samaritan" was intended as a surprising dichotomy. A bit like saying "good investment banker" or something (of course, the Samaritans are an ethnic and religious community that exists to this day, but I guess it's okay to be a bit racist when you're quoting the Bible).

And a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.

So those are four of my favourite slightly misused phrases. What are yours?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thought for sure you were going to go off on American use of, "I could care less!".