Idioms Can Be Idiotic · 27 April 2024

I do not know if other languages have many of them, but English has so many idiotic idioms.

Idioms are quaint little sayings that we take for granted when we are native speakers. We just know that other people know what certain phrases mean. Even though they do not seem to have anything to do with the subject we are talking about.

“Packed in like sardines.” (Lots of people in this place.)
“Filled to the gills.” (Overate.)
“Dead as a doornail.” (Dead.)
“You know the drill.” (You know what to do next.)

I do wonder sometimes why we use idioms. I mean really. Would it be any different to just say “There are lots of people in this place,” instead of “They’re packed in like sardines”? They convey the same meaning. And people who do not know the idiom, might wonder who packs sardines where and what it has to do with the crowded restaurant you are at. They may never have even seen a sardine tin. Or for that matter, they may not even know what a sardine is. Still, we expect that people understand our English idioms. Even when they are idiotic. (The idioms, not the people.)

I suppose that my favorite idiotic idioms (if such a thing is possible) are:

“Filled to the gills.”
“Dead as a doornail.”

Think about it. Why does filled to the gills mean that you are so full of food that you cannot eat another bite. If you actually had gills, you would not be eating with them, you would be breathing with them. And if you could actually eat so much that you were filled to those gills, you would then not be able to breathe. Which, I suppose might be the point. When I overeat, I can barely breathe. After all, my stomach is pressing down on my diaphragm, which is, of course, part of our main breathing apparatus. The diaphragm moves down and up to draw air into and push air out of our lungs. So when that diaphragm cannot move much, you cannot breathe much. Still, I think filled to the gills is an idiotic idiom.

I have a love and hate relationship with my second favorite idiotic idiom. Dead as a doornail. Really? Think about it. Dead is dead. So why compare death to a doornail? After all, the doornail is dead in the first place since it was never alive. Rather, you could argue that a doornail cannot be dead because it was never alive. And what is a doornail anyway? Just a nail in a door. So you have a state of being or not being (dead) being compared to an inanimate object (doornail), so the idiotic idiom is in and of itself redundant, and the comparison is to something specific (again, the doornail) that nobody has ever heard of. Of course, by nobody I mean not that many people. After all, it is never true that nobody does not know something. And by never, I mean rarely. Which just goes to show that generalizations using never and always are never (meaning rarely) true. (Which might mean that any and all idioms referring to all, none, everybody, nobody, always, and never are idiotic as well.)

Then again, I really do like Dead as a doornail. I think it is funny for all the reasons I listed above. It is a beloved idiotic idiom. At least to me.

(By the way… If you use Google to look up words, there are now usage statistics. They are rather funny. And after seeing the usage graph for doornail, I am not sure I believe them. Then again, Google may be surveying documents and books and blog posts to count the number of times a word is used. And there are thousands and thousands more books now than there were in the 1800s. So if a word is still in use today, it ought to have more usage numbers, just by virtue of the volume of works out there. By the way, I thought of this because of the graph below the definition of the word doornail when I looked it up.)

Well, I might have beaten that dead horse. Which is also a strange idiom. After all, did you beat the dead horse in a race or did you beat the dead horse with your riding crop. Either way, the idiom does not make that much sense. Ah well. I suppose that is the thing of it. Idioms do not really need to make sense. At least not today. They just had to make sense sometime in the past. After all, they would not have become idioms had they not made sense to some of the people some of the time. Or more probably many of the people for many a time.

I know I started out bemoaning idiotic idioms. But now that I think about them, I am rather fond of idioms. Especially, the idiotic idioms.

© 2024 Michael T. Miyoshi

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