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Published on May 18, 2021

The View from my Seat

Idioms that are on the ball hit their mark

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

“Break a leg.”

“Chew the fat.”

“A piece of cake.”

Most of you know what these phrases mean because you grew up with them.

But pretend you were just learning English. Can you imagine how strange these phrases would be to an immigrant trying to learn our language?

Before the pandemic, I helped facilitate a class for immigrants who spoke some English but wanted to improve their conversation skills.

These were bright people. Most had degrees from their native country and were in the U.S. with their spouses. They typically worked in the oil industry or in medicine.

One day, my wonderful co-facilitator brought in a book on idioms. Idioms, you might remember from your school days, are commonly used expressions whose meaning does not relate to the literal meaning of the words.

For the rest of the session, we had great fun as we tried to explain to the bewildered class the meaning of some common idioms. We laughed when we heard some of the bizarre origins.

In hopes of brightening your day and giving you something to share at dinner tonight, here are some common idioms with their meaning and origin. This information comes from websites such as Global Graduates and My English Routine.

BREAK A LEG (Meaning: Used to wish someone good luck, particularly in the performing arts.)
Some say the term originated during Elizabethan times when, instead of applause, the audience would bang their chairs on the ground - and if they liked the performance enough, the chair would break. Others say the phrase may refer to a performer bowing or curtsying to the audience in the metaphorical sense of bending one’s leg to do so.

CHEW THE FAT (To have friendly chat for hours on end.) There are several explanations for this, but the most logical one refers to something sailors would do. They would have hardened and salted animal fat, which would provide nutrients on a voyage but would be required to be chewed for a long time. This became a routine activity where friends would gossip.

A PIECE OF CAKE (Something that is easy or requires little effort.) This apparently originated in the 1870s when cakes were given out as prizes for winning competitions. In particular, there was a tradition in slave states where slaves would circle around a cake at a gathering, and the most “graceful” pair would win the cake. This is also how the term “cakewalk” came into being.

UNDER THE WEATHER (To feel ill or tired) This has several maritime explanations. My favorite is that in the disease-ridden days of yore on old sailing ships, the number of sick sailors often exceeded the space in the log to list their names. The excess names were recorded in the column usually reserved for noting down the weather conditions.

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM (An obvious problem everyone avoids talking about). This comes from a fable in the early 1800s in which a man went to a museum and noticed all the tiny things but failed to see the huge elephant in the room. The “Inquisitive Man” fable was referenced later by famous writers such as Dostoevsky.

IT’S RAINING CATS AND DOGS (A heavy rain) The origin of this idiom is unclear, but one possibility comes from the poorly built streets of England during the 1600’s. When a heavy rain came, the streets were flooded by sewage and trash. Dogs and cats were trapped in the muck.
Jonathan Swift wrote in a 1710 poem: “Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in the mud, Dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood.”

TURN A BLIND EYE (Deliberately ignoring undesirable information) There is a great story behind this idiom. Some believe the expression comes from the siege of Copenhagen in 1801. Lord Nelson, second in command of the English fleet, was ordered to withdraw but pretended not to see the flagship’s signals by putting his glass to the eye that had been blinded in an earlier battle. His subsequent attack led to a major victory.

The problem with this story is that the Oxford English Dictionary records usage of the phrase as early as 1698, more than 100 years before Nelson.

That means someone was barking up the wrong tree.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)