Grammar Gremlins: Odd Idioms

Not long ago I ran across the expression “butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth,” and thought (not for the first time) that it made no sense at all, probably because I associated it with rather overly sweet innocence. Various references on line, including dictionary.com, gremlin-2confirm that impression, but go on to say that such a person, who appears coy, demure, and innocent, is in fact insincere, unkind and/or devious, but so cool and collected about it that, indeed, butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. (Although some of the sources I checked also mention his mouth, I’ve always heard it in reference to females.) The phrase goes back to at least 1562 in English and 1530 in French.

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The other day I was watching Mysteries at the Museum (brain candy for history/archeology nerds like me) and the narrator said, “His superiors gave his idea short shrift.” Well, I knew what that meant, but what the heck, I wondered, is a shrift? Shrift is in fact the noun form of the verb shrive (from which comes Shrove Tuesday, the liturgical name for Mardi Gras). All of these forms refer to the confession of sins, particularly to the generally short time someone about to be executed was given to be shriven by a priest (shrift being whatever penance was required). Shakespeare (surprise!) used the phrase in 1594 in Richard III. The modern meaning is simply to make short work of or give little consideration to something. (Thanks to phrases.org.uk for this one.)

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“No love lost” is another strange expression, when you think about it. We all know what it means: when there is no love lost between two people, they don’t get along. They dislike or even hate each other in equal measure. Back in the sixteenth century, that balance was the key. There was no love lost (or unrequited) between two people who loved or hated each other equally. Around 1800 the meaning of mutual love dropped away, leaving only mutual ill will. (This one’s from grammarist.com.)

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How about “spitting image”? What does spit have to do with anything? Merriam-webster.com has some suggestions for this expression, tracing it back to the long ago use of “spit” to mean “perfect likeness,” moving from “spit and image” to spitting image. I gremlin-3had noted the phrase “splitting image” in my notes, assuming it was a typo or a mistaken attempt at spitting image, but according to Merriam Webster, it crops up often enough that it may be the next step in the evolution of the phrase. It does make a certain amount of sense, especially when you consider that the expression is most often used to describe a resemblance between close relatives, whose images might be more likely to split than to spit.

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As I mentioned in another column, English as a second language must be enough to drive a student bananas. Why bananas? Why not tangerines or kiwi fruit? Try as I might, I couldn’t find a definitive answer for that one. Why, that’s enough to make a Grammar Gremlin go ape!

 

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Idiomatic Expressions
    May 14, 2018 @ 05:56:25

    Hello Kay,
    I really enjoyed reading this post.
    Yeah, idioms are pretty odd sometime.
    I would like to add one more online resource, which is theidioms.com and my favourite of course.

    Thank you for wonderful post

    Like

    Reply

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