Idioms Are Words To Live By, Carefully

by Kevin Burton

   I try to be thoughtful and practical when buying things for my wife. I have to admit though, one of my Christmas presents for her sucks.

   It’s a handheld vacuum to clean the car interior and small places in the house. 

   Sucks, get it? Vacuum sucks? 

   Well OK, maybe the joke sucks too.  But it’s all part of my lifelong love affair with words, double meanings and idioms. A few examples.

   By some measures the best job I ever had was teaching English as a Second Language in Puebla, Mexico.  I was learning Spanish and teaching English all day every day, in and outside of the classroom. 

   Great fun and payment in what looked like larger versions of Monopoly money.

   Once I asked a student what he was going to do over the weekend.  He said “I’m going out and kiss some babies.”  I said “No I think you mean kiss some babes.”

   No, he insisted and he was beaming “no, kiss some babies!”

   Why was he so sure of himself? Because in all the music it’s “my baby and me,”  “be my baby,” “baby don’t go,” you name it. 

  I was thinking “man you better listen to me. I’m a native speaker. I’m trying to keep you out of jail!”

   At that same school another student asked me “Can I say ‘enjoy your joy?’”

   “It’s not common,” I told her.  I said it’s not common when someone came up with a phrasing that isn’t wrong per se, but would make one sound like a goof.

   Years earlier my family went to some kind of large fair in Canada.  It might have been a World’s Fair.  I was no older than four and may have been only three. But I remember my parents allowing me to pick a button to wear from maybe 100 of them spread out on a table. 

   I picked one that said, “I’m going steady.”  I thought it meant I was doing OK. You know, not setting the world on fire but not scuffling either. 

   I recall being annoyed when my father set me straight on the button’s true meaning. I was into language at an early age and was dismayed that language had let me down in such a big way.

   This was much worse than learning that there is a K at the front of the word knife, that doesn’t make any sounds. I think that was my first brush with idiomatic English.

    I wore the button for what I thought a reasonable length of time, then quietly took it off and put it in my pocket.  I didn’t want to send the wrong message.  At that point I had no experience with the babes or the babies for that matter.

   On Christmas day this year we opened gifts with my mother, being careful to observe social distance.  My brother gave her some runners, red and white rugs as an accent for her kitchen.

   She was taking off the packaging and tags, slowly, with arthritic hands. She said she was “being careful not to cut a rug.”

   Most of my successful dancing has been with words, but of course I understood her dancing reference. 

   I plan to study idioms in a big way as we move into 2021. I have just discovered “Handbook of American Idiom and Idiomatic Usage,” by Harold C. Whitford and Robert James Dixson.  It covers more than 5,000 idioms. It’s one of those good old quarantine books too, 17 hours of listening time on talking book. 

   The book was created for students such as mine, Spanish speakers trying to speak modern American English without tripping over the many verbal roadblocks we have. But the book will be great fun for me as well.  I’m sure the book will cover idioms I have forgotten, or never heard of. 

   Learning the nuances of your own language is a good way to hone the writing craft.  That’s my thing, it’s what I’m into, it’s my bag….

   Well, you know what I mean.

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