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Idioms: More Than Meets the Eye

Learn the history of a few idioms and why we use them!

That’s a piece of cake. This costs an arm and a leg. It’s raining cats and dogs. Slicker than snot on a doorknob.

These phrases are idioms—a group of words that mean something completely unrelated to the actual words. Cat and dogs, random limbs, and talking about cake when there is no cake! None of these make any sense unless you know the meaning. When did we decided cake isn't cake and that you have to pay with body parts?kids talking

“Piece of cake.” This phrase seems to come from pre-Civil War America. Slave owners would hold dancing competitions for slaves and a small cake would be the prize. What the owners didn’t realize was the dances the slaves were performing were mocking the owners. Basically, winning the cake was really easy, as slaves had to be the best at mocking their owners.

“It cost an arm and a leg.” This one is a newer term, starting somewhere around the First World War. A lot of soldiers were coming back missing limbs. Their military service literally cost them an arm or a leg, sometimes both. Grim. The idea is that you give up a lot for little return. Soldiers coming back from WWI had promised benefits denied and delayed. Sorry for the downer.

“It’s raining cats and dogs.” This one is old. And because of this, there are a few possible origins. One is that small animals used to get into the grass thatched roofs of houses and scurry out when it rained. It could also come from the Jonathan Swift poem “A Description of a City Shower.” The poem describes puppies and cats washing away in a storm.

“Slicker than snot on a doorknob.” There is no definitive origin to this one, although you’ve probably heard it if you know someone with deep southern roots. The meaning is pretty simple: it’s slick, as in cool and innovative. It could also mean slick as in slippery. The former brings up less of a mental image of grabbing a snotty doorknob.

Those are some good examples of idioms, but why do we use them? One reason that most experts point to is that our language has flaws. Individual words often don’t have a strong enough meaning on their own. To make up for these flaws, we have developed phrases, groups of words, that make a stronger point than any one word can—even if none of the words in the phrase have a definition close to the meaning of the idiom.

No matter where the phrase started, learning them is a matter of paying attention to what someone is saying when they use an idiom. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to explain what they meant if you didn’t understand them. Don’t be afraid to use idioms either. Spice up your conversations and really work to make your point. Throw them into your essays for class and change up the flow of the text. Be careful not to overdo it, though. You don’t want too much of a good thing.

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