Just yesterday I was in a conversation with a few people at work and I made mention of a colloquialism (it is easier to type than say) in a sentence –If we do that, we will “go to hell in a hand basket”. And a few people in the room looked at me a bit funny and a few understood what I meant. One of my dear colleagues, not to be “left in the dark” ran to his computer to look it up on Google and came back smiling and with definition in hand. Lest I bore you with too much detail If you Google it you will find the medieval origin of the colloquialism to be descriptive and quite supportive of the feeling that you get if you make the statement “go to hell in a hand basket” . And so the thought of the day is inspired by the sophistication of communication and expression (in context) and the ability to derive meaning from the essence of the phrase, not the literal words, nor even the reference to the origin of the statement / sentiment. For the record, and there are quite a few variations on the definition, the word colloquialism means “A saying that expresses something other than the literal meaning of the words it contains”. So, if there is no direct meaning, and no literal understanding and no strong reference to the origin of the statement, then how did anyone know what the reference meant?
Since I am not a linguist nor an English major – just interested in how people live, their culture, and how local we really are what I can tell you is that most often we know what the colloquialism means by the context in which it is stated. If someone tells you someone is living “high on the hog”, you know they are doing quite well for themselves, and you probably did not know that this was an old time reference to the more expensive meat on a pig. Or if someone told you “close but no cigar” you would know that you did not win – and most likely did not know that cigars were given out at amusement parks in the early 20th century as prizes. Of course I like to know what things mean and so while I listen and let them go by I also find it interesting to read up on the history, meaning and origin of my favorite one’s - I hope you do the same.
And so the punch line for me is:
- There is a lot of learning that we absorb and much of what we learn is not all that precise. We can use a colloquialism in speech and the listener does not have to know the source nor exact meaning to understand what you are saying. They “get the gist” and do not slow the conversation with a request for clarification. It is in the “context” that we understand. So, precision is less important than general understanding.
- We like to use colloquialisms because they add character to speech and make our stories or statements much less boring or I mean - more interesting.
- Colloquialisms (and slang) are rather local. What you know, is, that in your part of the east coast a statement made could have little meaning on the west coast. And I have personal experience that tells me that most colloquialisms do not travel cross cultures or countries. For example, each time I time I went to Japan and China I made sure to not use the colloquialism’s, lest I lose them along the way. So, no mentions of “out of the park” or “”smoke and mirrors”
- If you hear a saying or colloquialism and do not know of its origin look it up – find out the history. They are almost always interesting and also fun to know about where they came from; and
- Lastly, keep using them every chance you can – it spices up language and keeps a local flavor to how we talk and converse.
I promise I will not “fly off the handle” and I do hope that you find everything “hunk-dory”.
Loving life, once again
17 miles running today and six more Ted videos, 3:26 +15 seconds for Sally, 175 pushups on the 4:17 minutes, 50 pullups. A good day, for sure!
PS – you must check out the Scranton version of the Harlem Shake – I am in it – see if you can find me :-)