Watch What You Write: This page is devoted to defending the English language and encouraging disciplined writing. Our regular contributor will be Adrianne LeMan who will seize on sloppy writing and firmly remind us of the need to write correctly. However, we welcome other contributors. Just send your piece or any comments on what we have published to firstname.lastname@example.org
I don’t speak any other language fluently enough to know whether idioms are common in, for example, French, German or Spanish, but they are common in English and they make the language more colourful and descriptive.
We normally use them without thinking about their origin, but I sometimes say, “I wonder where that comes from?” Many have obvious sporting connections: “knocked for six”, sticky wicket” (cricket), “own goal” (football), “non-starter” (horse racing), “a lucky break” (pool), “throw in the towel” (boxing), but others are more obscure.
Some come from our mispronunciations of foreign words – to “bandy something about”, for example, comes from a French word bander, which was a term meaning to “hit a ball to and fro” in an early type of tennis; and “apple-pie order” (neatly arranged, everything in place) may come from “nappe plié” – folded linen – which gives the idea of something being neat and tidy.
Others come from occupations or trades. “Choc-a-bloc”, which we use to mean crowded or crammed full (sometimes abbreviated to “chocker”), was originally a nautical term that was used when two blocks of tackle were so tight together that there was no room to make them tighter. My favourite of these is, however, “mind your ps and qs” (take care to speak or behave well). The Dictionary of Idioms and Their Origins, by Linda and Roger Favell, gives several alternative origins for this, but I have always believed that it is to do with breaking up a forme (a page of metal typesetting) and dissing (distributing) the letters back into the type case. Because the letters are all back-to-front it is very easy to put a p in the q box, and vice versa.
(I realise that the concept of setting metal type – particularly setting it one character at a time – is totally alien to a generation brought up on computers, but that’s how it was done, “back in the day”.)
I have two new “word” books, The Story of English in 100 Words, by David Crystal, and The Etymologicon, which is “a circular stroll through the hidden connections of the English Language”, by Mark Forsyth. No doubt they will provide food for thought, and for blogs.
Adrianne LeMan originally trained as a designer. She worked on the art desks of newspapers and magazines before moving on to work for, and run, design consultancies. Since 1992, when she founded her own business, she has also written and edited annual reports, websites, brochures, etc, for a wide range of major companies. She retired from her business in 2008 and now works as a freelance writer/editor – again working for major companies. She is interested in words: their use, and misuse, the way they are spelled and the way they look. She is also interested in the use, and misuse, of language, which should be clear and to the point.
Adrianne has a post graduate degree in design from the Royal College of Art and an MA in Contemporary History and Politics from Birkbeck College, London University.