Saturday, May 8, 2010


We use more "expressions" than we realize. I'm constantly having to say to my kids, "well, see that's an expression." An idiom is a phrase, usually with most of its words fixed in value, that is used to express a state of mind or other condition in a very specific kind of context. Longer ones might include

"the straw that broke the camel's back"

which, interestingly enough, is an allusion to a story. Those of you who have read my first Analog story, "Let the Word Take Me," will probably understand why I find this enjoyable. The idea of a language that consists entirely of references to canonical stories originated (to my knowledge) with Star Trek TNG's episode "Darmok" - but if you think about it, it's just a logical extension of something that is already going on in our language, with idioms.

Here are some more.

"waiting for the other shoe to drop"
"out of the blue"
"a wolf in sheep's clothing"
"a toss-up"
"[X] has your name on it"
"six of one and half a dozen of the other"
"keeping in touch"

In many cases, the individual words in an idiom are starting to lose their literal meaning. We don't pay much attention to them, only to the overall effect of the expression in context - the meta-meaning. This is one of the things that makes an idiom different from a proverb to my mind, because a proverb is a complete statement that sends a message and stands on its own, daring the listener to figure out the meaning of the whole like a puzzle or a tiny story. [An example would be "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."] If you visit , for example, you'll discover that their list actually includes both idioms and proverbs.

When you're writing a story in a world that isn't related to our own, watch out for idioms. Because they're losing their literal meaning, they'll sneak right under your nose - but very often, they'll make direct reference to elements of our world's history and technology. Or to the Bible. To sailing or shipping. To the Earthly sky or elements or climate. Even to human physiology and behavior. Stick one of those in the wrong place and you'll be sticking a hook into the picture of our world that exists in the reader's mind. If it's bad enough, you'll pull your reader right out of the story.

So when you're writing a story in an alternate world:
1. Keep your eye out for idioms.
2. Alter existing idioms if necessary. In my underground Varin world, people say "out of the dark" instead of "out of the blue."
3. Come up with new idioms if you would like. They can really give a wonderful richness to your world.

And if you're NOT writing a story in an alternate world:
1. Keep your eye out for idioms.
2. Make sure your use of idioms fits the regional sensibilities and/or dialect of your chosen setting

It's something to think about.