In a Manner of Speaking   2 comments

Idioms – figures of speech – For example, what does “in a New York minute” mean, where did it come from, what does it mean to you? (I think this might be a fun way to highlight our different cultures).

I was raised by a North Dakota farm girl. For the purposes of this blog post, we can assume that my father was a mute because he just didn’t contribute to this topic.

My mother, however, had an idiom for every occasion.

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Every language has its own collection of wise sayings. They offer advice about how to live and transfer underlying ideas, principles and values of a given culture or society. Short ones are called “idioms” while longer ones are sometimes called “Proverbs”. These “figure of speech” often call up mental images that convey a metaphor that matches what the person speaking wants to convey.

So, here are a few of my mom’s favorites and my adult interpretation of them.

First, dealing with “In a New York minute”. Mom would not have ever used that idiom, but my husband does. Mom wouldn’t have understood the metaphor. My husband, having lived in New York, does. When you get off the airplane in Newark, you can feel it. Suddenly everyone is walking faster than you are. A New York minute is probably only 30 seconds long. Things happen fast there.

Now for Mom and her many idioms, of which these are only a selection.

Image result for image of idiomsA penny for your thoughts – a way of asking what someone is thinking. In 2016, a penny’s worth of thought wouldn’t even make a word. It does go back to a 1522 writing by Thomas More referring to when a wise man has fallen silent and, in order to garner his wisdom, money is offered.


Barking up the wrong tree – Looking in the wrong place. Accusing the wrong person. This always puzzled me as there are not a lot of trees in North Dakota. However, my friend’s hound dog will continue barking up a tree at a squirrel that has long ago scampered away, so I can see the meaning.

Best thing since sliced bread – A good invention or innovation. This also puzzles me as homemade bread that you slice yourself is SO superior to store-bought sliced bread.

Burn the midnight oil – To work late into the night, alluding to the time before electric lighting. My mother grew up without electric lights, so probably understood the metaphor more than most of us do.

Caught between two stools – When someone finds it difficult to choose between two alternatives. Don’t try to at home, kids. It’s a recipe for injuring yourself.

Created (or made up) from whole cloth – A complete fabrication, a lie with no basis in the truth. Alternatively – something made completely new, with no history, and not based on anything else. I’m sure this must originally have come from the tailoring trade’s penchant for making “knock offs” of original designs. I’m not sure why “whole cloth” and my research didn’t turn up any good answers, but I heard it used this way in a modern fantasy book set in an alternative colonial America and it made total sense.

Curiosity killed the cat – Being inquisitive can lead you into an unpleasant situation. I always add “it died by drowning”.

Cut the mustard – To succeed; to come up to expectations; adequate enough to compete or participate. It doesn’t make much sense, although research shows it may have derived from “cut the muster” which is a military term for being selected for service. That makes way more sense.

Don’t count your chickens before the eggs have hatched – Don’t make plans for something that might not happen. Mom told a story about a crop of chicks that didn’t hatch because the rooster got trapped outside the hen house on a critical night. Apparently this screwed up Mom buying shoes.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket – Do not put all your resources in one possibility. If you’ve never had your grocery bag blow its bottom, this idiom might not make much sense to you. An overloaded egg basket is a disaster waiting to happen.

Don’t get so lathered – meaning – calm down. But I didn’t know where it came from for a long time until I read a book about a horse sweating after a long run and it said the horse was “lathered”. Apparently, a horse that is “lathered” is very stressed and could even die if pushed too far. Grandpa was a horse wrangler, so this idiom likely had deep meaning to Mom.

Down to the brass tacks – get serious or truthful about a subject. My mom grew up in horse country where horse tack (bridles, saddles, etc) have silver-coated tacks that were often brass underneath. If you cleaned too deeply, you could rub off the silver and see the brass.

Heard it on the grapevine – ‘to hear rumors’ about something or someone. Again, no grapes in North Dakota. Not sure what it meant to Mom, but she used it a lot.

Hit the nail on the head – Do or say something exactly right. If you’ve never done carpentry this may not make sense, but when you hit the nail on the head instead of a bit off to one side or another, the nail drives in few hits and stays straight.

Image result for image of idiomsJump on the bandwagon – Join a popular trend or activity. It references a circus wagon that carried the band as it paraded through the town to advertise the circus. People (or politicians) who wanted attention would “jump on the bandwagon” because that’s where all the attention was lavished.

Kill two birds with one stone – This idiom means, to accomplish two different things at the same time. I have seen bow hunters get two ptarmigans with one thumper, which is a bean bag arrow.

Last straw – The final problem in a series of problems. Literally, when you’re loading a horse, you can add just one last ounce of weight and the horse will collapse. I can’t imagine Grandpa actually allowing that to happen, but Mom said she’d seen something like this occur.

Method to my madness – An assertion that, despite one’s approach seeming random, there actually is structure to it. Mom used this term a lot. We weren’t always certain of her methods.

Nine days’ wonder – something (such as a news story) that people talk about a lot but only for a short time – this is actually a really really old idiom going back into English literature.

Once in a blue moon – Happens very rarely.This drove me crazy for years. I’d never seen a blue moon. There’s no such thing. Then I discovered that a “blue moon” is when there are two full months in a month, which happens approximately once in a year.



Take with a grain of salt – This means not to take what someone says too seriously. This goes way, way back to Pliny in ancient times. Salt was used as an antidote for poison, so it might mean that you were a little skeptical of what someone said and that provides some immunity to their blarney.

To hear something straight from the horse’s mouth – To hear something from the authoritative source. This one is really old too. Back in the Bible, Balaam, a prophet of God, wanted to take money from the king of another nation. God had told him not to, but he continued in his misguided pathway until his donkey spoke to him. Americans didn’t really care for donkeys, so it got changed to “straight from the [horse’s] mouth”.


2 responses to “In a Manner of Speaking

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  1. I haven’t heard of ‘In a New York minute’ or ‘Caught between two stools’ before, but I’ve heard of the rest. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Caught between two stools is a new one for me as well


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