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July 13, 2011

What Does That Phrase Really Mean?

In English, as perhaps every language, there are those common phrases that bare little resemblance to their literal meanings. One has to wonder how the agreed upon meaning got so far from...

...the literal or obvious reality behind the phrase.

Here's what I mean. Have you ever consider the phrase "sleeping like a baby"?

We assume that this must mean someone who is sleeping soundly and not likely to be disturbed or awoken easily.

The reality of this phrase is so far from the assumed meaning that it truly could not be more contrary.

I have been baby-sitting our four month old grandchild and it has become all too clear what "sleeping like a baby" really means. In the real world "sleeping like a baby" means sleeping fitfully for a just a few minutes at a time, being disturbed by every noise like a closing door, a phone ringing or even an unexpected step or voice.

And "sleeping like a baby" certainly does not mean sleeping soundly through the night. In fact there is an old comedy routine where the comic complains about his insomnia and mentions that he "slept like a baby" - tossing and turning and waking up every two hours through the night.

Another phrase that makes no sense literally is "as the crow flies".

I live in an area with many mountains, waterways, bridges, ferries and other geographical features that make direct routes rare. We have very few streets that go directly from one area to another. "As the crow flies" is a common way to describe the (mythical) direct route to a place.

But have you ever watched an actual crow fly?

Crows fly up and down and go in circles and are distracted by any bright, shiny thing or anything they might eat. They don't go directly anywhere. Even when spooked, they tend to fly in circles.

"As the crow flies" is a great, universally understood idiom. It just doesn't have any real meaning - in fact it betrays a lack of knowledge of both birds and geography. But I use it anyway. Everybody knows what I mean when I say it. And that must count for something.

Technically correct or not, words and phrases are about communication. If my message makes sense to my listener the way I intend it, what does it really matter whether it matches any scientific definition?

Like I've said in my classes a jillion times (OK, maybe not quite that often), "You gotta love English".

I confess to being a word nerd, and I love the many possibilities and contradictions in a language as flexible and fluid as English.

Send us any words or phrases that make you crazy and be sure to let us know what it is about English and language learning that you find confounding, infuriating or endlessly intriguing.

Listen, read and speak. Make your new language your own.

My best to you as you make your way through this intriguing , constantly shifting linguistic landscape.


About the author of this entry:

Morf has a B.A.from the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and an MAT (Master's in Teaching English) from the University of Washington (Seattle). Morf is currently a radio host (http://www.tacoma.fm/) and a newspaper columnist http://www.thenewstribune.com/opinion/columnists/morf_morford/ and would love to do either one of those somewhere else in the world.

Posted by mmorf at July 13, 2011 12:35 PM


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