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October 20, 2011

Word Portraits

The most vivid and memorable writing is writing that appeals to the...

...senses; what something looks like, feels like or smells like.

We use analogies and metaphors to make our ideas more "real" to our listeners and readers. We might describe something as it compares (or contrasts) with something quite different - in other words we might describe something by what it isn't.

For example when someone does something sloppy or stupid, we might say something like "That was brilliant!" or "Genius!". Be careful when you are listening - "Thanks a lot" generally means the opposite of "Thanks". "Thanks a lot" has the meaning of a similar phrase you might see in an older film "Thanks for nothing". That is the literal meaning - it's a polite "thanks" even though nothing was done to warrant a true "thank you".

With a language as variable and slippery as English, you need to be very careful how you interpret a statement.

In Britain, for example, the term "He's a brick" used mean "He's a solid, unbreakable, reliable person". That was back when most buildings - or at least the most solid ones - were made out of brick. Now that most buildings are made out of steel and glass (among other things) that saying has drifted out of use.

Saying like these may have a very short shelf-life (time span when they are useful or appropriate).

I like teaching these idioms and saying because they capture a sense or even a time in a particular culture. But that can also be their problem. A phrase may become so identified with a specific time or place that it becomes out-dated. Here are some examples of phrases to NOT use: Cat's whiskers.

"Ever since she won the lotto, she thinks she's the cat's whiskers!" This expression refers to someone who considers themselves to be better than others in any particular area - and makes sure that everyone else notices.

Another phrase that will leave your audience puzzled is "shrinking violet". This refers to a timid or shy person."The witness was no shrinking violet. She had no difficulty expressing herself!"

A violet is, of course, a delicate flower, one extra sensitive to light as well as moisture.

Another dated saying is "just off the boat". This refers to a recent immigrant (literally just off a ship). A person who is just off the boat is naive and lacks experience. This saying made more sense when immigrants actually traveled by ship.

For a good list of idioms and their uses and definitions, take a look here - http://www.learn-english-today.com/idioms/idiom-categories/descriptions-people.htm. Be sure to do a little homework and check out how widely used and understood your particular idiom might be.

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 October 20, 2011 11:18 AM


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