Because hats don’t weave themselves. ~Sergeant Beneff (Book 3 “The Mansions of Idumea”)
In books 3 and 4 I have a character named Beneff who has an idiomatic problem with idioms. I wrote him, in part, as an homage to my father, who was intensely frustrated by American idioms: those phrases that everyone understands, even though they frequently make no sense.
Here’s a typical conversation my father would have with anyone who’d listen:
“Why do Americans say ‘Back and forth’? How can one go back without first going forth? It should be, ‘Forth and back’.”
Dad, a German immigrant, would sincerely ask this of everyone, looking for a logical answer, while I, as a child, would look for a convenient exit.
People would give my dad an uncomfortable smile that said, Have you taken an unusual medications today? before they’d shrug and say, “I . . . never thought of that before.”
After all, cows know how to smell the sunset. ~Beneff
However, almost always these innocent bystanders in our neighborhood/church/grocery store would later find my dad and say, “You know, you’re right! I’ve been thinking about it for days/weeks/months, and we say that wrong.”
But it’s still “back and forth” despite my dad’s aggressive reeducation programs.
And it’s still “Head over heels in love,” too, despite my father’s protests to the contrary. “Your head is ALWAYS over your heels! It should be, ‘Heels over head in love.’ Who came up with these things?”
Because if the boot leaks, check with the bakers. ~Beneff
That’s the age-old question, isn’t it? Where idioms come from? I found it quite easy to generate a number of Beneff-idioms that almost make sense, all in one afternoon during a particularly dull church service. And sometimes I wonder if that isn’t where some of our stranger phrases came from: the mind of someone slightly overheated, trapped on a bench, wrestling with a bored toddler. But there’s no definitive answer as to why we’re stuck with phrases that, even if you think you understand the context, still are illogical.
(Fathom out “whole nine yards”; I dare you.)
Over the years I’ve realized my father—now in his 80s and suffering from Alzheimer’s—was right. He became quite fluent in English, so much so that it’s still his remembered language, and not German. Once when I was a child he pointed out a butterfly and said, “Someone in English got that wrong, too; it should be a ‘flutterby’.”
(However, considering that German word for butterfly is “Schmetterling,” which sounds like something you need to whack repeatedly with a baseball bat to keep it down, I don’t think German is all that superior to English.)
After all, when the birds fly, it’s time to count the bushes. ~Beneff
Dad’s frustration with English began when he first came to America in 1953 as an eager 22-year-old, hoping for a new life after WWII. He’d been practicing his English, and when he went through immigration in New York, he was relieved all of his papers were in order. The agent inspecting them handed them back to my dad, who promptly and properly thanked him, to which the man responded, “You bad!”
My dad was stunned to be labeled so quickly, and that the man was smiling at him when he declared my father bad. For days my dad was shaken by this, and even heard other Americans declaring “You bad.” Finally, he realized that it wasn’t “You bad,” but “You bet!”
And that confused him even more.
Soon Dad connected with a relative, and mentioned this strange phrase to him. His relative explained that “You bet” was a weird American way of saying “You’re welcome.”
“But I don’t understand; they want me to bet? Bet what? I’m not a betting man!”
My father’s first few weeks in America were a bit stressful, as you can imagine.
As the wind blows, so squirrels are to trees. ~Beneff
All kinds of phrases flummoxed him:
“Why is dropping a hat making you do something faster?”
“But cutting mustard is easy!”
“Rule of thumb . . . well, my thumb is exactly one inch wide.”
“Hold your horses . . . hey, I understand that.” (And he used it a lot.)
But he always blushed whenever he said, “I’m pooped!” because he was never quite too sure about that one.
Anyone learning a second language is appropriately bewildered by idioms, and as a college student trying to learn German, I went to my dad for help with some of his native tongue’s idioms. But we both gave up.
“Look, we say ‘bite the sour apple’ and you say ‘bite the bullet’,” my dad tried to explain. “How is that more logical?”
“But I don’t think they mean the same thing,” I countered.
“Sure they do! They both mean, ‘Later, you’ll have to go to the doctor.’”
Twenty-five years later I’m still wondering about that.
And then there’s my German mother who, for years, thought the phrase “You’re crazy,” was “You’re grazy.” One day she confided to me, “I don’t even know what the word ‘grazy’ means, and I can’t find it in the dictionary.”
She’s also the woman who, frustrated after failing yet again to master a pie crust, yelled, “Who came up with that phrase, ‘Easy as pie’? That’s a stupid idiom, and an even stupider dessert . . . get me some chocolate!”
Because that’s not a pig clucking. ~Beneff