Idioms are White Elephants

In an online writing class, one of peers posted an analysis of setting in a Hemingway piece. She began the post by defining white elephant, an idiom she was unfamiliar with. This got me thinking about how old idioms are disappearing faster than new ones replace them. I took a trip through Google search and quickly found that I am not the first to contemplate this phenomenon. The general conversation is that idioms are cliche in writing, so it is not all bad to see them go (think of all the descriptive ways you can describe a day without resorting to ‘raining cats and dogs’). The other point was that idioms are localized, culturally specific forms of communication, and therefore ephemeral by their nature. Now here is where I began to question the wisdom.

Sure, we can chalk up white elephant to the Orientalism of the era from which it became popularized in the West, but many of the idioms that would seem to be outdated for someone growing up in the ’70s and ’80s (that would be me) were still common in my youth. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket;” as if I ever plucked an egg from anything but a carton. “A dime a dozen;” I don’t recall anything being a dime a dozen in my lifetime. “A Baker’s Dozen;” a dozen has been a dull, old twelve for a long time now. Not only were these expressions not culturally relevant to me, but they were only local in the broadest sense of the term – they were coast to coast and often common to the entire English speaking world. That is a pretty broad definition of local.

Language changes. I am comfortable with that. Well, mostly. I mourn the death of whom because it is a perfectly logical piece of language – the objective rather than the subjective, but I digress. I give in to ending sentences with a preposition because I recognize how pretentious writing sounds otherwise. My ‘beef’ with the death of idioms is that I see a lessening use of figurative language outside of literature. A few years ago, one of my daughters was in control of the radio station leading to me hearing the lyric, “I love you like a love song, baby.” (Note: her taste in music has since improved some.) Similes and metaphors are the comparison of two different items for the purpose of expanding the meaning of the first. Comparing two like items is like putting two similar items together (see what I did there?). It is pointless and adds no meaning.

Figurative language steps in where literal language fails, and language, being the clumsy vehicle for thought and emotion that it is, often fails. Figurative language requires audience participation in a way that literal language does not. For those who abhor poetry (yes, fellow poetry lovers, those monsters exist), the question pops up – “If that’s what she meant, why didn’t she just say that?”. Because ‘that’ is insufficient. ‘That’ is a black and white sketch compared the full-color, 3D version presented in a poem. Figurative language, and its requirement of imaginative participation, allows the reader to take the emotional journey. Put that in your pipe, and smoke it.


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