“Don’t Comb the Giraffe”: A Review of Watch Your Tongue by Mark Abley
Have you heard of any strange or amusing idioms, or perhaps have one you like to use? At TEC, we’re always interested in wordplay, so we were excited when we recently received an unexpected package at the office — a large envelope from Simon & Schuster Canada filled with pre-publication copies of Watch Your Tongue: What Our Everyday Sayings and Idioms Figuratively Mean by Mark Abley. We loved the concept of the book, so we agreed to each pick one chapter and write about it. With fun chapter titles and interesting sidebars that give readers more insight into the content, we delved in to find out more.
Word of warning: the chapters don’t necessarily open with a discussion of the chapter title.
Beth: A Swan Dive
This chapter opens with a discussion of dogs as a man’s best friend — yet, you wouldn’t know it from how the English language treats them. There is a wealth of everyday sayings and idioms that have to do with animals, and that is what this chapter is about. Dogs definitely have the short end of the stick when you think of sayings like “a dog’s breakfast,” “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” “the dogs of war,” “going to the dogs”… Abley predicts that soon these trends may change, and the status dogs enjoy as man’s best friend may be reflected in our idioms.
Abley looks at many different animal-related sayings in a similar vein: cats, pigs, goats, rodents, even insects. Interestingly, you would think that insects would get a bad rap, worse even than dogs perhaps. Yet insects, though disliked in our day-to-day lives, actually enjoy some nice idioms that feature bugs — “a social butterfly,” “fly on the wall,” “snug as a bug in a rug.” An interesting French saying is “to go looking for the little beast,” to be a nitpicker, that is. From there, nothing could be more nitpicky than “combing the giraffe,” which is to perform a tedious, useless task — a task that might cause you to “have the cockroaches,” or have the blues!
From all these animal-related idioms, it is clear that animals are crucial, and always have been, in human day-to-day life. Abley explains that the language we use often shows little respect for animals, and unfortunately that can show in how they are treated by humankind as a whole — perhaps as our understandings change, our idioms will as well.
As for “swan dive,” Abley defines it as an eloquent act that requires a diver to enter the water with arms stretched above the head. Perhaps this idiom offers a bit of respect to the swan, which Abley describes as being among the most impressive of all birds.
English as a language has some interesting ways of treating hunger, and Abley has done vast amounts of research to enlighten the reader as to what those idioms are and where they come from. As he points out, sometimes hunger is almost viewed as a predatory animal — “Hungry as a wolf.” We also use animals to convey to others the scale of our hunger — “I could eat a horse.”
But idioms involving eating don’t always have to do with food. “Eating away at” also means eroding or corroding something. Some idioms about hunger can change depending on the tones used and the relationship between speaker and listener. A workplace rival may tell you to “eat your heart out!” if he gets a big promotion, yet a dear friend may tell you that her husband is very ill and it’s “eating her heart out.” Same idiom, but two very different applications result in two different meanings. This idiom is a very old one, and for hundreds of years referred only to grief. The source of this saying is 3,000 years old — the Greek poet Homer imagined the hero Bellerophon wandering alone, gnawing at his own heart after the gods had killed two of his children. Bellerophon could not swallow the loss.
It is only recently that idioms to do with “eating our hearts out” have become more topical and lighter in application. In their current usage, they can encompass both fun banter and deep grief. I enjoyed how Abley provided great background and stories about the idiom’s history as both a sad saying and as a topical one.
By the way, beefcake derives from beefing up, which means adding strength or weight, and has come to be used as slang for a muscular, good-looking man.
Jonathan: Spinning a Yarn
“Spinning a Yarn” opens with a long sequence of idioms based on houses or homes, going on to touch on a range of idiom-producing objects and activities, including clothing — and the manufacture and sullying thereof — cooking and food, and the long cultural history of male dominance.
Along the way, Abley introduces us to Benjamin Franklin’s The Drinker’s Dictionary, which is “a list of 22 words and idioms for intoxication” and provides us with general musings on the use and qualities of idioms — “few idioms are biased in and of themselves, but any idiom can be used in a biased manner.” He, of course, provides many choice examples, some of which were pleasantly new to this reader, for example, “talking through your hat,” which initially meant boasting but now means “mistake-filled speech.”
Abley defines “spinning a yarn” as a long or rambling story, the meaning of which evolved at sea. Yarn refers to the fiber used to make clothes and ropes, and while sailors worked with the “physical yarn” on their ships, they would spin a verbal yarn too.
Jean: Stealing Your Heart
When it comes to love, we’ve dedicated lifetimes searching for the right words to describe it. In the chapter, “Stealing Your Heart,” Mark Abley provides a brief overview of some of the ways we have tried to encapsulate these feelings. He picks apart a select few from the vast choices at our disposal to describe love and explores how our cultural attitudes towards love, romance, and sex are reflected in the way we construct our idioms.
When talking about love, “puppy love” equates young love with baby animals, whereas adults experience the more visceral “falling in love.” And as expected, we have an amazing collection of words specifically needed to avoid saying the word sex. They are phrases like (but not limited to) “Having a bit of the old in-and-out. Jelly roll. Happy happy. Jig jig.” I found this section to be entertaining!
As Abley points out, our complicated and evolving relationship with love is well documented in the idioms we use. He catches us up to modern times with terms like “Netflix and chill,” a well-known euphemism among a younger dating pool for hooking up. He also adds that “a lively euphemism for sex in the twenty-first century is ‘putting your wand in the chamber of secrets’ – assuming you’ve read the Harry Potter books, that is.” It’s fascinating how cultural products (Netflix or Harry Potter in these cases) become important points of reference in modern romantic exchanges.
We quite enjoyed flipping through Mark Abley’s book, and discussing some of the funnier idioms during our lunch breaks. We also appreciated the chance to take a closer look. Abley’s writing style suits the topic immensely. His sentences are short and punchy, adding to the overall easy flow of narrative that sets a jaunty pace for reading. We did find the structure a bit confusing and perhaps the title of the chapters may have contributed to this. A short introduction describing how the book is set up could have helped the reader know what to expect. And perhaps a subtitle would’ve signalled that, yes, the title of the chapter will be discussed, but first let’s look at the bigger picture.
Watch Your Tongue goes on sale October 16. Be sure to pick up a copy!
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