Words, idioms and ‘ants in the pants’


Christina Ryan Claypool - Contributing Columnist



“Cat got your tongue?” “A stitch in time saves nine.” “Birds of a feather flock together.” Now, “don’t fly off the handle,” or become “mad as a hatter.” The point is: everyday sayings are an important part of our cultural language.

Sometimes they are referred to as idioms, “…an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own,” as defined by Merriman-Webster dictionary, www.merriam-webster.com. These phrases must be almost impossible for those not familiar with them to comprehend. For instance, what do folks who have English as their second language think?

According to www.smart-words.org, “Every language has its own collection of wise sayings. “These sayings are called idioms – or proverbs…They offer advice about how to live and also transfer some underlying ideas, principles and values of a given culture/ society.”

Anyone who enjoys reading, writing, or even public speaking is usually a lover of words. Often referred to as wordsmiths, these people possess the ability to craft visual images and heartrending emotion by selecting and arranging words just right.

In their written pieces or verbal presentations, seasoned communicators often avoid everyday sayings, especially if they have become cliché. Common phrases tend to be overused and often lack creativity, and true wordsmiths are always seeking new ways to express themselves. Sometimes though, nothing drives your point home better than a well-known phrase that everyone can relate to. What difference does it make if we don’t know the origin?

But you have to be careful, because besides becoming clichéd, expressions can become antiquated and their meaning might seem irrelevant or even confusing to a millennial or younger audience. For example, relying on an idiom caused me a bit of public embarrassment at Bowling Green State University some years back.

I was among the approximately 500 students, faculty members, and community residents who gathered on the campus that evening to hear former MSNBC.com reporter Jeanettte Walls. Walls was talking about her memoir entitled “The Glass Castle,” which made it to the New York Times bestseller list.

In the book, Walls courageously shared her testimony of a horrific childhood, spent as a sometimes homeless and hungry youngster suffering from the neglect of being raised by an alcoholic father and an emotionally unstable mother. Yet she told the BG students that it was through education that she escaped the dysfunction of her youth to become a national journalist and bestselling author.

Following her message, the former USA Today reporter fielded questions, and when it was my turn I asked, “How could a person who did not possess her obviously astute mind or tenacious spirit pull themselves up by their bootstraps in such impoverished life circumstances?”

Instantly countless pairs of confused young eyes seemed to lock on my face as I stood at the microphone waiting for the answer. It didn’t take an experienced communicator to recognize that some of these kids had no idea what “pulling yourselves up by your bootstraps meant.” I grasped for another term to explain my question, not to Ms. Walls, but to them.

The definition for this phrase offered by www.phrases.org.uk is simply to “improve your situation by your own efforts.” Interestingly the origin of this expression seems to be unknown, but Babylon’s free dictionary online reports that it could “possibly [be dated] as early as the 17th century.”

Of course, the majority of students grasped the meaning. That’s why, despite the enlightening incident at BGSU, I decided not to discard all the everyday expressions that are part of my word history.

Karlen Evins who is the author of “I Didn’t Know That: From ‘Ants in the Pants’ to ‘Wet Behind the Ears’ – The Unusual Origins of the Things We Say” believes that “Language is a bridge between generations.” In the article, “Why do we say that?” written by Katie Dodd, Evins said, “…many words and phrases have evolved over the years making up an important part of our language and culture…”

In her book, Evins explains that the title phrase, “ants in the pants” was actually an old English folk remedy for “tired blood.” In the late 1700’s, this antidote for lethargy might have been popular, but I doubt if there would be too many takers now.

To “make a long story short,” you should probably take this column “with a grain of salt.” The reason I wrote it in the first place? “Your guess is as good as mine.”

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Christina Ryan Claypool

Contributing Columnist

Christina Ryan Claypool is a freelance journalist and inspirational speaker. Her website is www.christinaryanclaypool.com

Christina Ryan Claypool is a freelance journalist and inspirational speaker. Her website is www.christinaryanclaypool.com