Five-Minute Writing Tips: Idiomatic Idioms
Some idioms are easy to understand: “More holes than swiss cheese,” “In a New York minute,” and “Dropped like a hot potato” need no explanation.
But here are a few that do:
- Giving someone the “What For”
My friend’s mother used to tell us she would give us the “what for” if we didn’t stop running through the house like a couple of wild animals. I was always tempted to ask her what the “what for” was, but was smart enough not to since she occasionally ordered us to get her a switch from the backyard pecan tree so she could thrash us.
I have since learned that giving someone the “what for” means punishing, rebuking, or scolding them for doing something bad or wrong.
- “All Mouth and No Trousers”
This idiom conjures up an image of a half-naked man running his mouth off. It’s actually used to describe a guy who brags about his accomplishments or abilities, of which there are few.
- “Enough to Cobble Dogs With”
Recently, I came across this unfamiliar idiom while reading a fellow author’s manuscript. “She had enough wine-corks to cobble dogs with.” Why would anyone want to cobble dogs? So I looked up the meaning and it’s having an excess of something. The explanation given was that if if a cobbler had too much leather on hand, he could donate some footwear to the local pound to outfit our four-footed friends.
- Going “Cold Turkey”
Going cold turkey is somewhat familiar, meaning abruptly and totally giving up a habit or an addiction. “My father quit smoking by going cold turkey.” Its genesis is from the usual withdrawal symptoms of cold sweats and goose bumps; and a refrigerated turkey being cold and bumpy. I wonder why the idiom isn’t going “cold goose.”
- “Bob’s Your Uncle”
This British saying is one of my favorites because it makes the least bit of sense and sounds hilarious. However, it refers to something that’s done easily, almost accidentally, or with implications of “it’s who you know—not what you know,” but with favorable results. “Just place the salmon on a sheet of foil, brush with olive oil, sprinkle with basil, garlic, and salt, wrap it up and bake; twenty minutes later—Bob’s your uncle!”
This idiom supposedly originated in 1887 when, to everyone’s surprise, Prime Minister Robert (“Bob”) Cecil appointed his nephew, Arthur Balfour, to be Chief Secretary for Ireland. Seems Balfour’s qualifications were questionable.