**WARNING** This article contains explicit language and should be rated “R.” If you are sensitive to words that might offend, please look away now.
Idioms are a part of our verbal landscape. It’s hard to read much, especially fiction, without encountering them. Mark Twain and Garrison Keillor are typical authors who liberally sprinkle idioms into their work, and they do so to add tone and humor to otherwise dry, depressing, or controversial subjects. Currently there are over 7,000 idioms in common use in American, British, and Australian English.
Different jobs have their own jargon, too, and people in the workplace are expected to know and use common words and phrases that are germain only to that particular area. For instance, sound engineers need to know what an SM-58 is, but the rest of us don’t (it’s a microphone).
Growing up in a family of construction workers I heard all kinds of idioms and jargon, mostly full of foul language. It’s hard to imagine someone hitting his finger with a hammer and not cursing loudly. I was taught by my parents not to repeat what I heard around the construction site, but I had a pretty large vocabulary of unspoken foul language at a fairly young age.
The subject of idioms goes even deeper. People have their own idiolects, or unique and distinctive use of language which is influenced by upbringing, environment, and experience. Because of where and how I grew up, I’ve learned many colloquial idioms like, “slicker than snot on a doorknob,” and, “If brains were dynamite, you wouldn’t have enough to blow your nose.” But my dad took it one step further, using idioms I’ve never heard anyone else use. He says he heard them from his dad and Uncle Ham (his nickname, because he was a joker) quite often when he was growing up, but he made them his own. I call them “Dadioms.”
This is where the disclaimer kicks in, so if you’ve braved the article so far and thought, “That’s not so bad,” here’s the bad part. Most of the Dadioms I can recall contain curse words woven into idioms that make very little sense. For instance:
“Happier than a dead pig in the sunshine.” I always wondered how a dead pig could be happy, but it was explained to me this way: apparently, pigs’ mouths shrivel into a smiling state once they’re dead. Who knew? Not a happy picture, though.
“Uglier than a mud fence.” Who would make a fence out of mud? Or maybe it’s the idea of a white picket fence covered with mud. Either way, I always knew I didn’t want to see whatever was being compared.
“Sexier than a three-peckered billy goat.” Well, I guess to a nanny goat, that’s extra sexy.
“Fucked up like Hogan’s goat.” I don’t know who Hogan is, but that goat seems pretty bad off.
“Hotter than a peach orchard boar.” Family lore explains this one as when sows are in estrus, they’d be let out into the orchard, and then the boar would be sent out there. Yikes.
“Flopping around like a whore on a pile of apples.” This one is my favorite because it makes an interesting picture in my head. Dad says it came from a guy named Les who was a framer for them in Leadville. I don’t get it either, so don’t try too hard.
Other idioms of common usage around the construction sites Dad refuses to take credit for, but he still uses them a lot, like “wilder than a March hare,” “dumber than a bag of hammers,” and “duller than a fro.” These have carried over from decades on the job site. Nothing on the job could be described correctly without some sort of comparative idiom to help in the explanation, and I suspect that if there wasn’t one already in use, somebody just made one up, and it stuck. I wonder if that’s how all idioms evolved. Otherwise, wouldn’t they make sense to everyone?
Kids in my family all used these idioms, too, even though we didn’t really understand them. If they contained a curse word, we didn’t use them around our folks until we were adults, and now we just laugh about them as part of our family’s verbal idiosyncrasies. Like many families, we have lots of inside jokes and verbal swordplay that involve our inherited language.
What it comes down to is using language that is appropriate for its purpose. I rarely use these Dadioms now, and I am sensitive about using idioms in my job as a writing instructor because I know how hard they can be for non-native English speakers to understand. Heck, some native speakers struggle with them. Since I don’t allow idioms or clichés in academic writing, I try to avoid their use in my own writing. In other words, I try to practice what I preach.
Idioms add a distinct style and cadence to a piece of writing. They help form comparisons to describe and pictures to illustrate. Sometimes idioms don’t make much sense, but they are a fun way to explain a point of view. Most of the time idioms are audience-appropriate, but other times only something foul will do. A curse word or two, and even a Dadiom, is appropriate during the right situation. When I cut my finger badly last week, I used a few choice epithets, and my brother accused me of “bleeding like a stuck pig,” but I was just trying to live up to the family legacy: “It ain’t a good job unless you bleed on it.” But that’s a story in itself.