The cut of the pen can give life or take it,
but when it comes to great writing, no idiom can fake it.
I’ve ‘had it up to here’ with overused phrases like ‘fish out of water’ and ‘it takes two to tango,’ Such phrases ‘carry a lot of water’ with their bundles of conventional meaning–but at the (great) expense of original thought. At the very least, let’s vow to put our own original twist on an idiom instead of just using it as millions have before.
It’s certainly possible to communicate entirely with idioms. It’s ‘not rocket science’, in fact, it’s ‘a piece of cake’. Many people think we should ‘cut writers some slack’ if they ‘cut a few corners’ by relying on idioms instead of penning original phrases. An apt idiom ‘hits the nail on the head’ and a busy author may feel they ‘have other fish to fry’ and can’t take the time to pen fresh phrases ‘at the drop of a hat’. (They used to drop hats to signal the start of races, but I digress.)
Birds of a feather flock together, and idioms do too. Once you start using them it’s hard to stop until they’re coming thick and fast with no end in sight. Soon it’s raining cats, dogs, and birds of a feather all over your page.
Should writers eschew idioms? Please make it so! Next time you find one in your work, try asking yourself, Can’t I do better than that?
When Emily Dickinson wanted to say something about time and life she didn’t lean on a crutch like ‘time is fleeting’. Instead she said, “Forever is composed of nows.”
Like many a poet, Dickinson appreciated the power of words. In fact she wrote, “I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine.”
Idioms are a convenient shorthand but they don’t shine. The problem is that idioms are lazy writing. They’re some earlier author’s clever phrasing, not yours.
Once upon a sheet of paper, every idiom was a fresh phrase. Do you recall who first said that the world is my oyster? Shakespeare. Or was it Emilia Bassano who allowed Shakespeare to front for her since women couldn’t publish plays in Elizabethan England? Anyway the line comes from The Merry Wives of Windsor. Falstaff won’t lend Pistol money so Pistol draws his sword and declares,
"Why, then the world's mine oyster, which I with sword will open.”
It was a wonderfully creative turn of phrase (and clever threat) in 1601, but now, 421 years later, so overused as to reek of dead fish—or dare I say it, dead oysters.
When audiences first heard an actor say “the world is my oyster” they had to parse the phrase thoughtfully. As a brand new metaphor it required higher-order thinking. Their imagination networks would have started heating up (that’s a bunch of interconnected neurons in the brain that power creativity). When novel word choice fires up our brains, we process the words in our imagination networks—which makes us more able to generate creative thoughts too. Creativity is caching.
A mental map of the impact of a well-known idiom would probably show relatively few neurons firing up. Idioms and cliches are mental shortcuts that fail to activate our brains.
Sou Nobukawa of the Chiba Institute of Technology in Narashino, Japan and colleagues studied brain activity in creative older adults to explore why it’s associated with long term brain health. They found that, “creativity entails widespread brain connectivity.” Neurons are firing and talking to each other all over your brain when you’re sharing original thoughts. This activity is how creative thinking inoculates us against dementia and alzheimer’s. (High Phase Synchronization in Alpha Band Activity in Older Subjects With High Creativity, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, October 22, 2020.)
Idioms are the sugary drinks and hollow carbs of mental diets. Creative ideas and expressions, by contrast, are organic vegetables and lean proteins.
Here’s a modest proposal: From now on, let’s see if our brains can fly on their own wings. Oops… Isn’t that a shop-worn idiom too? Darn! Okay, how about this: Let’s take the idiomatic training wheels off and try to express ourselves.
Or to put it even more simply, let’s not be idioms.
Alex Hiam teaches creative writing and is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure, available on Amazon.com