A Brief Treatise on Idiom
Critics often characterize some particular author as employing an idiomatic style, but what is properly meant by the phrase has perhaps never been accurately defined.
What is an Idiom?
An Idiom is a collection of words justified by customOpens in new window, and yet used so peculiarly that other words, meaning nearly or quite the same thing, can not with propriety be used in the same way. It is also applied to expressions in which the strict rules of general grammar are not obeyed, so that they can not be translated literally into another language and be understood. For example, “Not at all” is an Idiom. Substitute neither for not, and the phrase “neither at all” becomes unpleasant, though perhaps in some combinations it might barely be excused. Substitute for “all” every one, and “not at every one” becomes absurd; nor can “not at all” be translated literally into any other languageOpens in new window. And yet this unconstruable expression is so convenient and strong that we can not at all think of sparing it from our language.
Every Language has peculiar Idioms. Every language has its own stock of idioms. The LatinsOpens in new window, instead of saying with their own words “I have a book,” would generally have said “To me is a book”. The GreeksOpens in new window, though very critical in the use of words, still allowed their best speakers to use two negativesOpens in new window in one expression without destroying each other, such as, “he was not able neither to speak nor to act,” meaning, as we should say, “He was able neither to speak nor to act.”
Idioms abound in our ancient best WritingsOpens in new window — English idioms abound in our oldest authors. We subjoin a few: “Get you gone,” for “Begone, or take yourself away.” “You had best, or “You were best,” for “It would be best for you,” as,
“Answer every man directly,
Ay, and truly, you were best.”
“The onset was so terrible that the soldiers could not stand their ground.” Substitute abide for “stand,” or place for “ground,” and observe at once the anomaly of the expression, and yet shall “stand your ground” be banished from our language?
The “Pilgrim’s ProgressOpens in new window” contains many such idioms as “hold me to it,” “be of good cheer,” “all this while” “come to a point,” “you lie at the catch,” “let us mend our pace,” etc.
MontaigneOpens in new window says, “To know by heart is not to know,” in which “to know by heart” means merely to have in the memory, and not to think out as an original thought. “He is an out and out gentleman.” “I will come by-and-by,” which is used to mean immediately, but now means some little time hence.
In Mathew xxi.13, we read, “When tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by-and-by he is offended,” meaning immediately. The signification has degenerated to “before long.” So careful a writer as MarshOpens in new window, when writing on the English language, said, “The project took air,” for the project became public. “Get out of the way,” “Made over his property;” “He sings a good song,” for he sings well, “Our debts and our sins are generally greater than we think for,” are expressions that we cull from the classic writers of the English languageOpens in new window. “A good character should be employed as a means of doing good,” instead of a mean of doing good, though such a writer as Sir William HamiltonOpens in new window, and many others, have lately revived the old custom of using mean for means in similar expressions. “In our midst” is an expression justified by honorable usage, but the pruning and hypercritical spirit of modern times begins to discard it.
CowperOpens in new window wrote, “I had much rather be myself the slave;” and ShakespeareOpens in new window wrote, “Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all freemen?”
A modern American would write, “Would you rather choose that Caesar should live, and you all die slaves, or that Caesar should die, and you all live freemen?” but which is the more nervous? “As it were” is used for “if you will allow the expression or thought.” “When saw we thee a hungered, and fed thee?” “No matter what fields are desolated, what fortresses surrendered,” etc.
The phrase no matter is an English idiom, forcible, and that can not be spared. “Methinks I see it now,” said EverettOpens in new window, in introducing a vision of the MayflowerOpens in new window, with its cargo of Puritans, using an old Anglo-SaxonOpens in new window idiom, meaning something more than I think and similar to “it occurs to me,” “it rises involuntarily to my sight.” “The more he knows, the more he is desirous of knowing.” “The words took effect.” “Who is as often out in his encomiumsOpens in new window as in his censure,” says Sir William Hamilton.
Observe the idiomatic strength of the following from a justly admired passage of Milton:
- “Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting her. Let her and Falsehood grapple. Who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” Take another much-admired passage from the author:
- “As good almost kill a man as kill a book; who kills a man, kills a reasonable creature — God’s image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself; kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye.”
An Idiomatic Style — A writer who uses freely and naturally the idioms of the English language may with propriety be termed an idiomatic writer. It will be found, however, that the oldest writers in the language use the most of them, and that as grammatical cultivation is attended to, there are more of the writers who, either from a fear of criticism or from disinclination, seldom or never use a good, strong, healthy idiom. Their expressions are toned down to such grammatical accuracy that they could be literally translated into any other language without exciting any more attention than they do in their own!