Tuesday February 26, 2013
By FADZILAH AMIN
Don’t pull my legs! Especially, not out of the blues! Our columnist points out some common mistakes when using idioms.
WHEN Lionel Messi turned up to receive the FIFA Men’s World Player of the Year Award last month for the record fourth consecutive time, he must have drawn a collective gasp from his global audience.
No one was surprised that he was yet again acknowledged as the top footballer of the world: the gasp was for the polka-dot jacket and bow tie he wore for the occasion! What struck me as much as Messi’s outfit was the particularly apt use of an idiom by the Eurosport blogger, Early Doors, who wrote:
“Being able to get away with a jacket like that was a testament to the blinding brilliance of his talent ... Messi is just cut from a different cloth.”
To be “cut from a different cloth” means to be very different from others. This idiom is cleverly used in that it works on two levels: the literal and the idiomatic. Messi’s jacket and bow tie were obviously “of a different cloth” from those of others at the award, while Messi as a footballer has been far superior to, and therefore very different from, his contemporaries.
We can also say “cut from the same cloth” when talking about people who are very similar to each other. To use an example from a different sport, the British super-middleweight boxer Carl Froch recently said of fellow-boxer Mikkel Kessler of Denmark, who had defeated him in 2010, and whom he will fight again this year:
“He is a class act both inside and outside the ropes. We are cut from the same cloth and we will be friends yet again after the fight.” (guardian.co.uk Jan 15, 2013)
An idiom is “a group of words whose meaning is different from the meaning of the individual words” (OALD). It is also “established by usage” (COD), and we can’t alter any word in it without changing its meaning or rendering it meaningless. For example, if someone were to say “He and I are cut from the same clothes”, that person is likely to get strange looks from people more well-versed in English.
I get very upset each time I hear someone translate the neat BM idiom turun padang as “go to the ground”. That phrase isn’t an idiom in English! In fact, it is a term used in the sport called submission wrestling or submission grappling. The term is used when “hand-to-hand combat ... takes place while the combatants are on the ground.” (Wikipedia) I don’t think that’s what our politicians and government officials do when they turun padang!
“On the ground”, however, is an English idiom meaning “among the general public” (CALD), “on the spot” (OED) or “in a place where something is happening and among people who are in the situation” (OALD). When asking someone to turun padang, therefore, we could say: “Go and meet the people on the ground.” or “Go and see the situation on the ground.”
There is another danger in using the phrase “go to the ground” to mean “meet the people”. If by chance you leave out “the” from it, and say “Go to ground.”, you are saying the opposite of what you meant to say. “Go to ground.” means: “Hide away from people!” Those who “go to ground” are normally criminals hiding from the police, or celebrities who are being hounded by the paparazzi.
One of the funniest English phrases I have seen used by Malaysians came from some exercises in writing personal letters which I used to give to 18-year-old school-leavers. A lot of letters would begin: “How are you? I hope you are in good condition.” Wouldn’t that make the recipients feel like cars?
These were intelligent students who had not been well taught in English, and were translating the second sentence literally from a BM expression often used in personal letters: “Saya harap awak dalam keadaan baik.”
Common errors committed by Malaysians in using English idioms often consist of the use of a plural noun for a singular noun, as in “Are you pulling my legs (leg)?”; “You must save some money for rainy days (a rainy day); “The opinion of the people in the street (the man in the street) matters” and “I had given up hope, when out of the blues (blue) came this offer of a job.” In each case I have written the wrong word or expression in italics and placed the right ones in brackets, as I will do in my other examples.
Other errors involve the use of the wrong article, as seen, for example, in the following sentences: “He’s left her in a (the) lurch by not turning up for their marriage ceremony.” and “Don’t beat about a (the) bush. Answer only what is relevant to the question.”
When we’ve only heard an idiom spoken but not seen it in writing, it is easy to get one of the words wrong. Common mistakes are seen for instance in: “This essay allows the students free reign (rein) to exercise their imagination.”; “It’s not fair that the rapist should get off scotch-free (scot-free).” and “He’s the splitting (spitting) image of his grandfather!”
If you don’t know the meaning of any of the above idioms, please use one of the online dictionaries to find out. When in doubt, it is always a good idea to consult a dictionary, whether you’re seven or seventy years old. I do it all the time. Mr Oh Teik Theam’s Idiomania column, here in Mind Our English, is also very helpful.
> Fadzilah Amin taught English literature at university, but after retirement started teaching English language. Mind Our English is published once a week on Tuesdays. For comments or inquiries on English usage, please contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.