Fiction Writer’s Compendium: Arcane English Idioms

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A idiom is a collection of words that means something other than it would seem, or rather, a group of words whose meaning is different to the individual meanings entailed by the words themselves. Popular American idioms include:

  • A dime a dozen (something cheap or commonplace)
  • Beat around the bush (to prevaricate, generally due discomfort engendered by the topic being obviated)
  • Bite the bullet (to finish something unpleasant swiftly, because it is going to happen anyways)
  • Hit the sack (go to sleep)
  • Time is money (work fast/er)
  • Under the weather (to be mildly ill)

The phrases presented above, however, are only those which are quite popular; below we will turn our attention to English idioms which are considerably more uncommon, which shall serve to both increase the depth and breadth of one’s fiction-writing resources and increase the understandability of older texts whose authors had occasion to utilize time or region specific idioms.

  1. Acid Test: the most crucial and decisive test of worth or importance. This curious idiom came from the old use of nitric acid on gold to determine its authenticity.
  2. Albatross around your neck: a burden that can not be easily dispensed. This idiom comes from Samuel T. Coleridge’s The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner wherein one of the character’s, a sailor, shoots a helpful albatross (sea bird), bringing bad luck upon his crew, who then hang the corpse of the dead animal about his neck as punishment.
  3. As the crow flies: in a straight line, without consideration of roads. The expression is used to describe the distance between two points via the utilization of a hypothetical crow, which, obviously, doesn’t need to take roads into consideration.
  4. Bats in the belfry: insane, but in a harmless way. Synonymous with “has a screw loose,” and, “off one’s rocker.” A belfry is a church tower, which, in the idiom, is meant to represent the head, the bats occupying the tower, might cause disturbance but are not of any real harm (generally speaking) and thus represent crazed, but ineffectual thought.
  5. Behind the eight ball: in a difficult or trying position. This idiom is derived from the popular game of billiards, more commonly referred to as pool. In billiards, if one sinks the eight ball before any of the other balls on the table, the player who did so automatically loses. The expression “behind the eight ball” refers to the difficulty engendered by trying to shot a ball out from behind an eight ball without hitting the latter object in such a way as to cause it to be pocketed.
  6. Bum Steer: to give bad advice or direction.
  7. Casting (throwing) pearls before swine: to offer something to one who cannot appreciate it. This expression is taken directly from the biblical story of the sermon on the mount, wherein, it is said: Do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot.”
  8. Cock-and-bull: something too ridiculous to be believed. Taken from an English fable wherein a cock (rooster) and a bull have a extraordinary conversation.
  9. Cut the mustard: to meet a certain set of standards. Used exclusively to refer to people.
  10. Dark horse: a unknown or little known competitor in some event who is expected to win by some person or group with special knowledge. As one might induce, the phrase stems from horse-racing. It is often deployed in political settings.
  11. Donkey’s ears: a very long time.
  12. Down in the mouth: unhappy. Derived from frowning (ie. the mouth turns down at the sides).
  13. Dutch treat: a outing where everyone pays for themselves, individually. Synonymous with “Go dutch” or “going dutch.”
  14. Eternal triangle: refers to two men who both love the same woman OR two women who both fall in love with the same man. The triangle has formed the centerpiece of many romantic pieces of literature across numerous cultures through time (hence “eternal”).
  15. Footloose and fancy-free: carefree due immense personal liberty. A close inspection of the phrase will yield its meaning to the discerning. Unlike with many other idioms, footloose and fancy-free is literal (ie. one’s foot is loose and one’s fancy – whim – is free).
  16. Mountain out of a molehill: to make a big deal out of something that is, in actuality, rather trivial, all things considered. The molehill in the phrase refers to the small clumps of dirt created by moles when they burrow. Thus, the phrase means one is acting as if the dirt clumps of a mole is bigger than a mountain, which is, of course, false.
  17. Pound of flesh: the excruciating payment of a debt. Derived from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, wherein, Antonio borrows a sum from the Jewish moneylender, Shylock; when the debt is unable to be paid, Shylock demands a literal pound of Antonio’s flesh.
  18. Stuffed shirt: a pompous and wearisome man.
  19. Talk turkey: to get down to business; to be shrewd and eschew small-talk in business dealings.

Let us know in the comments if you’ve any interesting and unusual idioms that you think should be included.

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3 Replies to “Fiction Writer’s Compendium: Arcane English Idioms”

  1. “Breeze” or “drift” or “get lost.” “Take a long walk on a short pier.” “Chicane.” “Mark,” “sucker,” “gull,” “pigeon,” “rube” — “pig,” “fuzz,” “heat” — “blow-off,” “rake-off,” “shakedown,” and “the fix.” David Maurer’s The Big Con and the works of Raymond Chandler are full of the powerful, succinct idiom of the early 20th century American underworld.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If mark, sucker, pidgeon & rube litter the American underworld idiom lexicography, where does that leave “punters”? Extras, I suppose.

    An English author listed but a smattering of savoury v. sweet food idioms, and I might have a beef with her. Perhaps she just threw those to the wall, to see if any of them stuck. Far too many food idioms and sexual references; you could catch yourself tripping over them. Ew.

    To put a tin lid on it, it’s less an abstract word, than a turn of phrase. My favourite from Sea of Love was when John Goodman tells Al Pacino that he’d just found “a face-down taxpayer” in the alley. Sorry – seems I’ve tripped over a euphemism on the way out.

    Liked by 1 person

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