Bending Phrases by Deb Graham
I taught my granddaughter to read. Not long afterwards, we came to A Big Word.
"Honey, do you know what that means?"
She sounded it out. "Flex ibble. That means all bent out of shape."
I like words. I like their origins, their usage, their colloquial twists, the twists they take with various dialects across America. Region phrases, such as “fair to middlin” or “catty-wompus” delight my ears. Some words baffle me. I fly often (more than I’d like!) and always puzzle over de-planing at the end of a flight. Never have I de- bus-ed, de-boat-ed, or de-car-ed.
I’m always on the look-out (listen-out?) for a new way to express a point. I find myself irked at too-often repeated phrases, including A Lot On Her Plate, Out Of The Box, and Take It To The Next Level. They’re rendered meaningless by overuse.
I like the ways English can bend to make a thought clearer. But I admit I keep a running list of abuses, found in print, as if somebody’s editor was asleep at the time. English is flexible, but not that much. Still, they’re good for a smile.
Here are some of my favorite abuses of words:
In a published novel, a character said she was “full to the gunnels.” Gunwales has a fine history, and the fact that it lost a few letters in pronunciation on the way from England is not the problem. It’s not “gun whales”, either, which I’ve also seen in print. Whales are unarmed. (Hint: if it’s a trite phrase, yet your spellchecker flags it, and you can’t find the word in a dictionary, you might need another’s opinion as to the spelling, instead of making up your own.)
He raced down the hill at breaknet speed. Now, that’s a good idea; if you’re tearing down a hill, get a net.
In a magazine article, a writer alluded to “that trite old phrase, ‘there is no mayonnaise in Ireland.’” It took me several moments to figure out she meant “No man is an island.”
I’ve read about how “gossip spreads like wildflowers.” I like that one; especially if you’re spreading something good somebody did, wildflowers is a lovely image. Wrong, but lovely.
A newspaper article referred to a man who’d won a “pullet surprise.” Was it a chicken dinner? Oh, wait...Pulitzer prize!
I think “self phone” makes total sense, albeit wrong...many people are totally tuned into self only with the ubiquitous things.
Somebody wrote me a letter telling me they’d been trying to reach me by curtsy call, and unable to do so, had resorted to the letter. A what? A curtsy, like at the end of a stage performance? No; a courtesy call!
In a novel, “two men ran down the street, their cloaks bellowing behind them.” Can’t say I blame them; if my outerwear began shouting, I’d run, too.
I read a note saying she needed to “reign in her enthusiasm.” Wonderful—that’s the only way to rule!
A mother admonished her kids to “stay within earshout,” which makes total sense.
In a report on hurricane recovery, a reporter wrote, “a Katrina survivor said that he’d lived in FEMA trailers, tents, and Kwanzaa huts for the first year after the storm.” Kwanzaa huts? A whole year of celebrating Kwanzaa? What fun!
In a mystery, the author insisted her character was a “bonnified Scotsman.” I think she meant bona fide, but who am I to argue? Later on, this man with the bonnet became “embroidered in battle.” Perhaps he did need the bonnet.
I’ve read several instances of “pealing paint,” but mine just sits silently on my walls, never ringing out at all. Sigh.
Did you know the difference between humans and other mammals is “a posable thumb”? It’s a funny image, to think of thumbs, posing like models.
Several times, I’ve read “her eyes shot across the room.” That’s gotta hurt. Glad my eyes are better anchored than that!
“It’s not my first radio,” insisted a character in a novel. Perhaps this is why I’m more comfortable writing nonfiction; I don’t have to keep track of how many radios one owns, or what that has to do with the character’s ability to solve a mystery.
Somebody insisted her mother was “lack toast and intolerant.” Perhaps she was grouchy because she was hungry. Give the woman some toast, already.
Several times I’ve read in a book this phrase: “a shutter passed through his body.” I don’t care what was happening previously; now we have a death at hand. “Udder despair” is another common error; the heroine is sad, and suddenly, she’s thinking about the business end of a cow. Why?
“Lawn force meant agencies” are not immune. A police report read a man was charged with “wreckless driving.” I thought that was the goal. The report continued, “...then chaos insured.” Oh, good. Chaos can be expensive to repair.
In a book, a police officer “upholstered his gun.” We all need a hobby, right?
Some bent phrases seem more believable than the intended words. Here are some other good ones:
turn into a new leaf (that would be fun to see)
it’s a doggy-dog world
she balled her eyes out (that’s gonna hurt)
it’s a mute point (oh, good; we didn’t want to hear about it anyway)
Flamingo dancer (well- trained birds!)
he’s in intimate danger (another good reason to group date)
two sense worth
hammy downs (is this outgrown clothing, or lunch?)
a look of otter confusion
in the mist of a project (that explains the lack of clarity; a brain-fog)
a fine tooth-comb ( I brush my teeth, but never comb them)
mid-evil style of dress (can’t you just see it?)
not aloud to say a word (shh)
she let out a grown (like growing pains?)
an outer body experience
I want to speak my peace (but they never do)
for all intensive purposes
Wreaking haddock through the store (hmmm...fish are generally not ill-behaved)
“His doctor sent him to a specialist, a eurologist.” If he’s sick, geography won’t help)
from the gecko (get-go I understand, but who listens to lizards?)
It was a pigment of the imagination (of course! Imagination should be in full color)
“Whoa is me,” she sighed. (stop, already)
He acted like a bowl in a china shop (pretty inert, if you ask me!)
She’s on maturity leave.
And finally, “Be polite to the wizard, or he’ll wave his hand and your toast.” Just unhand my breakfast!