I am sure at one time or another many of us have used the expression: “That dog’s barking up the wrong tree.” Or perhaps you said to someone: “Let sleeping dogs lie.” After “praying at the porcelain altar” you may have needed a little of the “hair of the dog that bit you.” How about, “Meaner than a junk yard dog.” And who has not said after a long day of hard work, “I am dog tired and not worth a plug nickel.”
Short simple phrases you hear that say, in odd ways, what we don’t say directly. “That dog’s barking up the wrong tree.” These words are meant to convey that someone is looking in the wrong place or pursuing the wrong path. Would it not have been easier to just say “You’re looking in the wrong place,” or “You’re pursuing the wrong direction?” That is to say, it could get confusing if we did not understand that our intentions with words are often a riddle wrapped up in an enigma. And that is the beauty of the English language.
Our language is often difficult for people of other cultures and countries to learn because we have, over time, twisted words in terms we call phrases, sayings, or expressions. In other words, we take liberties with the English language quicker than you can say Jack Robinson. If you were to say to a person from China, “That’s a piece of cake,” he may think your heart’s desire is for some dessert. We know in our language that can also mean the task can be easy as pie. It is poetic justice if the visitor was also hungry for Mom’s hot apple pie.
All right lets get down to brass tacks when talking about our language. It’s time to bone up on the way we talk in English slang. After all, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Maybe that is the way some people think we should deal with the many complexities of English language.
There are those proper speaking people who believe an ill wind blows when we disrespect the Oxford scholar’s English grammar book. When the professor speaks and is grammatically correct you might say, “butter would not melt in his mouth” is a forgone conclusion and he won’t “mince words with you.”
A group of men were in an important meeting for contract negotiations. The first side represents one group’s interest and the other represents the second group’s interest. A debate had gone on for what seemed like hours and the two sides were going in round robin trying to resolve an issue. After a while a man in the first group closed his book hard and pointed his finger to his opposite sitting across the table. With great conviction he said, shaking his finger, “I’ll tell you one thing, soggy bark never tasted bitter to the hungry squirrel.” Both sides stopped and looked at each other as they sat back in their chairs. After a few moments the group leader said with a chuckle and a smile, “You’re right, we need to take a break.” This unconventional sentence conveyed by its off beat approach was a way the two parties could stop in mid-debate without being challenging to each other. After a short time, the two parties resolved the issue. One man was heard to say, “I hope that poor squirrel finds some dry bark.” The group of men laughed and continued on in the negotiations process.
Proper understanding of the King’s English is my skeleton in the closet. When my English teacher wanted to bandy words with me in high school I’d often hide behind the eight ball to avoid the lesson. I believed her trying her best to teach me proper English was just a ploy like Greeks bearing gifts. She would sometimes become “meaner than a mule eating briers,” when I avoided learning the lessons.
When I first started listening to people and their use of short sayings or phrases I somehow thought I would find a few common expressions used in our daily life. Those few I first heard were just a drop in the proverbial bucket. Well, I am “putting the cart before the horse” in exploring slang expressions. It seems I had “gone to the ends of the earth” for a “foot in the door” for off beat expressions. There were so many it was like having “an elephant in the room.”
Now, I don’t want to change horses in midstream by “looking a gift horse in the mouth.” But our culture has generated hundreds of phrases we use each day. “Be still my beating heart” as I ramble through the unending list of ways to express different emotions by twisting words to new meanings. To pick one phrase over another is “splitting hairs” and would put me “between a rock and a hard place.”
I almost have to believe many of the expressions were written by persons of the female persuasion. After all, “behind every great man there’s a great woman.” And some say she “needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” That may be “using a sledge hammer to crack a nut” but I think you’ll see my point. I do not really think women believe men are albatross around their necks, wouldn’t you say Doctor Watson? After all, “a good man is hard to find and a bad one is like gum on your shoe.” My wife always gives me a chance. She tells me, “If you think that, you have another think coming.” She loves me like a pair of comfortable old shoes. End of story.
I hope you have found some humor in my playing with words. The beauty of our language is that we create it as we go along and it make us part of the language. Regional phrases, accents, and slow draws as we speak make it alive with culture and feelings. So listen for that phrase in your daily life and you’ll find some of them “as fine as frog’s hair.” They are not meant to be “smoke and mirrors” as we speak, but a way of saying “the pen is mightier than the sword” when expressed in words. And when you see that picture that is “worth a thousand words” remember it only happens “once in a blue moon,” Thru the Lens.