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Misbegottens: More Twisted Idioms

Last week, we talked about some idioms that have been twisted by people who write them as they hear them, not as the phrase should read. Here are some more.

Some of these twisted phrases make some sense, because they use words that seem to fit in the phrase, until you really dig into them.

One of those is "wet your appetite." It makes sense, because we also have the phrase "mouth-watering." Both mean that something is stimulating your desire for food (or other reward), and we do salivate in anticipation of something. But the proper idiom (or cliché) is "whet your appetite." A knife is sharpened with a "whetstone." (Of course, some "whetstones" need to be "wet" to work properly, but never mind.) You often "sharpen" your appetite with a small taste of something, an appetizer, or perhaps a cocktail. When you have that cocktail, though, just to make things even more confusing, you "wet your whistle." Ever try to whistle with a dry mouth?

If you do have a dry mouth, you'd also have trouble with "spit and image," something that's a close copy of something else. That probably should be "spitting image," though never "splitting image."The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms traces the modern idiom to around 1900 and says it "alludes to the earlier use of the noun spit for ‘likeness,' in turn probably derived from an old proverb, ‘as like as one as if he had been spit out of his own mouth.'" One linguistic professor wrote a paper on the topic, noting that many language columnists believe "spit and image" may have been the original phrase. (One of our favorite language resources, Garner's Modern American Usage, makes that argument.) But that professor believes the origin is in another fluid that is "spitten" from the body and creates an extreme likeness. Delicacy prevents our naming that fluid, but since the expression is often applied to sire and progeny…

As long as we're in that territory, let's nip another bad idiom in the butt. It's the use of "nip it in the butt." Buttocks have nothing to do with it, though biting someone there might indeed halt whatever was being objected to. The phrase is "nip it in the bud." The idiom dictionary says the phrase arose in 1606 or so, and alludes to a spring frost killing young buds, thus preventing them from flowering. (We still think of chilly temperatures as being "nippy.") Gardeners often nip things in the bud to encourage stronger growth elsewhere, as when they prune young suckers from trees to prevent them from diverting resources from major branches. But "nip in the butt" is so much more fun to think about.

Just two more, and we're done.

When you're asked to follow the rules, you're told to "tow the line." Barges are pulled along by tugboats using "tow lines," so there is something familiar about "towing the line." But the correct expression is "toe the line." In the days before starting blocks, runners were told to put only their toes on the starting line; to have more than a toe would violate the rules and could lead to disqualification. Garner's says the phrase appears to be an Americanism from the early 19th century, but others believe it goes both further and farther, arising from the British, either in the House of Commons, when swords were placed as lines beyond which arguing members could not step, or the British navy, when sailors had to stand with toes touching the edges of deck planks.

Being in the military, of course, is a "right of passage" for many. Which is really a "rite of passage." A "right" is an entitlement, a "rite" a ceremonial or formal act. They both make perfect sense, until you think about your parents calling your first breakup a "right of passage." That's one "right" many of us would have gladly given up.


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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday October 17th 2013, 10:03 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)Top 10 Commenter
I just loved this article. It was simply so much fun!
Thursday October 17th 2013, 10:43 AM
Comment by: Alice K. (Nekoosa, WI)
Romance authors frequently have difficulty with, and therefore cause confusion for the reader with, "defuse" and "diffuse." And the oft-used "decimate" (one-tenth eliminated) for totally destroyed. "Prone" is used to indicate merely "lying down," when it specifically means lying face down. Lots of others that slam the brakes on my reading and stop the flow of the story.
Thursday October 17th 2013, 11:56 AM
Comment by: Dianne V. (McLean, VA)
Today on the radio there was a similar discussion, with confusion around "my bag" (instead of the proper "my bad") and "butt naked" vs "buck naked"
Thursday October 17th 2013, 2:16 PM
Comment by: Stephen A K.
Good article.
In a similar vein, I have noticed in recent years that a common phrase I've often used and heard as "set foot upon" is now commonly rendered as "STEP foot upon." The latter might well be considered an improvement.
By the way, "decimate" can also mean "reduce to the point of almost complete extermination," according to Webster's 3rd Unabridged.

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