"A penny for your thoughts? Oh, you're working, well, no rest for the weary! But listen: we can't afford that boat, it's gonna cost us an arm and a leg. Yes, you'd buy it at the drop of a hat, but for me it's a bridge too far. Well, do as you please, the ball is in your court!"
As a general rule, we think of writing as being built from words and words being built from letters. True enough: words and letters are writing's basic building blocks. Yet the more I read and write, the more I sense the power of expressions, word groups we use every day that pull together three, four, five or more words, nearly always in the same order, and that we use to convey common and ideas.
Expressions we like and admire we call idioms, those we dislike or disdain we call truisms or clichés; tried and true expressions ("tried and true" is one) we call adages or wise sayings; new expressions we often term slang. We sometimes string together daisy chains of expressions, seldom as obviously as the silly paragraph I began this column with, but still speaking or writing a series of expressions that roll off the tongue without an original thought or phrase:
"Oh, hello, Mary."
"How are you?
"Fine, thank you. And how are you?"
"Fine, fine. Lovely weather we're having."
"Well, I better be on my way."
"Me too, ‘places to go, people to see!'"
"Yes, yes, see you later alligator!"
"Not if I see you first!"
"Ha, ha! Bye, bye."
Expressions grow from writing's deepest and most varied roots: from the Bible's wise admonitions: "Faith is like a grain of mustard seed" and "Love thy neighbor"; to Homer's fomulaic epithets: "rosy-fingered dawn," "devious-devising Odysseus"; from Shakespeare's magnificent poetry: "Out damned spot!" "All the world's a stage," and "Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May"; to Dickens' dramatic novels: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times"; and from centuries-old earthy adages: "Don't count your chickens before they hatch," to the lively slang of here-today-gone-tomorrow pop culture: "Where's the beef?" "It's been a hard day's night."
Expressions come in all shapes and sizes: exclamations ("Heavens to Betsy!"), conjunctions ("inasmuch as"), and descriptions ("slippery slope"). So many expressions are metaphors—"The president won in a landslide," "Congress is stuck in a legislative logjam"—that we often don't notice the metaphor—"The Middle East is a powderkeg." Sometimes the only way we can remind ourselves that a word-group is an expression is by changing one word—"It cost me an arm and a foot"—and see how silly it sounds.
Expressions frequently boost their effectiveness by using opposites—"the long and the short of it," "I searched high and low"—or a word-sound device like alliteration to make themselves memorable: "Waste not, want not," "to hell in a handbasket."
We use some expressions confident that we know their meaning even if we're foggy about why they mean what they do. "Nevertheless," for example (which, by the way, must have started out as three words—never the less), we all know means "even so":
John was a good boy but nevertheless he sometimes lied.
John was a good boy but even so he sometimes lied.
—yet why does "nevertheless" mean "even so"? I have no idea.
The better we know an expression and its source, the more we respect the idea that animates it. If, for instance, a friend acts like a crazy person but then explains, "There's a method to my madness," quoting from Hamlet, we'd tend, I think, to give him (for a while!) the benefit of the doubt.
Many expressions get their primary value as general statements, words used to define an overarching truth that will support a specific truth:
Charlie didn't talk much, but he gave his blind neighbor a ride twice a week to the market. Actions speak louder than words.
Yet expressions do more for writing backing up a specific with a general truth. Expressions bring the color, taste, and smell of life into writing. Look at these pungent examples:
kick the bucket
nose to the grindstone
he speaks with a forked tongue
barking up the wrong tree
burn the midnight oil
can't judge a book by its cover
caught between two stools
—and then give them their unadorned meaning:
works into the night
can't judge a person's worth from the outside
—and you'll sense the sensual power of expressions. When expressions live to a great age, the archaic ring of their images—"burn the midnight oil," "wait until the cows come home"—connects us to the past, just as the fresh zing of modern expressions—"24/7," "couch potato," "jerk me around"—connects us to the present. Until an expression's energy fades away completely, when someone says, "I'll wait until the cows come home," the speaker and anyone listening knows that no one is truly waiting for Bessie and her bovine sisters to come mooing their way from the pasture to the barn—"It's just an expression."
When and why, for instance, do we use an expression like "I'll cross that bridge when I come to it," and what happens when we do? We use the expression when, as we're try to sort out the order of our coming actions, we realize that there's only so much we can do in advance: "Okay, first I'll go to the park, then to the store, but what will I do when I meet Joe at the train? Well, I won't know until I get that far." Since we can't know the future, however, we're not sure that delaying our decision is a good idea, so we search our minds for some authority to justify our plan and come up with the "cross that bridge" expression.
Expressions, in sum, act as a huge, age-old storehouse of good ideas about how to live. Here we humans are, rubbing up against one another as we wander Planet Earth on our way from birth to death. Each one of us has a unique path to tread, but many of the experiences I have, you have too. We often feel puzzled about what to do next, and we grab eagerly at any advice that sounds sensible and helpful. One day "It takes two to tango" expresses just the good idea we need, on another "Kill two birds with one stone" or "Don't put all your eggs in one basket."
More than the words themselves, it's the vivid images the words call up—a couple dancing, a hunter with a sling, a wicker basket dripping a gooey mess of cracked shells and yellow yolks—that convince us of each expression's truth; or to use a good old-fashioned expression, that hit the nail on the head.