The Orion

Common phrases carry hidden meaning

Kevin Crittenden

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Kevin Crittenden


There are many odd features of the English language and idioms are just one.

Idioms are phrases that contain a hidden meaning and many of them have outlived the circumstances within which they were produced. Nonetheless they persist in language for their effectiveness. And yet sometimes they seem completely ineffective, trite, or simplistic.

What follows is a collection of commonly used idioms of note.

“A bird in hand is worth two in the bush”

What it means: having one of something already is better than trying to find two of them in a bush. This one may make more sense in a survival situation or to hunters who like to shoot our feathered friends.

Gratitude is tied to this phrase When considering abundance, taking stock in what is already in possession is important. If still dissatisfied, root around in “the bush” may be neccesary but not particularly practical in the 21st century.

“The cat is out of the bag”

What it’s supposed to mean: Something has been revealed. Similar to “spilling the beans” in that new information is disclosed that must be dealt with. Both of these metaphors involve burden, either of dry goods or animals — things meant to be protected or contained.

Maybe there was once a time when people carried beans in their pocket, or cats in sacks to keep track of how many secrets they had. What its really about is keeping secrets or leaking potentially harmful info into the wrong ears.

“You can’t have your cake and eat it too”

What it’s supposed to mean: in my interpretation this means after the cake is cut something “had” is lost. This one speaks to the notion of ownership — cakes usually belong to somebody before they are shared with the group.

A cake is a thing behold, a marker of a special event — birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries are all celebrated with a cake.

Personally I would argue I can eat my cake and be satisfied with a photo taken of the cake before it’s cut. Technology preserves an image of culinary symmetry to enjoy while eating

“Hair of the dog”

Around since Shakespeare, this is usually used to refer to drinking alcohol to relieve symptoms of a hangover. Apparently before the advent of modern science, people believed rubbing hair from a rabid dog on a wound caused by the animal would prevent disease.

Nowadays doctors treat victims of animal attacks for rabies. In Chico this is great news — we can get as drunk as we like, be bit by rabid dogs and do it all over again the next day, free of worry.

It would seem the ubiquity of the champagne brunch embodies this town’s wholehearted embrace of an idea that began as a fur coated scab.

Kevin Crittenden can be reached at [email protected] or or @kevlodius.

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Common phrases carry hidden meaning