I KNOW I’m a touch over-analytical, but I can’t make head or tail of many of the idioms and proverbs that exist in English – if you’ll excuse my using one of them. We know what they mean because we’re used to hearing them. But do they make sense?
An idiom is defined as “an expression peculiar to a language not readily analysable from its grammatical construction or from the meaning of its component parts”.
This definition, at least, makes sense because of the very senselessness of some of the phrases we hear every day. A great example is the phrase: “You can’t have your cake and eat it.”
What else am I supposed to do with a cake? My failure to find a logical answer led me to my friendly source of reliable information – the internet.
Dramatist John Heywood first used this phrase in written form in 1546. In old English, the phrase read: “Wolde you bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?”
He meant that we often wish for things to work out in more than one way, even if those “ways” conflict. We have to make decisions and live with the consequences. Discovering the intended meaning left me only partially satisfied.
Surely he could have found a better way to express it: “You can’t have your cake and eat it the way you would like” or: “You can’t have your cake and eat it all”, or even: “You can’t eat your cake immediately, and still keep it for later”.
My interest in language evolution has led me to the conclusion that language is like a large playing field on which writers play, watched by gullible readers.
Besides that, language is dynamic, and this inevitably leads to some wear and tear.
I console myself with the fact that I may not always understand the meanings of particular idioms, but then I have to remember that “I can’t have my cake and eat it too”.