Page images
PDF
EPUB

CHAPTER VIII.

IDIOMS AND PROVERBS.

CRITICS often characterize some particular author as employing an idiomatic style, but what is properly meant by the phrase has perhaps never been accurately defined.

48. Definition. An Idiom is a collection of words justified by custom, and yet used so peculiarly that other words, meaning nearly or quite the same thing, can not with propriety be used in the same way. It is also applied to expressions in which the strict rules of general grammar are not obeyed, so that they can not be translated literally into another language and be understood. "Not at all" is an Idiom. Substitute neither for not, and the phrase "neither at all" becomes unpleasant, though perhaps in some combinations it might barely be excused. Substitute for "all" every one, and "not at every one" becomes absurd; nor can "not at all" be translated literally into any other language. And yet this unconstruable expression is so convenient and strong that we can not at all think of sparing it from our language.

49. Every Language has peculiar Idioms.-Every language has its own stock of idioms. The Latins, instead of saying with their own words "I have a

ANCIENT IDIOMS.

229

book," would generally have said "To me is a book " (mihi est liber). The Greeks, though very critical in the use of words, still allowed their best speakers to use two negatives in one expression without destroying each other, such as, “He was not able neither to speak nor to act," meaning, as we should say, “He was able neither to speak nor to act."

50. Idioms abound in our ancient best Writings.-English idioms abound in our oldest authors. We subjoin a few: "Get you gone," for "Begone, or take yourself away." "You had best," or "You were best," for "It would be best for you," as

"Answer every man directly,
Ay, and truly, you were best.”

"The onset was so terrible that the soldiers could not stand their ground." Substitute abide for "stand," or place for "ground," and observe at once the anomaly of the expression, and yet shall "stand your ground" be banished from our language?

The "Pilgrim's Progress" contains many such idioms as "hold me to it," "be of good cheer," " "all this while," "come to a point," "you lie at the catch," "let us mend our pace," etc. Montaigne says, σε Το know by heart is not to know," in which "to know by heart" means merely to have in the memory, and not to think out as an original thought. "He is an out and out gentleman." "I will come by-and-by," which used to mean immediately, but now means some little time hence. In Matthew xxi. 13, we read, "When tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, byand-by he is offended," meaning immediately. The

signification has degenerated to "before long." So careful a writer as Marsh, when writing on the English language, said, "The project took air," for the project became public. "Get out of the way," "Made over his property;" "He sings a good song," for he sings. well, "Our debts and our sins are generally greater than we think for," are expressions that we cull from the classic writers of the English language. "A good character should be employed as a means of doing .good," instead of a mean of doing good, though such a writer as Sir William Hamilton, and many others, have lately revived the old custom of using mean for means in similar expressions. "In our midst" is an expression justified by honorable usage, but the pruning and hypercritical spirit of modern times begins to discard it. Cowper wrote, "I had much rather be myself the slave;" and Shakspeare wrote, "Had you rather Cæsar were living, and die all slaves, than that Cæsar were dead, to live all freemen ?" A modern American would write, "Would you rather choose that Cæsar should live, and you all die slaves, or that Cæsar should die, and you all live freemen?" But which is the more nervous? "As it were" is used for "if you will allow the expression or thought." "When saw we thee a hungered, and fed thee?" "No matter what fields are desolated, what fortresses surrendered," etc. The phrase no matter is an English idiom, forcible, and that can not be spared. "Methinks I see it now," said Everett, in introducing a vision of the Mayflower, with its cargo of Puritans, using an old Anglo-Saxon idiom, meaning something more than I

IDIOMS AND PROVERBS.

231

think, and similar to "it occurs to me," "it rises invol untarily to my sight." "The more he knows, the more he is desirous of knowing." "The words took effect." "Who is as often out in his encomiums as in his censure," says Sir William Hamilton..

Observe the idiomatic strength of the following from a justly admired passage of Milton:

"Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting her. Let her and Falsehood grapple. Who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter ?"

Take another much-admired passage from the same author:

"As good almost kill a man as kill a book; who kills a man, kills a reasonable creature-God's image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself; kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye."

51. An Idiomatic Style.-A writer who uses freely and naturally the idioms of the English language may with propriety be termed an idiomatic writer. It will be found, however, that the oldest writers in the language use the most of them, and that as grammatical cultivation is attended to, there are more of the writers who, either from a fear of criticism or from disinclination, seldom or never use a good, strong, healthy idiTheir expressions are toned down to such grammatical accuracy that they could be literally translated into any other language without exciting any more attention than they do in their own!

om.

52. Proverbs. But, besides idioms, there are proverbs, many of which are peculiar in style as well as in thought. A proverb is a sententious expression,

weighty in meaning, and which is frequently repeated without reference to its origin. We say an expression has "passed into a proverb," when it is often quoted as common property. Such proverbs as "Honesty is the best policy," "Live while you live," "Give an inch, and he will take an ell," "There is but a step from the sublime to the ridiculous," are well known. Some proverbs are recognized as vulgar, others are elevated and noble. One book in the Bible is entitled a "Book of Proverbs," and contains some which are in common use, though the verbal beauty and force of a proverb are generally destroyed by translation from one language to another. Each language has its own; there are but few common to two or more languages. Languages, like other clothes, vary in fashion. Chesterfield, who was more finical than wise, and who had not merit enough to achieve high success as an author without the peculiar advantages of his hereditary position, discountenanced the use of proverbs, simply because the uneducated use them. The fact that these repositories of thought and wit are in the possession of both the unlearned and the learned, renders them doubly valuable to one who would address a general audience in speech or writing. Such writers as Cobbett and Benjamin Franklin never shrink from a popular idiom or proverb.

53. New Idioms and Proverbs. It should not be forgotten that both new idioms and new proverbs are continually arising. A strong mind often throws out a new verbal expression of perhaps an old, perhaps a new thought, so felicitous that it is caught

[ocr errors][merged small]
« PreviousContinue »