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Word Power

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Playing with words

- Rukmini Iyer

n the last issue, we looked at

how idioms could embellish
our language in the business
context. However, the use of
idioms does not end there.
We will now look at how they can
help us be more expressive even in
a social setting.
Bob is in the doghouse. He had
had one too many last night and his
wife was screaming her lungs out. She
needed help with the furniture and
wanted him out of bed in two shakes
of a lambs tail, which of course, he
Hold on before you conclude
that the scene is set in a kennel! If
you are in the doghouse, it means

60 Advanc'edge MBA August 2005

that you are in disgrace or

disfavour vis-a vis someone. And
if you are wondering what Bob had
too much of, having one too many
is a subtle way of saying that a
person is drunk. And there was no
lamb loitering in the bedroom
two shakes of a lambs tail simply
means very quickly.
There are various sources from
which idioms may have emanated.
Some of them are famous
quotations, folklore, etc. A lot of
idioms are inspired by the
behaviour of animals, while you
would also find idioms based on
the significance associated with
numbers. Therefore, even if you do

not know the meaning of an idiom,

it is possible to make a guess by
understanding the context and
relating it to the characteristics or
behaviour of the source (animal,
flower, colour, number, etc.)
Let us look at some popularly
used idioms and delve into their
sources. When you ask for a
bakers dozen of some item, it need
not necessarily be bread or cakes.
A bakers dozen signifies thirteen.
Why? Lore says that ages ago, in
England, there were strict penalties
imposed on vendors who gave
short weight. During this time,
bakers were usually not very
educated and were terrified of
being penalized for an inadvertent
mistake. Therefore, they made it a
habit to supply thirteen items
whenever they were asked for a
dozen, just to avoid punishment.
So theres the origin of one of the
most popular idioms of today.
We often use the term devils
advocate (and were not referring
to Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino).
This term has its origin in the
Vatican. Whenever there is a
proposal to beatify a person, the
Canon Law deems that the Church
has to appoint a person to find
flaws in the evidence. This official
is called the devils advocate and,
in popular opinion, is a person
who embraces a cause just for the
sake of an argument.
With the monsoon setting in, we
often complain that it is raining
cats and dogs. But do you know
that in ancient times, it actually
rained cats and dogs? Well, almost.
Old houses used to have hay roofs
and the pets of the house used to
rest on them. If there was a heavy
rain, the roof would get slippery,
making the cats and dogs slide off.

Word Power
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Thus, every idiom used
today has an interesting origin.
While you can dig into the
sources at leisure, let us look at
a few more idioms. When do
you start seeing pink elephants?
When you put a scotch to
something, are you always at
the bar? When you put a cat
among the pigeons, are you
trying to make the pigeons fly off?
Would you drown if youve burnt
your boats? Is someone being
violent if he sticks to his guns?
Idioms are idioms because they
do not literally mean what they
say. So when you start seeing pink
elephants, it does not mean
someones started painting them
pink it only means youve had
one too many (remember that?).

Connoisseurs would not enjoy

putting a scotch to their Scotches,
for it means stopping something
that you are doing. The
mischievous ones among us would
love to put the cat among the
pigeons cause an alarm or
You can be safe in the water
even if youve burnt your boats
for it only means that a particular

situation cannot be reversed, the

consequences are there to stay.
And one need not have a gun to
stick to it sticking to ones guns
means to maintain a point of
view or opinion.
So thats our introduction to
general idioms. Time to shake
off those forty winks and gear
up. When you find some new
idioms, you may not be able to cut
immediately, but put on your
thinking caps and you can pull out
all the stops!
The writer is currently pursuing
PG in HRM besides serving as a
Trainer and Instruction Designer
with Godrej Lawkin ITES

August 2005 Advanc'edge MBA 61