Idioms in Action: Minding Gaps, Horses and Red Threads
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
‘P … please don’t eat me,’ Sophie stammered. The Giant let out a bellow of laughter. ‘Just because I is a giant, you think I is a man-gobbling cannybully!’ he shouted. ‘You is about right! Giants is all cannybully and murderful! And they does gobble up human beans! We is in Giant Country now! Giants is everywhere around! Out there us has the famous Bonecrunching Giant! Bonecrunching Giant crunches up two whoppsy-whiffling human beans for supper every night! Noise is earbursting! Noise of crunching bones goes crackety-crack for miles around!’ (Dahl chapter 5)
The speech of Roald Dahl’s BFG (1982) is quite “peculiar” (OED, “idiom, n.” etym.). The Giant speaks the English language according to his “own” “private” rules (OED, “idiom, n.” etym.). Some of the changes he makes are of a grammatical nature – constantly mixing up the verb forms of to be and do, for example –, others are (re)creations of words: “earbursting,” “murderful” “cannybully.” Such individualistic language use is called idiomatic, from “ancient Greek ἰδιοῦσθαι to make one’s own, to appropriate” and, in turn, “ἴδιος own, private, peculiar” (OED, “idiom, n.” etym.). The BFG’s words are literally his “own” – and they may even tell us something about the slightly awkward, good-hearted simple-mindedness of the character as well: you is what you says.* But that’s another story…
Picking up on this thought – the other story, not the identification of speech and character (what are footnotes for?) –, idioms do not only belong to specific speakers, but they may also belong to entire dialects and languages. Here, they become even more “peculiar” as the meaning of the word slightly shifts: “a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from the meanings of the individual words” (OED, “idiom, n.” 3.). English to lose one’s marbles, Swedish inte ha alla hästar hemma (‘not have all horse at home’) and German nicht alle Tassen im Schrank haben (‘not have all cups in the cupboard’) are all similar – though not identical – examples for idioms expressing, without directly saying so, that a person is crazy and/or dimwitted. Though they all share the idea of something figuratively lacking, i.e. being not quite right, speakers need specific context knowledge of the individual languages in order to make sense of them and use them effectively. Marbles, horses and cups as such don’t matter, what we make of them does.
By the way, this is one of the reasons why computers have so much trouble learning human languages, because of all the pragmatic things – the ‘language in action’ conventions – that usually don’t make sense at first (or at all) and are not necessarily systematic or logical. Like politeness. Or the way context knowledge influences conversations. But they do get better at it. Google Translate, for example, has no problem to change German cups into English marbles. It’s different with horses, though. For now.
Where do idioms come from? Well, sometimes it’s simply the case that the literal context of the expressions is now lost – who has horses in which stable? Practices die out; idioms remain. Other idioms go back to the Bible (an eye for an eye) or other widely known (cultural) texts in the broadest sense (swan song), utterances (to steal someone’s thunder), (reported) speeches, etc. Many are quite metaphorical (whatever floats your boat, go fly a kite) which can make them easily accessible – but also potentially misleading:
Außerdem kann ich mich nicht immer gut konzentrieren, wenn ich etwas erzähle. Meistens verliere ich dann den roten Faden, jedenfalls glaube ich, dass er rot ist, er könnte aber auch grün oder blau sein, und genau das ist das Problem. (Steinhöfel chapter 1) [Besides, I often have trouble concentrating when I tell a story. Usually I lose the red thread – at least I think that it is red, it could easily be green or blue, and there’s the rub.]
Rico, the protagonist of Andreas Steinhöfel’s 2008 novel Rico, Oskar und die Tieferschatten (there is sadly no English translation), has no problem with the metaphor the idiom suggests: picking up, following an idea like a thread and then losing it. The words themselves even illustrate the problem on the meta level, i.e. the very discussion of this “Problem” is a digression from the story he is originally trying to tell. What truly bothers Rico is this: why should the thread be red?
There is, of course, a story to this. Nothing to do with Moirai, they spin other threads. The expression comes in fact from Goethe’s 1809 novel Die Wahlverwandschaften (‘Elective Affinities’) in which the central theme that underlies the story is likened to the red thread running through all the rigging of the contemporary English Royal Navy and marking it as their property (Duden, “Faden”). A powerful image. No current speaker of German, though, needs to – or generally does – know about this in order to understand this very common idiom. (Which might be part of the reason why we like to 'translate' it into English so much. As I do here. Hm.) Over the last 200 years, the expression has become ‘independent’ of its original context – the colour of the thread as such is irrelevant. Logically. And, yet, only a red thread carries the implication as it is part of the specific “group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from the meanings of the individual words” (OED, “idiom, n.” 3.).*****
Idioms make us aware of the curious gap that often exists between words and meaning. As metaphors, they are often ‘dead’ or ‘frozen’ as the original image becomes unimportant – which can make them seem arbitrary. In (children’s) literature, these gaps can be exploited in playful and comic ways, inviting us to engage with language and the way we make – or do not make – sense of and with it. Taking idioms at face value as Rico does is not only funny, but opens up new perspectives and helps us to understand something essential about how language works and that we as individual speakers can and do redefine it all the time. We mishear things. Misapprehend. (Re)Coin. Ignore. Lose. Invent. We make the language our “own” (OED, “idiom, n.” etym.) – and if we continue to mind the gap between words and meaning, we may find ourselves able to fill it more often than not. Just keep a lookout for those horses and follow the red thread.
*Specifically in literature where world as well as characters are made of words. It would be absolutely fair, of course, to object that this idea is a bit too simplistic. But literature undeniably often features a strong symbolic side. More or less consciously so. In stories as well as film, for example, characters tend to ‘look’ as they ‘are,’ resulting in the generally accepted – but when you think about it really rather absurd – good/beautiful and evil/ugly divide.**
**Excepting, of course, the well-established tradition of simultaneously beautiful and horrible female characters. Cough cough.***
***Occasionally this cliché can also be found in male characters, vampires come to mind – or Prince Hans in Frozen (2013). Note that both kinds of characters also take on the female seduction role, in the latter case in direct reversal of Hans Christian Andersson’s “Snow Queen” (1844) where the title character, aka the inspiration for Elsa, is the seductress.****
****They’re both called Hans!!!
*****I snuck in another idiom in the translation: “and there’s the rub.” Hamlet’s famous words are a further example for a quite common idiom with a literary source. A more professional translation, of course, would have to tackle the problem with the red thread differently as the idiom doesn’t exist in English.
Dahl, Roald. The BFG. 1982. Illustrated by Quentin Blake, Penguin, 2016.
"Faden, der." Duden Online, Duden, https://www.duden.de/node/44226/revision/44255. Accessed 01 May 2020.
“idiom, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2020, www.oed.com/view/Entry/91031. Accessed 1 May 2020.
Steinhöfel, Andreas. Rico, Oskar und die Tieferschatten. Illustrated by Peter Schössow, Carlsen, 2008.