Sometimes there’s a thread running through your life and it takes you decades to notice it. That’s the case with idioms and me. We’ve had a life-long relationship, but I came to notice this only a few years ago. Well, fifteen or so years ago, but that’s a short time compared to how long idioms have been part of my life.
I remember quite vividly the first time I encountered an idiom. I was maybe five years old, and my grandfather said to me, “There’s no sense in locking the barn door after the horse has been stolen.”
The five-year-old me did not understand what my grandfather was talking about. We had a barn, yes. A small one-stall barn. It housed a cow. Not a horse. Nevertheless, I ran down to the barn, turned the latch on the door, and peeked inside. The cow was still there. The non-existent horse . . . I had no idea. But I did make sure to latch the door as I left. Because, after all, the cow had not been stolen.
Children don’t understand figurative language until they’re six or seven or even eight years old. They take things literally. But because I did not understand what my grandfather meant, his words stuck with me, like some special talisman that I would be able to call on later.
By the time I was in high school, I had long known what idioms were. But that didn’t mean I understood idioms from another language. French, for example. It is with embarrassment and chagrin that I remember one of my assignments from French class. I had to translate a paragraph or two or three of a story, and that evening at home, I struggled mightily with the translation. In fact, I kept changing the English words so often that my eraser wore a hole through the paper.
What I was trying so hard to translate were the words il a jeté un coup d’oeil hors de la fenêtre. Which, to me, were saying: He threw his eye out the window.
How or why the “he” of the story did that, I had no idea. It seemed extremely painful. And, as my erasures testified to, unlikely. Nevertheless, I couldn’t come up with any better translation, so, the next morning, I turned in my assignment.
Only to have my French teacher tell me that il a jeté un coup d’oeil hors de la fenêtre. was an idiom, and that it’s correct meaning was: he glanced out the window.
This experience, coupled with my grandfather’s warning about barn doors, firmly pounded idioms into my brain. Still, I never thought idioms would be part of my future. Until I was just out of college and visiting friends whose four-year-old son, when he heard somebody say “I can’t do that, I’m all tied up,” responded in an instant: I don’t see any ropes.
That was when I knew I wanted to write about idioms, in some way, at some time.
That time came when I wrote Dirty Proof, my first mystery novel. My protagonist, Frank Dragovic, is a Croatian-American from Chicago’s South Side, and at appropriate moments he quotes Croatian idioms he learned from his parents and grandparents. My favorite of these is Laz ide na kratke noge, which translates to something like “A lie travels on short legs.” Which is another way of saying that truth will out.
Readers loved the idioms and wrote asking for more.
But before I gave them more Croatian idioms, I wrote two early readers so that children could enjoy learning about idioms. The first of these was Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke, which contains not only the title idiom, but also two others: Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched, and You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
While I loved introducing children to these idioms (second graders and up “got” them), what really made me chuckle was when adults would come up to me at the autographing table, pick up a book, read the title story, smile, and say, “So that’s what that means!”
The sequel, Waltur Paints Himself into a Corner, contains the title idiom and two others: Don’t put the cart before the horse, and Let sleeping dogs lie.
After the publication of the Waltur books and especially after the reactions from adults, I realized that grownups also want to know what idioms mean. And so I put together a presentation that I give at libraries and schools. It’s titled Keeping the Wolf from the Door: A Look at Wise Folk Sayings. I’ve been giving this talk for about ten years.
That, I thought, was the end of my relationship with idioms.
Except that it wasn’t, because in 2018 I published Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers, about the man who created Honolulu Police Detective Charlie Chan, way back in 1925, in The House Without a Key. This, I think, is ironic: another book related in some way to idioms. Nobody beats Charlie Chan at spouting adages/idioms.
Perhaps I should stop the idioms here, with Charlie Chan’s Poppa. Or perhaps I should make hay while the sun shines.
Dirty Proof is full of Croatian idioms, including the author’s favorite, Laz idi na kratke nogi.