Opinion: Idiomatically speaking


Where would we be without our idioms? No victory would ever be “in the bag.” No one would ever “kick the bucket.” Seldom, if ever, would anyone go on a “wild goose chase.” And it would be impossible for someone to “let the cat out of the bag.”

Something that was “in the bag” was a sure thing. In 1916, when the New York Giants had won 26 games in a row, the bat boy was ordered to take the ball bag back to the club house. To the local sportswriters, that meant no more balls would be needed because the game was “in the bag.”

To “kick the bucket” means to die. Its roots go back to early slaughter houses where butchered animals were secured on wooden beams called buckets.

The phrase has endured even though no one since Cain killed Abel has anyone literally kicked a bucket at death. Except in the movie, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” when Jimmy Durante dies after a car wreck. As he draws his final breath, he kicks a rusty bucket lying alongside the road.

That movie followed a wild cast of characters on a “wild goose chase” looking for lost money from a bank robbery. That idiom has nothing to do with geese, but instead refers to a horse race where the horses fan out behind the leader resembling a “V” of geese. Apparently,  no one could win such a race and, presumably, an assured loss became known as a wild goose chase.

As for “letting the cat out of the bag,” research takes us back in history when an unwary person might buy a “pig in a poke.” Apparently, butchers in bygone days weren’t always “on the up and up.” As a result, a person might purchase a pre-packaged pig, only to discover upon opening the bag that it was occupied by a stray cat, not a pig.

When I was in college, a knowledgeable professor assured me that English was not an idiomatic language. I doubted that then, and I doubt it now. However, he was the prof and I was the student, so I took his counsel at “face value” and “with a grain of salt.” And even if he had “hit the nail on the head,” I realized I shouldn’t “carry all my eggs in one basket,” nor “count my chickens before they’d hatched.”

And rather than let it become “a hot potato,” and “add insult to injury at the drop of a hat,” I admitted I might be “barking up the wrong tree,” recognized that “curiosity killed the cat,” and accepted the whole shebang as “the best of both worlds” and a “blessing in disguise.”


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