Why English needs new idioms

I admit it. Although I am a writer and words are my life, I’m also a little lazy. I don’t like it when words make me work; it should be the other way around. That’s why I like idioms – they’re the perfect way of explaining something that would otherwise take too many words. For example, saying, “It was a blessing in disguise”, is much easier than saying, “This event that took place was difficult for me to accept, and I felt disturbed and worried by it, but in the end, the very same event was the reason I was able to say yes to another much better opportunity and it all worked out well in the end.” Phew. Six words or 50? It’s an easy choice.

However, I now converse with multiple generations, younger than me. I believe I’m what’s called an ‘older millennial’. When conversing with 20 and 10-year-olds, I realise how much their context has changed and, how fast. This brings me to my point – English needs new idioms!  Try explaining ‘the best thing since sliced bread’ to a 10-year-old. Now most millennials will tell you – especially the older ones – of our childhood when bread was brought home by a baker on a bicycle at 3.00 pm, fresh from the oven. When you tried to cut it, it made the most unshapely slices or chunks, delicious, but terrible for making neat sandwiches. The modernised bakery was a marvel – when Niligiris (the first supermarket in Bangalore that began as a bakery) brought us precise, perfect slices of bread that could be made into cucumber and cheese or ham and cheese sandwiches, we understood why sliced bread was ‘the best thing’. So, today when bread arrives pre-packaged and sandwiches dripping with cheese are delivered, many 10 or even 20-year-olds have no idea why sliced bread is so awesome. Frankly neither do I anymore – the experience I described is what gave the idiom meaning. Using it in a shared context with others gave us both the same feeling, evoking visual and emotional memories. It’s almost like an instant click.

What would it be today? The best thing since the World Wide Web? The best thing since Netflix? 

Yesterday I had another such conversation about my phone ringing off the hook. Do you see where I’m going with this? I had to explain about rotary phones, that literally jumped off the receiver hook when the phone rang, and the notion that when someone was popular, the phone was always off the hook. With no call waiting, no missed calls, and no caller id, the phone was tied into one corner of the living room, and its loud jangle made your heart leap and wonder in anticipation about who was at the other end of the line. “Hello, may I know who is speaking?” is a phrase no one has used in the last two decades.  What would it be now to show how popular you are? My phone vibrated off the desk? My missed call register is multiple scrolls long? My follower list is over 10,000?

There are other idioms that pre-date even us millennials – ‘saved by the bell’ was a phrase that made sense to us in school, especially when being asked a tough question, or the teacher was working her way down the line of students, dispensing punishment. It originated in 19th-century American boxing, however, when a boxer who was about to be defeated would be saved by the end of the round. Upper crust, the rule of thumb, a dead-ringer…..there are many more interesting ones here in this article I found, that we carry on, having no idea of the context around them.

Context is important here, and I dare say other languages have idioms that aren’t as dated and are much more context-relevant. Ghar ki murgi dal barabar (the home-cooked chicken is like eating dal) is easily understood by anyone who grew up speaking Hindi and is still contextually relevant today. A culturally context-appropriate version of this in Kerala is ‘Muttathe mullekku manna milla’ (the homegrown jasmine has no smell). Both refer to taking something for granted at home, that you would appreciate in any other place. The context that English idioms transport us to today, is medieval England, a fun journey for History enthusiasts, but not shared anymore.  

Now every time I come across an idiom in English, it makes me rebel. The world has transitioned between so many diverse realities over time; why are we still echoing the same old idioms? 

English needs new idioms. This is a fun exercise I put to us all, to younger generations, creative minds, and wordsmiths. It’s time to change our references and make new lore. 

Let’s not beat around the bush, when the bird is in hand. Shall we accept all cookies on this? 


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Nandini Naik
Nandini Naik

Nandini is co-founder of BlueInk Content, pursuing the ideal and inspiring, following her conviction that original thought and powerful stories can move the world. She writes to learn about herself and the world - about writing and communications, family, food and fun, nostalgia, and people who inspire her.

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