Emma infodumps: The grass is always greener

design: Lily Clark
photos permission to print: Emma Clute

Many of the words and phrases we say make no sense. And I’m not referring to slang or colloquialisms, but the sayings we use on a daily basis like to “let the cat out of the bag”, or to “break a leg”. These words don’t communicate anything individually, and yet, we still understand the idea that they’re trying to get across. Even one of the most common words in the English language is like this: OK.

Used to express assent or agreement, the word itself is an acronym that originated in the mid-19th century. At the time, there were a number of linguistic fads occurring in newspapers that sparked its creation. The first trend was an increased use of acronyms and the second was the deliberate misspelling of words, according to Merriam-Webster.

The combination of these two trends — acronyms created from purposely misspelled words — is what led to the creation of O.K. It originally came from the phrase “all correct” which then became “oll korrect”, according to the Guardian. Other examples of this phenomenon include K.G. which meant “no go” and O.W. which meant “all right.”

One popular idiom that also seems to lack an obvious meaning is “spill the beans”. Many people know that this refers to revealing private information, but the origin is a little more hazy. The most popular theory by far is that it dates back to the Ancient Greek method of voting where beans would be placed into a container, with white beans meaning a vote of “yes” and black meaning “no”, according to the Smithsonian Magazine. If someone were to knock this jar over, the beans, and therefore the information regarding the vote, would be revealed for all to see.

However, other theories say that the phrase simply originates from the slang of “spill” as “talk” and “beans” as “information”, according to the Scholastic Dictionary of Idioms. 

Another common saying that has an unclear literal meaning is to “steal someone’s thunder” which refers to preventing someone from success by doing what they were planning to do.

This idiom, unlike many others, has a very clear origin. It comes from when playwright John Dennis devised a thunder machine for his play “Appius and Virginia” in the early 1700s. The play was largely unsuccessful and was soon replaced by a production of “Macbeth”. When Dennis went to go see this new production, he was surprised to find that they were using a very similar device to his own. It is said that he stood up and shouted, “They will not let my play run, but they steal my thunder,” according to the BBC. From there, the idiom was cemented into our language.

One interesting result of the plethora of idioms that exist in English is that some are quite similar to those in other languages. For example, something “costing an arm and a leg” is eerily similar to the French phrase “coûter les yeux de la tête” or “to cost the eyes from the head”.

In fact, this phenomenon occurs more often in language than one might think. For instance, the idea of “getting on someone’s nerves” exists in at least 57 European languages, and “shedding crocodile tears” exists in 45 of them, as well as many Asian languages, according to Medium.

One theory of why this occurs is called “spontaneous metaphorization” and refers to the idea that humans are hard-wired to turn real life experiences into metaphors, resulting in similar ones in many languages, according to Medium. Some other theories revolve around the idea of ties to our ancestral languages as well as loan translations of phrases.

Across all languages, idioms enhance our speech and help us express abstract ideas in a way that we can wrap our heads around. And even though they may not seem to make much sense, we use them more often than we realize. There was even one used in this paragraph.