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The idiom experience.

Teaching semantics may seem like a long row to hoe or five miles of mud road but with experience it don't take long to curry a pony and have as much fun as a barrel of monkeys.

In my semantics/linguistics class I use rural Midwestern idioms of the past to demonstrate the relationship of the language and the experience it represents. I state one of these idioms and apply it to a current concept being discussed. For example I say, "I hear Professor Brown grades rougher than a cob." Some students usually guess that Professor Brown grades without leniency, but they cannot fully appreciate the figure of speech. Very few of the students today have even seen a field corncob, let alone experience the cob as the sanitary toilet aid that preceded catalog pages and toilet tissues. I point out that the degree or extent of the experience enhances or limits the meaning of the phrase rougher than a cob.

The idiom, intended to make the message more colorful or descriptive, relies on the receivers' experiences as well as their vocabularies. For example, I could say, "it's cold outside," which provides an abstract and rather uninteresting statement. Or, I could say, "it's colder than the lips of a thunder mug on a January morning in Nebraska." Few people understand this idiom and even fewer have experienced a thunder mug. A thunder mug, a crude label for a chamber pot, has gone by the wayside since we now have indoor plumbing. When the students relate the symbols to the referents, they get involved in the message and in applying the concept to the current context.

I have collected about five hundred rural Midwestern idioms from which I draw my examples. Many are old, but still the students try to conceptualize the referent and relate to them. Some are understandable today without the reader/ listener having conscious knowledge of the referent. Do what you want in the buggy, but don't startle the horses appeals to the senses and excites the imagination of youth today even if they haven't experienced a horse and buggy. Further examples I've used include: You just as well partake of the devil as to taste his broth (if you are going to sin, do it), he bought a pig in a poke (he took a burlap sack without examining its contents). She got a lemon in the garden of love where only peaches were supposed to grow (she got a bad mate). They split the blanket (they divorced).

Today, commonly used idioms in this region of the Midwest have similar subject matter (death and common sense) as those of the rural past: Instead of saying "died" we say passed away, was called home, bought the farm, kicked the bucket or pushed up daisies. We say for one who lacks common sense, the elevator doesn't go to the top floor, brick short of a full load, doesn't know if he is walking or riding horseback, washin' or hangin' out, or the lights are burning but nobody's home. A current idiomatic version is she lacks the cheeseburger in a happy meal.

I also use idioms to demonstrate the difficulties of trying to learn and to use a new language, because every language and culture produces rich idiomatic expressions. I have collected thirty baseball idioms that are used today to describe everything from common activities to personal relationships. Baseball idioms are more commonly used and understood by American males, but what about the person who doesn't care much about baseball? The idiomatic message strikes out.

The students gain insight when they learn that idioms play a significant part in language past and present. For one assignment, I ask the students to listen to people around them and to record seven idioms they hear in three days. They have little difficulty fulfilling the assignment.

If you want to hit the nail on the head and keep the students as busy as a one-armed paper hanger, use idioms to help teach semantic principles. Go whole hog!

Bob Bohlken, Ph.D., Professor of Speech Communication, teaches semantics and linguistics at Northwest Missouri State University, Maryville, MO.
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Author:Bohlken, Bob
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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