Dallas, TX –
Writers and speakers often use colorful figures of speech to enliven their words. That device can work provided the expression isn't trite and provided the speakers know what they're saying. Misunderstood figures of speech lead to "mixaphors" or otherwise mangled expression.
For example, a radio reporter said that unless procedures were carefully followed, things could go "hog-wired" an imaginative but bewildering blend of "haywire," "hog wild" and, possibly, "hog-tied."
A TV anchor said he had been so sick with the flu that he felt he had "one foot in the bucket" apparently blending "one foot in the grave" with "kick the bucket."
A talk show guest said that one problem in the Middle East was that there was no roadmap at the end of the tunnel. That mixaphor could have passed for word play after all, we'd like not only light at the end of the tunnel but also to know where we're going.
But that speaker lost all credibility when he mentioned the "grindstone" around negotiators' necks. If he'd spoken longer, he might have put someone's nose to the millstone, or even to the albatross.
For the record: A millstone or albatross goes around the neck. and the nose goes to the grindstone. Millstones are large stones that pulverize (as in processing grain) and therefore symbolize a heavy burden. Likewise, an albatross usually symbolizes a burden of distress that hinders action. A grindstone is a revolving stone that hones or polishes, so we bend our noses to the grindstone, figuratively speaking, when we work hard.
Sometimes expressions change slightly over time, and the new version may not make much sense. For example, the expression "happy as a clam at high tide" has become "happy as a clam."
And how happy are clams, exactly?
"Walking on eggs," which meant stepping carefully to avoid breaking those fragile shells, has changed over time to the less meaningful "walking on eggshells." But if we're walking on eggshells, the eggs are already broken and the damage done.
Expressions also can change over time through misuse. We often hear and see the expression "running amok," for example, as "running amuck." The term "amok," which is spelled a-m-o-k, means out of control and derives from a Malayan word that means to be in a frenzy. "Amok" is so frequently misspelled as a-m-u-c-k, though, that some dictionaries have begun listing "amuck" as an alternative if not preferred form.
I recently had an e-mail from a journalist that included the baffling construction "hanging by tenderhooks." What could a "tender hook" be like? Granted, the accurate tenterhook isn't entirely suggestive, either. But a tenterhook is a sharp, hooked nail used to fasten cloth to a...yes, to a tenter a frame used to dry and stretch cloth.
So if we're on tenterhooks, metaphorically speaking, we're suspended, stretched, and strained.
I wonder: When those hooked nails become dull, do we put our tenterhooks to the grindstone?
Paula LaRocque is a former editor and writing coach for the Dallas Morning News and the author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well.
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