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To put to bed: Clarifying confusing idiomatic expressions

Idiomatic expressions (shortened as idioms) have been defined as groups of words established by usage as having meanings not deducible from their individual words. Idioms are important linguistic codes that help to express one’s thoughts clearly and concisely. Idioms grease interactions and make talks flow with ease among those who have mastery of them.

With the geographical dispersion of English and its nativisation in different ports of use, idioms are now greatly distorted in forms and/or meanings, either due to ignorance or to reflect the sociocultural realities of its new societies. Against this backdrop, this treatise will discuss some idioms that have generated different interpretations for different reasons and will conclude with implications for the growth of Nigerian English.

Instructively, it must be mentioned that some of these idioms have more than one meaning even among the native speakers of English. To begin with the idiom “put to bed,” two separate but similar meanings are given for the expression in Standard British English, according to Collins Dictionary:

1. In relation to journalism, it means “to finalise work on (a newspaper, magazine, etc.) so that it is ready to go to press.”

2. In relation to printing, it means “to lock up the typ forme of (a publication) in the press before printing.”

The expression is also generally used to mean “to achieve a plan or task, or to complete it successfully.” The idiom has an extended meaning in American English, which is “to get a child or invalid ready for sleep.” There is also a semantic variant of the idiom among West African speakers of English, which is “to give birth to a child.” Thankfully, this meaning has also been captured in the Oxford English Dictionary Online, even though it has yet to be recognised in most other reputable dictionaries.

Another often misconstrued idiom is “paddle your own canoe.” While many Nigerians interpret this as saying, “Do not meddle in someone else’s affairs,” the idiom actually means being independent. Hence, if you describe a person as paddling his/her own canoe, you mean that him/her is independent and do not need help from anyone else. The sentences below exemplify the Nigerian usage and the established meaning:

Don’t ask her what she wants to do; you have to learn to paddle your own canoe (nonstandard).

Don’t ask her what she wants to do; you have to learn not to meddle in other people’s affairs (standard).

You are free to come around for the weekend, provided you can paddle your own canoe (= provided you can provide your own needs).

While Nigerian linguists and language education scholars can make a move to recognise the common Nigerian usage, it is important for second-language users to be mindful of the meaning of the idiom in other varieties of English. Another popular idiom with an unclear meaning is “devil’s advocate.” Because Nigerian users of English are deeply rooted in Abrahamic religions where the devil is often used to represent evil, many Nigerians tend to understand being a devil’s advocate as being an evil or bad person.

Read also: The importance of English language to a quality education in Nigeria

Meanwhile, if you play devil’s advocate in a discussion or debate, you express an opinion which you may not agree with but which is very different from what other people have been saying, in order to make the argument more interesting. The idiom does not necessarily come with a negative connotation. An acceptable context of use is the sentence below:

I do not believe all that I said; I was just playing devil’s advocate (standard).

Be in the know, too, that the noun phrase should not be preceded by an article.

I was just playing a devil’s advocate (nonstandard).

I was just playing devil’s advocate (standard).

Another expression used as an idiom is “has-been” which may be literally interpreted in the sense that someone has been to a place. Meanwhile, if you describe someone as a has-been, you are indicating in an unkind way that s/he was important or respected in the past but not anymore. The usage of the countable noun is illustrated with the following sentences:

Many political has-beens try to seek relevance with the present government.

His knowledge of desktop repair deceives him; he’s such a technological has-been.

Another nominal idiom which is not suggestive of its meaning is “market leader.” While one may spontaneously interpret this phrase as “the leader of a market,” it behoves me to inform you that a market leader is a company that sells more of a particular product or service than most of its competitors do, or a product that outsells its competitors.

So while Dangote Cement can be referred to as a market leader, Aliko Dangote cannot be said to be a market leader in the idiomatic sense of the word.

I wish to round off this piece by stating clearly that, while it is not a problem to have semantic variants of these idioms, it is important to standardise and codify them for the sake of official usage and pedagogical validation.

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