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The last shot at American Idioms

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The use of metaphors is relatively late in the modern European languages; it is, in principle, a post-Renaissance phenomenon. The same holds for the idioms based on metaphors. No one in the days of Beowulf and perhaps even of Chaucer would have coined the phrase to lose one’s marbles “to become insane,” even if so long ago boys were as intent on collecting marbles as was Tom Sawyer. American English is about five centuries old, and, not unexpectedly, quite a few phrases of this type arose in it. Some became universally known; others never crossed the ocean eastwards. As with many words first recorded overseas, we may come across collocations that had some currency in rural British dialects but did not catch the attention of literary people in England. Yet to lose one’s marbles does not appear to be one of such cases. The game of marbles in the form familiar to us originated in Germany (or so they say) and may have been popularized in the United States by the children of German immigrants (pure guesswork). To lose one’s marbles may go back to the frustration of a player who lost them, though the connection is not too convincing and other suggestions also exist. In any case, the idiom should remain with the label “American.” A similar case is between a rock and a hard place. It turned up in the early 1920s, mainly in Arizona, in the sense “to be bankrupt.” The reference is supposed to be to the difficulty of navigating between Scylla and Charybdis. But why should such an allusion to a Greek myth have occurred to some businessman in twentieth-century Arizona? If the current explanation is correct, the inventor must have been someone versed in old tales. In any case, we witness a common play with almost interchangeable synonyms: after all, rock is the same as hard place. A model for such a locution would be easy to find: compare between the Devil and the deep sea (the 1620s) and between the beetle and the block (first attested in a book in 1590; beetle was the name of. . .

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News source: Linguistics – OUPblog

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