American History Reflected in Idioms:
American Studies Perspective
The establishment of American studies as a scholarly field can be traced
back to the 1970's, the years when it was instituted as a discipline (or,
rather, inter-discipline) speaking in terms of theory, its institutional
contexts, and method. But some 30 - 40 years earlier there were authors
who raised theoretical issues. So, formal history of American Studies development
as an academic discipline numbers 60 years in the United States and about
50 years in Europe. (Ickstadt, 1996: 11). As J. Mechling, R. Merideth,
and D. Wilson observed, "According to a standard account, it began
in the 1930's with stirrings of discontent within single departments, usually
English, sometimes history, over what seemed arbitrary limitations on teaching
and writing." (1973: 364). The spread of American Studies throughout
Europe after World War II began from the Salzburg Seminar in Austria and
often a chair was established within an English or history department.
(Ickstadt, 1996: 11). It may be noted in passing that, to some extent,
it explains the history of simultaneously establishing American Studies
programs at two departments at Far Eastern State University in 1994: those
of English Philology and History. Since its emergence as a scholarly field
American Studies has had two contradictory trends: on the one hand, it
"promotes a broad humanistic understanding of American culture past
and present, encourages scholars from diverse disciplines to exchange ideas
on America, and examines the ways American life relates to world society."
(Stephens, 1996: 5). On the other hand, it faces many challenges the major
of which "include the relationship between American studies and the
traditional disciplines, the relationship between American studies and
its subject (the United States), and the relationship between domestic
American studies and its international variations." (Stephens, 1996:
9). There are problems and challenges but, clearly, being multi-disciplinary
and interdisciplinary, American Studies offers a broad range of possible
fields of research. In this context, it will be of great interest to see
the relationship between history and language. Perhaps the most obvious
demonstration of this relationship will come from identification and analysis
of those idioms which reflect American history or rather American culture
of this or that historic period.
Studying idioms many authors call attention to the fact that they can
more easily than other language units cumulate and store facts about the
past, cultural semantics of a nation, traditions, customs, folklore, etc.
because of the so called "cumulative" function of a language.
The element which renders the information is called "national-cultural
component". (See for example, Vereshchagin and Kostomarov, 1982: 89).
There exist many definitions of an idiom, but most theorists stress three
main features: that this linguistic unit consists of more than one word,
it is stable, and idiomatic, that is the meaning of a whole unit does not
emerge from the meaning of words it consists of. (Kunin, 1984: 7; Baranov
and Dobrovol'skii, 1996: 51).
The material for the analysis was obtained from The Wordaworth Dictionary
of Idioms (Kirkpatrick and Schwarz, 1995) and comprised 132 units marked
"Originally US" or "An American Expression..." since
my intention was to concentrate on American idioms. While American and
British Englishes share a lot of common vocabulary stock -- idioms including
-- there are, in my view, two diachronically distinct types of idioms:
those inherited from British English but which changed some components
(one or two words) on the American soil
those the prototypes of which appeared on the American soil. Some of
these idioms are borrowed by British English. So, to tell one from the
other we must know the origin.
To illustrate the first diachronic type I will quote some examples
from Collins COBUILD Idioms Workbook: BE. not see the wood
for the trees -AE. not see the forest for the trees; BE. a storm
in a teacup - AE. A tempest in a teapot. (Goodale,
1995: 3). The second type is more numerous and it will be illustrated in
detail. For the purposes of the article I would like to focus on the idioms
the prototypes of which appeared in the United States. Out of 132 only
15 idioms reflect different historic events, customs of this or that historic
Etymological analysis of the data obtained showed that it is possible
to distinguish several groups of idioms according to the period in the
history of the U.S. they reflect.
Idioms reflecting the way of life on the American frontier.
So much has been written on the frontier that it is difficult to find any
subject not covered in the literature. The role of the frontier is tremendous
not only in the history but also in contemporary life of Americans. Thus,
R.A.Billington sees the impact of frontier in some characteristics of the
American people, "during three centuries of expansion their attitudes
toward democracy and nationalism and individualism were altered, and they
developed identifiable traits not shared in like degree by their European
ancestors: wastefulness, inventiveness, mobility, and a dozen more."
(Billington, 1991: V). Other authors describe the image of the frontier.
For example, L. Schlissel underscores how different the image of frontier
may be, "it could mean deep forests or grasslands stretching for a
thousand miles; it could mean red dirt flats or outcroppings of rock surging
up against the sky." (Schlissel, 1988: 81). The impact of the frontier
can be seen in many spheres of American culture.
The material under study provides examples which imply the way of life
on the frontier. The idiom rope (someone) in reflects the experience
of catching and collecting cattle with the help of lassoes by the frontiersmen
in the West. That is the direct meaning and the idiomatic meaning is "to
include (someone); to persuade (someone) to join in doing something: We
roped him in to help." (Kirkpatrick and Schwarz, 1995). The prototype
of the idiom this neck of the woods originally denoted a remote
community in the woods, later the idiomatic meaning "a particular
place or part of the country" developed which can be seen from the
example: What do you do in the evening in this neck of the woods?
(Kirkpatrick and Schwarz, 1995). Though the frontier was different a lot
is connected with a life in the woods that predetermined many typical American
characteristics. Billington writes, "No matter how nationalistic the
frontiersmen might be, they were backwoodsmen, living in comparable isolation
from the main currents of life..." (Billington, 1991: 212-213). The
life in the woods is also reflected in the idiom have a chip on one's
shoulder, the etymological meaning of which was "a reference to
a man who carries a piece of wood balanced on his shoulder in the hope
that someone will give him an excuse for a fight by knocking it off".
The idiomatic meaning is: "to have rather an aggressive manner, as
if always expecting to be insulted, ill-treated etc: He is very difficult
to deal with--he's always had a chip on his shoulder about the lack of
education." (Kirkpatrick and Schwarz, 1995). The origin of the
idiom run-of-the-mill has reference to the life in the woods too.
It came to mean "not special or unusual" as can be seen from
the example: The film on television last night was very run-of-the-mill.
Originally it meant "ungraded sawn timber as produced by a sawmill."
(Kirkpatrick and Schwarz, 1995). One more facet of frontier history, the
gold rush of the 1850's and 1860's, can be found out in the idiom strike
(it) lucky, the etymological meaning of which expressed anticipation
of gold miners (forty-niners) to find gold or silver. Idiomatic meaning:
"to have good luck in a particular matter: We certainly struck
lucky in choosing that school" (Kirkpatrick and Schwarz, 1995).
Idioms reflecting events of the 17th century. A very important
historic event is reflected in the idiom a witch-hunt, the idiomatic
meaning of which is: "a search for, and persecution of, people whose
views are regarded as evil: The McCarthy witch-hunt in the United States
from 1950-54 sought out members of the Communist Party." (Kirkpatrick
and Schwarz, 1995) . The prototype of the idiom refers to the organized
hunts for witches. And though it took place both in America and in Britain
the idiom originally appeared in the United States. Against the background
of extreme stress (being a colony of England, the country was in a state
of war with the French and their Indian allies and in 1690 northern frontiers
of New England and New York were devastated by enemy attacks) there occurred
an outbreak of witch-hunt that led to accusations in witchcraft. It was
especially severe in Salem Village. In 1692 nineteen people were hanged,
another was pressed to death by heavy stones, and more than one hundred
people were jailed. To explain this puzzling episode, the authors of the
book A People and A Nation write, "to be understood it must
be seen in its proper context--one of political and legal disorder, of
Indian war, and of religious and economic change. It must have seemed to
Puritan New Englanders as though their entire world was collapsing."(1990:
Idioms referring to the 18th century. There are some idioms
which reflect everyday life of people during the 18th century. It refers
to the idiom have an axe to grind, the idiomatic meaning of which
is "to have a personal, often selfish, reason for being involved in
something: I have no axe to grind--I just want to help you."
(Kirkpatrick and Schwarz, 1995). The etymology of this idiom presents a
great interest. It represents a story as it is believed, told by Benjamin
Franklin (1706-1790), American statesman, diplomat, author, scientist,
and inventor, about a man who "had once asked him to demonstrate how
his father's grindstone worked--and had then produced an axe which he wanted
to sharpen." (Kirkpatrick and Schwarz, 1995).
Idioms referring to the 19th century. Most idioms describe the
everyday life, they are connected with the tools. Fly off the handle
idiomatically means "to lose one's tempo: He flew off the handle
when he heard that the boys had raided his garden again." (Kirkpatrick
and Schwarz, 1995). The metaphor is based on the possibility of an axehead
to fly off the handle while one is using it. According to D. Boorstin,
the idioms came into use in 1825 (1993: 74). Tools and implements play
an important role in the life of Americans, as in a life of any people.
They are often used in idioms. The prototype of the idiom get the hang
of (something) originally meant "to learn to use this or that
tool." Idiomatic meaning is "to learn, or begin to understand,
how to do (something): It may seem difficult at first, but you'll get
the hang of it after a few weeks." (Kirkpatrick and Schwarz, 1995).
A very important facet of life is diclosed in the idiom bark up the
wrong tree, which presently means "to attempt to do the wrong
thing or to do something in the wrong way or from the wrong direction:
You're barking up the wrong tree if you think you will be able to influence
the judge." The metaphor comes from racoon-hunting, where dogs
were used to locate racoons up in trees. (Kirkpatrick and Schwarz, 1995).
There are many idioms including elements denoting hunting in the common
vocabulary stock, most of them were inherited by American English. It is
noteworthy to underline that the idioms describes hunting a new animal,
racoon, the habitat of which is the North America. D.Boorstin refers this
idiom to 1833 (1993: 74).
Idioms referring to the 20th century. The period of Prohibition
gave rise to several idioms pertaining to the organized crime. Many Americans
first heard about this type of crime in the early 1920s when it was started
by notorious Al Capone with bootlegging in Chicago. Later he came to control
much of illegal activities: extortion, gambling, prostitution, narcotics,
etc. (Flexner, 1982: 435). The activity of gangsters is reflected in the
idiom take (someone) for a ride, which had a variant take (someone)
for a one-way ride, the etymological meaning was "to kill someone
in a moving car", it was originally gangster's slang reflecting a
common practice of exterminating a person without attracting attention.
Metaphorical meaning is: "to trick, chit or decieve (someone): He
doesn't actually work for a charity at all, so the people who have sent
him money have been taken for a ride." (Kirkpatrick and Schwarz,
1995). Three other idioms in the material under study also refer to the
same period and all of them came from the gandster;s slang. Thus, the idiom
put (someone)on the spot means "to place (someone)
in a dangerous, difficult or embarrassing position: The interviewer's
questions really put the Prime Minister on the spot." (Kirkpatrick
and Schwarz, 1995). Originally it meant "to decide to kill someone."
Give (someone) the works metaphorically means "to give someone
the full treatment:They've certainly given her the works at the hairdresser's
-- she's had her hair cut, tinted and permed." The prototype meant
"to kill someone" (Kirkpatrick and Schwarz, 1995). Though the
prototype of the idiom stool-pigeon meaning "a pigeon tied
to a stool and used as a decoy" goes back to the 1830's, the spread
and active use refers to the 1920's (Flexner, 1982: 436). Idiomatic meaning
is "an informer or spy especially for the police: The police received
information about the planned robbery from a stoolpigeon." (Kirkpatrick
and Schwarz, 1995).
A later period can be seen in the idiom on the breadline meaning
"with barely enough money to live on: The widow and her children
were living on the breadline." (Kirkpatrick and Schwarz, 1995).
The idiom reminds about The Great Depression (1929 - the late 1930's).
But the worst period was between 1929 - 1933, when unemployment reached
13 million people in 1933 which comprised one fourth of the labor force.
It is at that time that soup kitchens were opened by such organizations
as Red Cross and Salvation Army in the United States, the poorest people
queued in breadlines. (A People..., 1990: 730) So, the prototype of the
idiom meant literally "queues of destitute people waiting for free
food from soup-kitchens, especially run by the government." (Kirkpatrick
and Schwarz, 1995).
Summing up, I would like to underscore that American studies perspective
enabled to find cultural elements in idioms which store the information
about historic events, ethnographic details, ways of life of different
periods in the history of the U.S.A. Albeit history is only implied in
the idioms under study but the information is very important for the students
majoring in American studies as well as for those who are interested in
the United States.
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