Speaking In Tongues
Scribbling In Voices

Maria Lebedko

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 period.
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: 67-68).
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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