Languages are very much alive and they evolve along with society. Not everything changes, however. Some idioms or expressions stand the test of time and remain with us to this day, even though they refer to things we do not use anymore, or to moments in history we have forgotten about.
Let’s take a look at some of these idioms whose real meaning was lost in “translation.”
While this idiom is used nowadays to mean that someone or their products are more advanced or better at anticipating future developments, it’s actually related to airplanes.
Indeed, the figurative curve isn’t about some upcoming evolution or development, but really refers to the power curve of an airplane. When flying, pilots need to figure out the right amount of power output from the engine to maintain airspeed and altitude.
You could create a graph to visualize this concept and it would show a curve with the ultimate sweet spot at its peak. Too little power will increase drag and make the plane lose altitude and/or speed, therefore falling behind the power curve, whereas enough power makes it possible to maintain airspeed and altitude, thus remaining ahead of the power curve.
As aircrafts became more popular, so did this expression. It admittedly comes from an entirely different context, but the idiom still preserves the essence of its original meaning: having the ability to not slow down and fall behind.
If you read a book about human anatomy, you should be able to confirm a very important fact: there is no apple in our eyes. Such books, however, were evidently rare and unequivocally inaccurate a thousand years ago, when the first written mention of this idiom appeared.
Back then, people thought the pupil was some spherical, solid object and would colloquially call it the “apple” of the eye. As well, sight was of utmost importance for everyone – just like today of course, but there were no eye specialists or surgeons to correct a poor eyesight or to operate after an unfortunate mishap with an arrow.
So at some point – we do not know exactly when – people started using “the apple of one’s eye,” referring to the pupil, as a metaphor for something that is precious, or irreplaceable. This idiom definitely makes up for its lack of biological accuracy with serious poetic creativity.
Someone who is anxious or in such distress to a point that they cannot operate normally. That’s what we mean when we say someone is a “basket case.” However, there is more to this idiom than the emotional inability to accomplish anything.
Its origins go back to the end of World War One. “Basket case” was American slang for soldiers who were rumoured to have lost all four limbs and thus needed to be carried in a basket. However, very few soldiers actually survived such an injury – and there’s no evidence that any of them were actually transported in a basket.
The use of this expression rapidly evolved to encompass anyone who is unable to function because of their emotions. Green Day even shot their famous Basket Case video clip in a mock mental asylum.
You’ve heard the expression; now let me tell you the whole shebang about er… the whole shebang.
A “shebang” goes back to the American Civil War and used to mean a temporary shelter or a rough hut. It may originate in the Irish word shebeen, which means illegal tavern. Then, half a century later, people would still be using the word, but when referring to a coach or vehicle (probably from the French char-à-bancs, i.e. a carriage with benches). It took another 50 years for the term to develop yet another meaning and this time, it would be indiscriminate in its scope: the whole shebang meant the whole matter.
While we can trace the origins of the idiom, its actual evolution is a bit of a mystery. We do not know exactly why it took a different meaning through time, but that’s an eloquent example of how living languages change continually.
WeWork’s listing on the stock market was a flash in the pan, something that starts with resolute force and fails miserably. Now allow me to take you back, again, to the era of musketry.
Contrary to popular belief, this idiom probably does not refer to a sudden flash in the gold prospector’s pan that would suggest they found gold but turns out just to be a reflection, leaving the prospector with nothing but disappointment.
It’s about muskets, actually. The pan is the part of the musket that holds the gunpowder. Sometimes, when you pulled the trigger the gunpowder ignited without a bullet being fired. This was a “flash in the pan.”
Think of a blank. It goes bang, but nothing else really happens. This is why we refer to a moment of excitement followed by a failure as a flash in the pan.
Now are there any idioms you like using yourself without really knowing what they mean? Anything your grandparents have been saying since forever that sounds funny but makes no sense? Are there any equivalent or similar idioms in your native language? Let us know!