On language akin to the solid substance used for sidewalks
iece of cake, right?” I said to Owen after he nimbly scrambled over this climbing wall at the Empire beach last week.
He tossed me a stern glance.
“That is not a cake, Mommy.”
Oh, you idioms. As a writer, I love them for the flavor, nuance and imagery they bring to language. But as a mother trying to communicate with a son whose brain operates purely literally, idioms are wasted breath, time and effort.
I was reminded of this again last night, when Temple Grandin came to my community to speak. Probably the world’s best-known person with autism, Grandin, a self-described visual thinker, was asked about the obstacles she encounters trying to communicate with verbal thinkers (most people.)
“Verbal people tend to overgeneralize,” she said. An example she frequently hears: “What suggestions do you have for my child who’s having behavior problems in school?”
How old is that child? What does “behavior problems” mean, exactly? Are the problems new or longstanding? Grandin said she needs to know all these answers to begin to answer meaningfully.
Idioms are a form of overgeneralization, Speakers assume that like them, the listener has the language and cultural understanding to comprehend the words. And while idioms often have an interesting origin (as with piece of cake), most have been used to the point of cliche. Meaning they’re not such a good choice for me as a writer, either. It’s details and specificity that bring a character or a scene to life.
So, starting now, I’m going to police my idiom use. Should be as easy as pie, right?
PS – The reason Owen and I were out in Empire was to deliver copies of Plover Pilgrimage to the Visitors’ Center gift shop at the Sleeping Bear Dunes. The most beautiful book in America (thanks, Glenn Wolff!) is now at the most beautiful place in America.