Many idioms—expressions that are not taken literally—are so old and so familiar that we don’t think twice about using them. We say, for example, “it’s raining cats and dogs” to indicate that it’s pouring outside, and “comfortable as an old shoe” to explain an easy and familiar relationship. We can trace the etymology of some idioms to books and sayings that were first used hundreds of years ago, while the origins of others are, frankly, mysterious.
We wondered, though, do we still coin new idioms? To find out, we asked linguists, people who study language.
All the way up
“New idioms come along all the time,” says Arnold Zwicky, adjunct professor of linguistics at Stanford University. “There are several sources for idioms, but the big contributor is figurative language, especially metaphors. When a metaphor is first used, it’s fresh and vivid—and people have to think through the image to appreciate what it conveys. But with continued use, listeners can ‘short-circuit’ these connections and move automatically from the expression to its content, without thinking about why the expression conveys what it does. Then it’s an idiom. The process is a slow and gradual one, and people aren’t usually aware of the change that’s happening.”
A new term that’s quickly slipping from metaphor to idiom, Zwicky says, is all the way up. It comes from the 2016 song “All the Way Up” by rappers Fat Joe and Remy Ma and means “to be at the pinnacle of your emotional spectrum.” The term was then incorporated into 2017 Mountain Dew commercials. Ah, the makings of a bonafide idiom.
Let’s hug it out
Slang and idioms are related, says Robin Lakoff, a professor emerita of linguistics at University of California, Berkeley. But, she adds, “slang changes rapidly while idioms seem to hang around. Slang is created and used largely by outgroups, but everyone picks up on and uses idioms.”
The phrase let’s hug it out means “let’s end our argument.” It was popularized by Ari on HBO’s series Entourage, though Chandler once said it to Phoebe on an episode of Friends. The phrase has been repeated in magazines and is emblazoned on T-shirts and is now entering common usage, Lakoff says.
Drink the Kool-Aid, going postal, and giving zero f*cks
“People adopt and coin new idioms all the time,” says Suzanne Wagner, a linguistics professor at Michigan State University. What’s interesting, she says, “is the ways in which people today are playing with idioms. By definition, idioms are language chunks that typically can’t be re-arranged. They draw their idiomatic meaning from their specific word order. So, you can say, for example, He kicked the bucket last year, but it sounds odd to say His bucket was kicked last year, or even more weird to use it in an imperative like Kick his bucket!”
“But there are some great examples of people re-arranging the syntax of idioms for deliberate comic, sarcastic, or other effect. The classic in this genre must be the I don’t give a f*ck idiom: I give zero f*cks; Zero f*cks given; Behold the field where I sow my f*cks—it is barren. Internet memes have really allowed this kind of playing around to spread quickly.”
Wagner points to these other recently coined idioms as examples of casual phrases that have since gained idiom status:
Drink the Kool-Aid means to follow blindly, despite the consequences. It comes from the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide, in which more than 900 people drank Kool-Aid laced with drugs.
Go postal means to get extremely angry or violent, particularly at work. The idiom comes from a series of incidents, between the 1970s and 1990s when current and former employees of the US Postal Service killed co-workers.
Jumping the shark means that something that was once great is now declining in quality or popularity. The term comes from a 1977 episode of the TV series Happy Days, in which The Fonz jumps over a shark while on water skis. Both critics and fans felt the antic was a misguided ploy for ratings.
So, all in all, new idioms are created every day. And, even if you gave zero f*cks about this . . . at least now you know you were using an idiom.