Words and expressions are funny things. Our idioms can drive newcomers to our language over the edge, or perhaps ‘round the bend. There’s a couple of idioms for you. I got to thinking of all this a couple of days ago when we were experiencing record cold temps and a brisk wind. I told a friend “the hawk is out this morning” and he had no clue what I was talking about. I grew up in Michigan and my Dad used to use that expression. I asked him one time for an explanation. He said that on mornings like that it felt like a hawk were biting your nose off. It got me to wondering where this idiom came from. This seemed like a problem tailor-made for the internet. I did a bit of poking and it appears that no one knows where the expression began. Though it is apparently a favorite expression in Chicago for the cold winter wind off Lake Michigan, it seems to have been used in other places as well. Some say “Hawkins is outside” rather than “the hawk,” and there is conjecture regarding this fearsome Hawkins who lent his name to the idiom. Perhaps “the hawk is out” will fade out of the language and my children’s children will never hear or use it. I could give other examples of the way idioms, not just in English but in other languages as well, seem to come out of nowhere, morph, change, develop popular etymologies to explain them, and sometimes disappear almost completely.
But all this got me to thinking about what I do for a living. I teach Biblical Hebrew and the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. In Daniel 3:8 it literally says that “some Chaldeans came forward and ate their pieces, the ones of the Jews.” What on earth does it mean that “they ate their pieces?” This is, it turns out, an idiom, an expression whose parts do not add up to the whole but to something else. The expression means “to slander, accuse, malign.” What does all this mean for my chosen occupation? Well, first, teaching Biblical Hebrew is more than just teaching the students the words and the grammar. Some things will simply not translate literally and if the students gain only a rudimentary understanding of grammar and vocabulary, they will still be unable to use the language effectively. Schools where the student’s only exposure to the biblical languages is learning to use a computer program and wave their mouse over a set of strange-looking symbols to get the parsing and gloss are doing their students a grave disservice. There is no substitute for some level of fluency in biblical languages.
Second, idioms are hard to pin down. Sometimes they change or develop secondary, popular etymologies. Context, as always, is the key. In my classes I tell my students that “Context! Context! Context!” is our Hebrew exegesis mantra. With an idiom, the pieces simply do not add up to the total meaning. Looking at the way the expression is used in context, or better yet, in a number of contexts, makes it possible to express the meaning of the idiom with a high level of precision and certainty.
And finally, an awareness of the nature of idioms makes us even more careful not to depend on (or worse, preach) the etymology of a word or expression as though it held some magical key to the meaning. Idioms, like individual words, develop, change, and even fall into disuse. It would do no good, and perhaps a great deal of harm, to disassemble “they ate their pieces” and try and explain it. Which brings us back to “Context! Context! Context!” Words to live by…now I wonder where that expression came from?