Learning idioms is no piece of cake

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Learning languages is challenging. There are thousands of strange new words to know, along with how to pronounce them and use them correctly in a sentence.

One of the trickier parts is figuring out the meaning of a language’s idioms (pronounced IDD-ee-ums). An idiom is a phrase whose meaning is different from its individual words but is widely understood by native speakers of that language.

Do you know what clichés are?

For example, if someone says “don’t cry over spilled milk,” they aren’t talking about an actual puddle of milk. This idiom means that something is done with, and it’s time to move on.

Many languages have idioms. Here’s a funny one in Polish: Nie mój cyrk, nie moje malpy. It translates to “Not my circus, not my monkeys” — in other words, “not my problem.”

Here are seven popular idioms in English and their generally accepted origins.

Off your rocker: Crazy or odd behavior.

In the 1890s, trolley cars were attached to overhead electrical wires with an arm and a wheel called a rocker. If a car disconnected, it was off its rocker and unable to work properly. The British version of this idiom is “off your trolley.”

Spill the beans: Reveal a secret.

In Ancient Greece, men voted in secret, using colored beans. If someone tipped over the vase holding the beans, the election results were no longer secret.

Turn a blind eye: Ignore someone or something unpleasant.

British admiral and war hero Horatio Nelson, who had lost sight in his right eye, claimed after an 1801 naval battle that he had not seen his commander’s flag signal to retreat. “I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes,” Nelson reportedly said. The British went on to victory.

It’s in the bag: Success is assured.

The 1916 New York Giants were in the middle of what became a 26-game winning streak. Back then, a bag filled with baseballs was left on the field during games to replace balls hit into the stands. The Giants became convinced that, if they led in the ninth inning, removing that bag guaranteed victory because the win was “in the bag.”

Hit the hay (or hit the sack): Go to bed.

Our ancestors didn’t have comfy foam mattresses. They slept on sacks stuffed with whatever they could find, often straw or hay. Before bedtime, they might punch the sack to make it more comfortable. That also helped get rid of bugs that would otherwise spend the night with them.

Think outside the box: Be creative or different in problem-solving.

This phrase gained popularity in the business world of the 1970s. It refers to a century-old puzzle in which nine dots must be connected using four straight lines, without your pen or pencil leaving the paper. It’s easy … once your mind leaves the box.

Barking up the wrong tree: Make the wrong choice.

This idiom dates back 200 years to when people hunted with packs of dogs. Sometimes a wily raccoon or other animal would trick the dogs into thinking their prey was up a certain tree. The dogs would then circle its base and yap away. They were, literally, barking up the wrong tree.

Check out Planet Word, the country’s first museum dedicated “to inspiring a love of words and language.”

It’s in the historic Franklin School at 925 Thirteenth Street Northwest in Washington, D.C. The museum introduces several aspects of language and has interactive exhibits. Entry is free (though donations are welcome); timed entry passes are required.

For museum hours, entry passes and other information, visit planetwordmuseum.org.

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