This morning I almost cried over spilled milk. Lord knows I wanted to.
Milk is a precious commodity around this house. Our family cow, a diminutive Dexter named Amalea, is ornery as the day is long and, while she doesn’t mind being milked per se, Amalea doesn’t prefer the confines of the hand-built milking parlor once her feed has run out — and it does run out fast. Many are the mornings when my wife, the expert milker on our little homestead farm, enters the house cursing our heifer’s very name over a laundry list of bad behaviors and deplorable habits.
So this morning, when I accidentally spilled a splash — just a tiny splash — of that hard-won milk, I wanted to shed a tear for that lost tablespoon of high butterfat, liquid gold.
Don’t cry over spilt milk You know what that phrase is, right? It’s an idiom, a well-known phrase that carries a broader meaning than the specific image it describes. I love idioms. I understand that creative writing teachers across the globe, my college mentor included, would tsk me for this admission — an idiom is on par with the dreaded cliché when it comes to original phrasing and descriptive language — but I find that, especially in spoken conversation, a well-placed idiom can add a splash of color to almost any dialogue.
Idioms are especially interesting to me now that I’ve left behind the safety of suburbia for the great, wide, tick-infested open of country life. While etymology and phraseology have always been special, if nerdy, interests of mine, I’m surprised how many idioms shed their symbolic meaning when one’s tromping around an agricultural landscape.
Not only do I now stifle fat, salty tears over a wasted splash of milk, but I also have two baskets for the eggs we collect daily. (Also, we split our chickens up between various coops, but “put all your eggs in one basket” rings truer than “house all your poultry in a single coop.”) My pair of farm dogs tussle every minute they’re not asleep, and everyone in the family has learned to enjoy the quiet moments when they’re curled up, exhausted by their fight instincts — we “let sleeping dogs lie.”
Our farm houses many chickens, including a few broody ones who try to hide back a “nest egg” from us, and it’s not uncommon to discover one of our five hogs struggling to free him- or herself from a tight space — a “pig in a poke.” A cow on pasture really will stay away from home for a long time, and my wife is convinced that “kicking the bucket” is a phrase derived from what a dairy farmer wants to do to a cow that knocks over the milk bucket with her back hoof.
My favorite idiom is “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.” I’ve been known to hold court for hours on the theological/sociological/philosophical implications of this phrase, and I’ve even threatened to write a lengthy essay (or, when I’m feeling my oats, even a book) about the ocean of meanings I interpret in both its existence and the place it holds in modern vernacular. But there’s also a dry, rocky creek bed by my house that fills up fast during rainfall, and a chance of precipitation means some of my neighbors aren’t getting to work the next day — and, recently, it seems like when it rains, it pours.
With so many idioms rooted in pastoral realities largely lost to the past (my homesteading life excluded), I fear the Golden Age of the idiom is also fading in memory. Equine ownership is still pretty big in my homeland of Kentucky, but the general population member will likely never have to hold his or her horses or fight the temptation to check the chompers on a generously gifted stallion.
If we aim to preserve this unique and special breed of phrase — and I feel strongly we should — it’s imperative that, in addition to keeping the idioms of old alive and well in our daily speech, we start thinking about the future generations of idioms, phrases that seem mundane to us now but will carry a special weight of outdated obfuscation to our children and grandchildren. I’ll get the ball rolling with a few I’ve been working on of late …
Broadband after dialup The elation one feels after overcoming a time of great hardship. “It was broadband after dialup when the contractors finally said our bathroom renovation was done.”
Weekend Walmart An event so chaotic and stressful it induces a near-death experience. “The dogs got out, and it was a weekend Walmart getting them back inside.”
Gym member on a fresh sidewalk A person who doesn’t see the value of what’s right in front of him or her. “She drives 20 miles to the grocery store to get vegetables, and the farmer’s market is half a block away from her house. Total gym-member-on-a-fresh-sidewalk move.”
Phone conversation Something old-timey and antiquated; a waste of time. “He keeps trying to change the oil in the hovercar instead of just inserting the EZ-Change capsule. It’s such a phone conversation.”
I hope you agree with me that the idiom is a rare linguistic joy, one to be treasured and protected at whatever cost, and my challenge to you is twofold. First, use as many idioms today as you can; if possible, speak only in idioms (you’ll know you’re succeeding when coworkers and family members back away frustrated and confused). Second, try to come up with at least one new idiom you can add to the common language to freshen things up. I believe both of these actions will help preserve idiomatic dialogue, though I understand I can’t make you do either — you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
/ Rodney Wilson is a freelance writer who can still be found slumped over his laptop, rewriting a young adult novel and, as always, listening to Taylor Swift.
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