Last month I was studying French, and I realized that it was teaching me an awful lot about my native English, that as a writer I need to know.
One of those things is that language (all language) uses a lot of idioms. Dictionary.com defines an idiom to be “an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements.” How I define it is, idioms are phrases that have meaning to native speakers and are used quite regularly but they generally don’t fallow the normal rules, or perhaps I should say, guidelines of the language. Often they are very difficult for people trying to learn the language. I’ve noticed that a lot of idioms are visual and use concepts gleaned from stories, myths, observable fact, and just weird ideas. With French I’ve noticed idioms based on concepts are generally the hardest for me to wrap my mind around and the ones that use observable facts seem to be easier for me. I’ll use some English examples.
e.g Let’s go lean on the suspect.
In the context of cop shows ‘lean on’ probably refers to practices of using torture or physical intimidation to gain information from suspected traitors, criminals and probably suspected sympathizers. In modern times its more of slang for intimidation. It might be obvious to a non native speaker but then again it might not.
e.g Don’t go getting all drippy on me.
Getting drippy refers to tears. Its more obvious because of the visual link between tears being drips of water. If a non native speaker were to know what the word drip meant and to understand English endings, there is a good chance that he or she could figure out what the idiom meant in context.
Idioms can be slang but not are necessarily. Almost everyone uses idioms, but not everyone uses idioms the same way. I was surprised to notice how much of normal everyday English is idiomatic.
I then realized when I’m trying to write a Fantasy or science fiction story what idioms I use becomes very important. If for example if the world I created has no Christianity it would be silly for someone to use the idiom “That’s his cross to bear” or “Take off your hair shirt.” Both of those idioms use concepts found in the bible and would not fit into the culture or identity of a non Christian world.
But equally important, I’ve realized, is to make sure that the idioms I chose are concepts that my character would encounter in their daily life. E.g The character is not a sailor and has never even seen the sea, if they are a clockmaker it would be silly to use tons of nautical idioms (unless they are obsessed with going out on the sea). It would make more sense to stick with mechanical idioms.