Opinion: Evolution of idioms


It is a natural feature of the evolution of language that our idiom trails our experience. We put our noses to the grindstone. We lead our horses to water. We bury the hatchet. These are all useful shorthand that help us to navigate the world. Yet, when was the last time we used a grindstone? When were we most recently hands-on with a horse? And who among us is in the regular deployment of a hatchet? There was a time, not that long ago, when these were common and conventional items. Grindstones, horses and hatchets might have been as ubiquitous as microwaves, smartphones and running shoes. One wonders how the average teenager would respond if we sent them to fetch a grindstone. What might they deliver?

No doubt there will someday be references to today’s common, everyday devices in our English figurative expressions. “Make sure your battery is charged,” might become the idiom to encourage us to get a good night’s sleep before a long day of travel. “Don’t cook it on high for too long,” might be used to illustrate the concept that rushing to finish rather than moving more slowly can often destroy the desired outcome. Happily, our language evolves as we do.

Strategizing recently about the modern problem of many young people deciding to forego any higher education, while folks with some form of post-high school education consistently outperform those without, one of those assembled to consider the matter quipped, “Well, you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make them thirsty.” Is it that we shouldn’t be trying to figure out how to make them drink but instead why it is that they are not parched? If we can’t make them drink, do we care if they go thirsty?