I’m Surrounded by Idioms

imageYesterday, I had to attend the most boring training day ever a fascinating training day which was a worthy use of the time and talents of all 100+ participants. As I had an appointment in the next town shortly after the day was due to finish, I knew I would need to leave a little bit early.  Unfortunately, because I got so bored I left two hours before i needed to innocently miscalculated my timings, I ended up with a fair bit of time to kill.  So I did something I rarely get the chance to do, and spent a quiet hour in a coffee shop.

The magazine rack in the coffee shop offered me only two publications to help me pass the time: a magazine about sailing, and the Daily Express.  As sailing’s not really my thing, I opted for the newspaper, reasoning that even though it was unlikely to contain any actual news, there might be a Sudoku in there.  And so it was that I found myself leafing through right wing rants, scare stories about health and disability, articles about celebrities I’d never heard of, a Sudoku puzzle (sadly, already completed by someone else) and the horoscopes.

I don’t normally read horoscopes as a general rule, because I think they’re bunkum; but this one caught my eye:

“Chances are you’ve spotted a fly in the ointment… But don’t jump to conclusions this morning. Call me to hear when there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

That’s a lot of metaphors in one short horoscope (not to mention some very vague advice, and a cheeky plug of the vastly overpriced phone line).

One of the things that’s often said about autistic people is that our literally-minded brains fail to grasp the meanings behind the colourful sayings which so enrich our spoken language – things like “don’t bite my head off” or “grasp the nettle.”  But I’m not sure that’s the whole story, for two reasons:

1. A lot of autistic people are excellent wordsmiths and poets (just have a read of some of the blogs on the web), and so have shown themselves to be perfectly adept at using and understanding metaphor and imagery.  Unless someone can put me right, I’ve never met anyone (autistic or not) who actually expected showers of domesticated quadrupeds to fall from the sky.

2. The origins of so many of our idioms are now so archaic, and in some cases completely lost, that I’m not sure anyone could intuitively grasp their meaning without having them explained. For example, nowadays pots are for plants and kettles are made of plastic; unless you generally do all your cooking on an open fire, what sense does it make for one to call the other black? In my experience, most children (regardless of neurology) find idioms baffling, amusing and interesting, which really suggests that no-one just ‘gets’ them on a first hearing.

I wonder if part of the reason that autistic people appear not to understand idioms is because idioms are so deliciously ripe for echolalia.  They usually ‘bounce’ nicely, which makes them fun to say (“a stitch in time saves nine”), and they often conjure up vivid mental pictures or concepts (who wouldn’t want to imagine it raining kittens and puppies?), which makes them stick in the mind.  (As a child, I always thought that the phrase “a hair’s breadth” was “a hare’s breath,” and even today, whenever anyone uses the saying, I immediately think of the soft, warm exhalation of an oversized bunny.)  Anyway… it shouldn’t be too surprising if these are exactly the kind of phrases which get lodged in your brain and then used in contexts which might seem inappropriate or wrong.

In addition, there is that autistic need to know, the passionate desire to collect and understand information which means that while other people might just let an unusual phrase slide, autistic people want to understand the origins, the meaning, the whole nine yards.  (Nine yards of what, exactly?)  So, while some people might just be happy with the explanation that ‘a fly in the ointment’ means a problem, I want to know what fly, what ointment, how did it get there, and a hundred other questions that probably make me look like an idiot.

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t ever times that literal-mindedness gets in the way of understanding idioms – I once got into terrible confusion about the Mediaeval German writer Thomas a Kempis, simply because I had heard someone describe him as “a Young Turk.”  And maybe I do miss clues in context or inflection which tell everybody else, “alert: not to be taken literally,” but that’s another story entirely.  The fact is, idioms by their very nature are culturally specific, and they all need translation and interpretation.  Nobody just gets them intuitively.

Years ago, I was walking through a tube station when I came across a small girl struggling to carry a bag down the stairs.  Her mother was way ahead of her, and hadn’t noticed that she was struggling.  I wanted to help, so I went up to the girl and said, “Do you want a hand?”  She looked up, nodded, and then put her hand in mine.

Sometimes literal-mindedness is a beautiful thing.


One thought on “I’m Surrounded by Idioms

  1. What a beautiful thought to end on – the little girl’s hand in yours. I think you’re really spot on about this kind of thing. I know that there are some people who just can’t process metaphorical language, but it is awfully black-and-white to assert that “autistics can’t do metaphors” or anything similar. To point out that we may very well understand them, but still be unsatisfied without a “why” to back up the “what,” that’s just a great observation, and it fits really well with my own experience.

    As an aside, there are types of brain injury that really do (in a very black and white way) cut off the ability to process figurative language. Those people really would expect pets to fall from the clouds if they heard that line. When you talk to one of these individuals though, you see how different that is from those of us who are on more of a continuum of being able to understand or at least accept metaphorical meaning.


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