We'll understand where idioms came from when pigs fly

A pig doing aerial stunts
This pig is not actually flying. The animal, aptly named Miss Piggy, performed aerial antics during a performance in Sydney, Australia.
Greg Wood | AFP/Getty Images 2003

Ready to chew the fat?

Let's get down to business.

Anatoly Liberman joined MPR News' Kerri Miller to talk idioms — where they came from and what they mean.

Liberman is a professor at the University of Minnesota, where he's working on a dictionary of English idioms. He was inspired to start the project by an idiom he's never understood: "to sow wild oats." It means to be youthfully promiscuous, but Liberman wanted to know: "Why oats?"

That's the hiccup with idioms: There is almost never a clear origin. Many linguists have formulated educated guesses about different phrases, but Liberman said it's nearly impossible to know the true inspiration behind idioms.

People use idioms, Liberman said, because they enjoy colorful language, not because the idioms make sense. "You can 'kick the bucket' and 'beat around the bush,' but there is often not a bucket or a bush involved."

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Liberman fielded callers' questions about idioms, many of which were real stumpers.

English idioms: What do they mean?

"Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick" — things could be worse

"As drunk as Davy's sow" — very drunk

"That's not cricket" — that's not proper

"To be in a brown study" — to meditate on a serious matter in a somewhat gloomy mood

"Bob's your uncle" — it's all done

"Teaching grandmother to suck an egg" — trying to teach someone something they are already an expert in

"Not my first rodeo" — I'm not naïve on the subject

"Happy as a sandboy" — elated

"All my eye and Betty Martin" — nonsense, hogwash

"Flat out like a lizard drinking" — very busy

"Go off like a bucket of prawns in the sun — leave quickly

"Fine kettle of fish" — troublesome situation

"Cool as a cucumber" — calm, untroubled by stress