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11 Jul 2011

A Thought About Idioms and Popular Culture

On Mock the Week last night, they were talking about tennis. Someone, I forget who, remarked that Wimbledon was difficult to get to: ‘Underground, overground…’

Big laugh – because everyone in the audience recognised two words from the theme tune of a children’s television series dating from 1973. And yet someone too young to remember the Wombles or from a country where the series wasn’t shown would have been looking blankly at the screen.

Idioms are much the same. One of the ways you can tell that an expression has ‘entered the language’ is when it starts being used in an incomplete form. For example, lots of people now say, ‘Worst case’ rather than ‘Worst case scenario’, because they know that everyone knows what it means. Try translating it literally into Spanish or Turkish or whatever and see if it makes any sense. I bet it doesn’t.

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