Should English Idioms be Modernized? Posted by gary on Dec 6, 2018 in Culture, English Language, English Vocabulary, News
PETA, the animal rights organization, has proposed that we should reimagine some common English phrases to be more respectful of other species. They argue that phrases such as “I killed two birds with one stone” are as cruel as any hate speech. Similarly, a British researcher believes that, eventually, meat-based metaphors and sayings will be phased out due to a shift from omnivore and carnivore diets to vegan and vegetarian diets.
PETA suggests replacing kill two birds with one stone with feed two birds with one scone. In either case, the metaphorical meaning, accomplishing two goals at the same time, is clear. Some other phrases which PETA believes need modern refining include:
- Take the bull by the horns – Take the flower by the thorns
- Bring home the bacon – Bring home the bagels
- Beating a dead horse – Feeding a fed horse
- Be the guinea pig – Be the test tube
- More than one way to skin a cat – More than one way to pet a cat
Both arguments met with loud derision and opposition on social media. Many argued that speciesism does not equate with racism or anti-Semitism. Observers on both sides of the political spectrum believed that this was an example of political correctness going too far. These idioms have been with us for centuries. In fact, to kill two birds with one stone may date back to the ancient Roman philosopher Ovid!
Still, ethical, cultural, and environmental concerns are certainly changing the way people speak and think about things. In this era of the #metoo movement, people are more careful to avoid sexist language. Phrases like “A man’s home is his castle!” and “Who wears the pants?” are widely considered unacceptable in today’s society. And I strongly suggest that you think twice before telling any woman to man up!
In fact, many seemingly innocent idioms have origins which would be offensive to many. In English, we often hear of someone selling you down the river, which means that they have betrayed you. The phrase comes from slavery when someone would be sold and sent south on the Mississippi River to work on a plantation. The term peanut gallery, which refers to people watching a play or any event from a distance, once referred to the worst seating section reserved exclusively for African Americans.
In baseball, the minor league system is known as the farm system, and players who are moved from the major league club to the minor leagues are sent back to the farm. But the farm is a euphemism for plantation, where the pay is poor, and the work is hard. Although conditions for minor leaguers are significantly better today than in the past, the slang term persists.
We continue to use phrases which seem quaint and old-fashioned in spite of cultural changes. Even as rotary phones and landlines go the way of the dinosaur, people dial a number and hang up at the end of a call.
It is very difficult to drop English idioms, and other words and phrases, from our language. Many have been a part of our culture for so long that they remain with us long after we’ve forgotten what they really mean. It can happen though, and language is a living thing. It continues to evolve.
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