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The funny things called “idioms”

By May 14, 2012June 6th, 2023No Comments

Maybe some of you today think in English. And maybe it is the first language that you acquired even before you went to school. Well, you don’t know how lucky you are. For some of us, there has never been a more frustrating experience than the one we underwent to acquire our English. Matters were not helped by the fact that the experience came late in our lives.

As tiny saplings in refugee camps in Uganda, our first introduction to the English language was imparted to us by Rwandan teachers who, in actual fact, were Francophone. Being thus Francophone meant that they were learning English ‘on duty’. ‘On duty’ in the sense that they taught us English words as they picked them. This meant that their English was more French than anything else. Correct sentence structure and idiomatic proverbs were alien to them.

It was as the recipient of these scattered bits of knowledge of that noble language that we went to secondary school, where our teachers expected us to be fluent in English. Not knowing our particular handicap, these teachers expected us to be like students from other schools. Unlike them, however, we were from primary schools in refugee camps in Uganda, yes, but we were hardly Anglophone. That’s why in our school we dreaded holding any direct conversation with anybody except our fellow refugee students.

But, in my case, as fate would have it, that direct conversation one time became inevitable, too early in the term. By mid-term, my school fees had not yet been paid and I was summoned by the headmaster to his office. As he addressed me, I listened most attentively to make sure I understood everything he said. It was difficult but I got the general drift that he had no alternative but to send me home.

I gathered all the smattering English that I could muster to plead my case: “Sir Hedemasitah. My parents ah not the one to pay fees. It is fahst United Nations to Minisitreh of Calichah. After Ministreh of Calichah, it came hereah. It izi aftah comu hereah that then the bahsah……” He cut me short. In case you didn’t get it either, I was trying to explain that my school fees were paid by a UN refugee agency through the Ministry of Culture, from where it was sent to the school bursar.

Said the headmaster: “All right, shmall boy, shtop beating about the bush. You can go. I’ll short it out with the minishtry.” …..Being Scot, which I didn’t know at the time, the headmaster pronounced his “s’s” as “sh”, hence the “shmall”(small), “shtop” (stop), “short” (sort) and “minishtry” (ministry)……. I did not exactly understand what he was telling me, except that he was letting me go, and my mind was racing, especially trying to connect “bush” with my laboured explanation.

Was he telling me to stop behaving like a bush boy? Or did the word ‘bush’ have another meaning that I did not know? Because if it didn’t, how would the headmaster have expected me to beat a bush in his office? Moreover, even if there’d been a bush in his office, how would he have expected me to beat it with my bare hands?

So, it was in this state of quandary that I hastened to my dictionary. But the dictionary, foolish thing, didn’t have another meaning either.
It was only much later, after having read a number of novels, that I learnt the meaning of the expression, ‘to beat about the bush’. It simply meant ‘not to say something directly’, ‘not to get directly to the point’. After learning the meaning, I remember telling myself that the English were weird: how did they think up their expressions? What did ‘bush’ have to do with not going directly to the point?

Interestingly, though, now that I know better, I see their point. Most of their expressions take root in their ancient history. And history and logic have never been good bedfellows – don’t start asking me if history and logic ever go to bed!

Anyway, in medieval England there was a nocturnal sport called ‘batfowling’. Weird, yes, as it consisted of going into a forest and beating birds senseless with a bat, but that’s sport. Sportsmen used to go out at night and look for sleeping birds to kill (a reason why there were no sportswomen). But before whacking the birds dead, they used to wake them up.

Because some birds slept in inaccessible nooks of the bushes, sometimes the batfowlers would engage servants or boys, known as beaters, to beat the bushes and awaken the birds. When the sleepy birds flew towards the sportsmen’s torchlight, the sportsmen would hit them and kill them. So, while pretending to be interested in the bush, everybody was looking for the bird lurking inside. Instead of going directly for the bird, they were “beating about the bush”.

Unlike the medieval Englishman, of course, today when you beat about the bush, the least point on your mind is violence!

There are so many expressions in the English language with such bizarre origins that sometimes it’s a wonder how we managed to learn them, at our late age!

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