Language can be funny, especially when it comes to idioms. What’s an idiom? According to the online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages at Omniglot, idioms “are expressions that don’t mean what they appear to mean.” Their literal meaning does not match their figurative meaning. All languages use idioms. You probably use them in your conversations every day. “It’s raining cats and dogs” is a common example.
Most listeners understand that you’re just using a figure of speech, but not all. Have you ever found yourself getting a puzzled look from a young child when you’ve just used an expression they don’t yet understand? Maybe you say “that’s a piece of cake,” and the child eagerly looks around for the slice of dessert that he thought he heard you refer to.
And if you’ve ever tried to learn a foreign language, you know there are expressions that just do not translate. In Swedish, for example, “to slide in on a shrimp sandwich” involves neither sandwiches nor shrimp, nor even sliding. The image that phrase brings to mind would confuse any non-Swedish speaker. (It means, by the way, someone who hasn’t had to work hard to get where they are.)
English is rich in idioms. The Oxford Companion to the English language cites a figure of around 25,000 idioms in existence. Some of these make more sense than others.
"A Bird's Eye View"
For example, to have “a bird’s eye view” of something means that you can visualize a scene as if from above. You can get a better idea of what is going on in the whole, rather than in just a part. That’s as close to having the same literal meaning as most idioms get.
"The Apple of My Eye"
On the other hand, there are many idioms that don’t make sense to our modern ears. We may shake our heads and wonder how on earth that expression got started. But what about being “the apple of someone’s eye”? How does that make sense?
To find out, we would have to ask someone from early medieval England. This idiom is at least 1,200 years old! The phrase “the apple of the eye” appears in the King James version of the Bible, but not in the original Hebrew—only the English translation from 1611. The Hebrew refers only to the dark-colored part of the eye, the pupil. The King James version used the expression “apple” for the pupil that was already in use in English. The earliest known use of “apple of the eye” comes from the writing of King Alfred in the 800s, so it is possible that the expression was being used even earlier than that.
"Turning a Blind Eye"
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the origin of idioms as old as “apple of the eye,” some expressions have an origin in a specific place and time. For example, the popular usage of the phrase “to turn a blind eye to something” comes from an event in the life of Royal Navy Admiral Horatio Nelson. He was blind in one eye because of an accident early in his military career, and he used this fact to ignore an order during the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. Not wanting to retreat from battle, he used his blind eye on purpose to through his telescope at the signal flags from the commanding officer of the lead ship. The signal flags told him to break off his attack, but Nelson supposedly remarked, “I have the right to be blind sometimes. I really do not see the signal.” The Oxford English Dictionary, however, records the earliest usage of the phrase more than a century before Admiral Nelson’s famous quote. Nelson’s bravery undoubtedly helped to popularize the phrase.
"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"
While some idioms have deep historical roots, others are relatively new. “Smoke gets in your eyes” is a line from a song by the same title. It is so widely known that it has almost become a modern-day idiom. The song was written by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach for their 1933 musical Roberta. The most popular version of the song is the 1958 cover by the Platters. Since 1933, the song has been covered by upwards of 60 different artists, including Cher, the Jerry Garcia Band, Engelbert Humperdinck, Eartha Kitt, Freddy Mercury, and Benny Goodman. It has appeared in almost two dozen movies, about the same number of television shows, and is even the name of a fashion house. In the classic novel Catcher in the Rye, the song plays a significant role in explaining the inner conflict of the protagonist.
The popularity of the line “smoke gets in your eyes” has to do with the universal experience of love and the loss of love. In the song, the speaker is brought to tears at end of a romance, and tried to explain away his tears to his friends as coming from candle or cigarette smoke nearby. By the end of the song, however, he openly admits his sorrow: “When a lovely flame dies, smoke gets in your eyes.” It is a beautiful way to capture the poignancy of that moment. Using the line today is an indirect, poetic way to refer to the poignancy of lost love.
And making everyday language into poetry is what idioms do best.