IDIOMS VII

By Segun Omolayo

Only last week, we emphasized how the provenance of an error can catalyze its proliferation, thereby propagating false knowledge and entrenching wrong writing attitudes and habits. We knew that many get stagnated in the development of their vocabulary and remain mired in unhelpful habits and false knowledge acquired from their role models. We advised writers, then, to desist from such dispositions, and we thought that was it – until someone rekindled our fears about the negative consequences of taking cues unquestioningly from supposedly impeccable sources. He is a TV and radio reporter for a public broadcaster, whose board this columnist chairs. He was alerted of a malapropian gaffe in his report. But he admitted no error because he had seen governors and such personages use the expression we considered an undisputable error. The take-home in this is that writers should beware of copying from whomever unquestioningly. Even when your source or role model is high up, he might just be a vector of egregious mistakes.

So, we dwell some more on the sanctity of idioms.

Comes to mind

This one is so simple that it should not be prone to distortion. Maybe you never can be too careful in ensuring accurate application of idioms, as they do not tolerate mindless unorthodoxy. Such mindlessness accounts for the misusage below:

The first question that readily comes into mind is what makes the president think he is such a particularly attractive product.

Let us just note that this idiom is comes to mind, NOT comes into mind. It is used when something occurs to someone (Cowrie & Mackin, as cited in “Pop” Errors). Many a time, such occurrences are the stuff of the phenomenon called serendipity. That is a moment when something of value comes to mind. To avoid any doubt, we re-state the sentence, complete with the correction, thus:

Read Also: IDIOMS VI

The first question that readily COMES TO MIND is what makes the president think he is such a particularly attractive product.

Food for thought

We discourage the following usage of the idiom food for thought:

It is a food for thought.

A food for thought is alien to the English language, so, it is not appropriate for the construction. The full idiom from which the writer of the defective sentence has wrongly adapted his version is: give somebody food for thought. When you give somebody food for thought, it means you make him think seriously about something. Similarly, when something is food for thought, it means the thing requires serious thinking about. The article a before the word food in the original sentence is simply not part of the idiom, and it renders it unacceptable, even as minor as the difference may seem. Thus, correct usage is:

It is food for thought.

Look down on somebody or something

Just listening to, or reading, this idiom – look down on somebody or someone – should raise no alarm about any possible problems with its form or usage. It is easy to read, with an almost onomatopoeic clarity. Yet, some keep garbling it, as in the misusage in the short statement below:

They also looked down at the people.

This idiom is look down on somebody or something. It is therefore inappropriate to change it as in the specimen statement. In other words, “They must have looked down on (not looked down at) the people. To look down on somebody or something is to regard someone or something else with a feeling of superiority, that is, feel superior to the person or thing (“Pop” Errors). Looking down on something is tantamount to thinking little of that thing, obviously with the feeling and disposition that you are superior. Put in another way, “you consider that person or thing as inferior” (Cowrie & Mackin, cited in “Pop” Errors).

Be in cahoots with somebody

Many writers tend to do all kinds of harm to the special properties called idioms. One of such is the specimen below. The havoc wrought therein on the idiom to be in cahoots with somebody is a combination of malapropian comics and idiomatic garble, both collaborating to completely rob the statement of meaning.

The multi-nationals were deemed to be in cohorts with the federal government.

Isn’t it comical writing to be in cohorts, and what would it mean? It is simply a meaningless invention. “To be in cahoots is the correct usage here. To be in cahoots with somebody is “planning or doing something dishonest with somebody else” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, as cited in “Pop” Errors). Its synonym is to be in collusion, with the same meaning. It is important to also note that cahoots, the key word in the correct usage, has no significance outside its role in the idiom, and that underscores the sanctity of the idiom. Take it out or alter it, and the entire idiom is repudiated. For clarity, we need to re-state the sentence at issue in its perfect form, thus:

The multi-nationals were deemed to be in cahoots with the federal government.

The well-heeled

When you note that the idiom seriously mangled in the sentence below is the well-heeled, you cannot but laugh. Perhaps the writer has tried to derive its meaning and usage from the words that make it up, whereas idioms have their assigned meanings, the words in them notwithstanding.

As a resourceful lawyer, he has secured victory after victory for his clients, usually the high heeled in our society.

It is bizarre comics to write the high heeled instead of the well-heeled, which is the correct idiomatic usage. The well-heeled refers to those who have “a lot of money.” To be sure, the writer has a similar message in mind, so, high heeled is wrong and inapplicable in this statement, as we suspect that he is not talking about shoes. We correct accordingly:

As a resourceful lawyer, he has secured victory after victory for his clients, usually THE WELL-HEELED in our society.

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