English has many phrases and sentences that are commonly understood by native speakers but can confuse those who are new to English. We call them sayings or idioms and they are not literal. A good example would be if you heard the phrase “there’s more than one way to skin a cat,” and someone took it literally, they would be horrified. We know it means there is more than one way to do something, but unless you explain it, the listener might not.
If you say to a city person that something is as “scarce as hen’s teeth,” they may not understand right away but if they are the curious type they might look it up on the Internet and learn that chickens don’t have teeth at all. In other words whatever they were looking for does not exist. “A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush,” reminds us it is better to have something sure than two possibilities that might not work out.
“There’s no sense in closing the barn door after the horse has gotten out,” could be used to explain that trying to bring back negative words or gossip after the words have been spoken, is a futile exercise. “To separate the wheat from the chaff” can mean several things. If someone is telling a story and parts of it seem to be far fetched, you can discount those sections as if they are chaff, and remember the believable or wheat parts. Or if you have researched a subject and intend to write about it, you have to decide what is important, like the wheat, and omit the rest which is the chaff.
As someone who grew up on a farm and now co-owns farms, the term “bought the farm” has always seemed strange to me. How can it mean that someone was killed? The speculation of the phrase is that when a World War II soldier died his benefits were paid to his family and often were enough to pay off the farm.
When things go awry we say they “go south;” does anything that goes right “go north?” I don’t recall ever hearing that. If a non-English speaker hears you say that you just opened a can of worms they might expect to see earth worms crawling around, yet the idea means you have brought up a subject that might not be well received or could make someone upset. Lively discussions might begin.
These are all things we say and think nothing of it because we grew up understanding. Keep that in mind when you converse with others who might not have the same upbringing.
Though it’s not an idiom, it is one of my favorite quotes, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the cornfield.” Dwight D. Eisenhower.
My email latchstring is out through email@example.com if you’ve got a bone to pick with me. ❖
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