Oh to be a master of vocabulary is to be understood by no one. That is because for every great word are a thousand people who have no idea what it means. Most vexing for me are those obscure idioms that have lost their contextual meaning.
Take the word “boilerplate”, please. It is used in the legal practice to describe a rule without exceptions and standard terms in legal documents. An actual “boilerplate” on the other hand is the steel plate used to make boilers. I only know this because I looked it up in a dictionary. Like most people, I have no exposure to actual boilers. In fact, I and most people I know have switched to using high efficiency furnaces that have very thin sheet metal walls. No one would reference a “high-efficiency-furnace-plate” rule.
How about the phrase “watershed event”? Unlike boilerplate, I have seen a watershed. A watershed is where water drains into a lake or river. Watersheds not only soak up extra water during wet seasons, they also hold water during dry seasons. They are like sheds for water. Watershed events are some kind of big important change like the Civil Rights Movement or when Ross and Rachel broke up. I have run this through my mind for hours and yet I cannot see the correlation between water drainage basins and turning points in our history. It is maddening. For the sake of my sanity I will not even go near the phrase “sea change”.
There are many other phrases that do not make any sense anymore, like “don’t beat the dead horse to death”. This just doesn’t make sense especially considering the wanton hatred of horses it takes to beat a living horse. Do animal cruelty laws count for nothing? I do know one thing, after beating a horse to death, never look in its mouth.
One phrase that has long vexed me is “wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve.” If my heart were on my sleeve I bet I would be as dead as the horse. Maybe I could still live if there were tubes running from my aorta and along my arm to supply blood to my out of body heart I could still live. No wonder I would be sensitive; I would have tubes all over my upper torso and an organ attached to my shirt.
Thankfully, more modern and sensical expressions have emerged. For example, the phrase “thrown under the bus” means to discard someone as a sort of sacrificial lamb. We all know what buses are and understand that to throw someone under a bus is to effectively kill them. More mysterious is whether real people have literally been purposefuly thrown under buses.
But I have belabored this point enough, i.e. I have started to morbidly beat dead horses despite the cries of passing children. My point is this, if you don’t know the literal thing is that you are figuratively referencing then make something up that actual makes sense.