Friday 5: Better Cliches

What’s something you really never forget how to do?

I think riding a bicycle really is one of those things, though? Swimming, too (if you ever learned how to, anyway). I would have been tempted to put down “The Electric Slide,” because it seems that anytime it comes up, it’s a collective cultural memory and that even if you couldn’t so it by yourself, the group knows how to do it—but at my friend’s wedding back in August the DJ put on “The Electric Slide” and no one could remember, so another friend who does contra dance had to actually call the moves for us. I guess you can forget how to do The Electric Slide!

It’s been going on five years since I worked as a cave tour guide, but I suspect you could put a maroon polo shirt on me and send me down as an auxiliary back-up guide without any problems.


What really has charms to soothe the savage breast?

And I still think music is the best answer to this one.  Otherwise: dopamine? sedatives?

What really makes the world go ’round?

When I went to Google a good explanation for the original cliche for this one, I automatically looked it up as “love makes the world go ’round,” forgetting that “money makes the world go ’round” is equally fixed in the English language. I guess I’m a little bit of an altruistic idealist after all!

But of course, what really makes the world go ’round is gravity.


What really makes the heart grow fonder?

Absence, but punctuated with periods of proximity.


What’s really the sincerest form of flattery?

I think imitation has some very creepy vibes to it. It says more about the person doing the imitating feels about themselves than how they feel about the person they’re imitating, a lot of the time. And I mean: flattery is usually about trying to get something out of someone, right? You wouldn’t go into your boss’s office to ask for some extra time off wearing the same watch and suit, for example. (You might mirror their body language, for example, but that’s not quite imitation, is it?)

So if flattery is an attempt to get something, and is by its nature insincere, what’s the most sincere form of that? The most honest form of flattery is, I suppose, a bribe.

The most sincere way to compliment someone, or to indicate your admiration, affection, or respect for them, is another matter entirely. For me, it’s the little things that count—randomly texting me when they think of something funny or sending me a link they think I’d be interested in, remembering something I’ve mentioned before. Small things they by no means have to do when it comes to being a friend, but do anyway.

Heart Idioms for Valentine’s Day

Happy Valentine’s Day, if you’re celebrating it! Or are you suffering from heartache and a broken heart? Maybe you’re stone-hearted, or your heart just isn’t in it.  Maybe you’re lucky enough to be spending it with someone who makes your heart skip a beat, or has a heart of gold. No matter your situation, know that I’m wishing you a happy Valentine’s Day from the bottom of my heart!

In no particular order, here are some of my other favorite heart-related expressions.

1. Sing/cry/dance/[verb] one’s heart out.

Simple enough: [verb] as much as you like! See also: “[verb] as much as your little heart desires” and “[verb] to your heart’s content.” For example: Suzie sang her heart out at karaoke last night. I’ve never seen her have so much fun!

2. “Eat your heart out.”

“Eat” is one of the few verbs that doesn’t quite fit in the “[verb] your heart out” pattern. It’s a way to boast or brag: “I got the lead role in the play, Jimmy. Eat your heart out!” John taunted his rival.

Generally speaking, we only use it to directly address and command someone.

3. Wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve.

Someone who is expressive and honest with their feelings (sometimes without intending to be), though they can also be a little too sensitive. I always know when Robin’s upset. She wears her heart on her sleeve.

4. Have a heart-to-heart.

To have a serious and important conversation with someone. Joe and Sam were angry at each other, but after a long heart-to-heart they became friendly again.

5. “My heart bleeds for you.”

Like “Eat your heart out,” this idiom is also a fixed expression in English. It’s usually a sarcastic way to tell someone that you don’t care, or that you think their problem is silly and trivial. Oh, you have to drive your Mercedes because your Jaguar is in the shop? My heart bleeds for you!

Sometimes people will use it to mean that they are genuinely upset or distraught over someone else’s situation, but there are a lot of other phrases in English to express condolences that aren’t used sarcastically, so it might be better to choose one of those instead.

6. A man/woman after one’s own heart.

To express that you approve of something that someone does, implying that you do (or would do) the same thing. You like spending Sundays in your pajamas and watching movies? A woman after my own heart!

7. Not have the heart to [verb]

When you really, really don’t want to do something, usually because it might upset someone else or because you’re upset about it. I don’t have the heart to tell Erica her cat ran away. Can you do it?

8. Find it in one’s heart to [verb]

To be emotionally/psychologically able to do something. Usually this is finished with the verb phrase “to forgive someone.” I’m sorry I lied to you. Can you find it in your heart to forgive me?

9. “Cross my heart . . . “

This is mostly used by children in its full length form: “Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye if I lie.” (And there are a bunch of variations on it, if you feel like Googling!) It’s a promise that the speaker isn’t lying. Once in a while you run into an adult who will just use “cross my heart” as a shorthand, similarly to “Swear to God!” I didn’t steal your wallet. Cross my heart!

Easter Idioms for Kristi himmelsfärdsdag (Ascension)

Yesterday, Christians across the world celebrated Ascension, known here in Sweden as Kristi himmelsfärsdsdag: the date of Christ’s ascension into heaven on the fortieth day after Easter. Unlike in the United States, Ascension is observed as a national holiday. The religious nature of yesterday (well, not here; Swedes just love an excuse for a long weekend in spring!) got me thinking about all of the expressions we use in English courtesy of Christianity and the Bible, particularly related to the story of Easter.

You’ll find plenty of lists online of “Christian idioms” or “Biblical idioms,” but many of them are more like explanations of outdated language often encountered in the Bible rather than references or turns of phrase still used today. Here are a few, all related to the Easter story, that are still in contemporary use.

A cross to bear 

The image of Christ carrying his cross to Golgotha has remained in English as a metaphor for an unpleasant duty to fulfill, or a burden one has to carry. Most commonly misheard, in “kiss this guy” style, as “cross-eyed bear” in Alanis Morisette’s You Oughta Know.

And I’m here to remind you
of the mess you left when you went away.
It’s not fair to deny me
Of the cross I bear that you gave to me.
You, you, you oughta know.

(“It’s not to fair to deny me of the cross I bear…” is a little awkward; it should be “It’s not fair to deny me the cross I bear…” but the extra “of” helps the rhythm so there it is.)

If we want to emphasize that the issue at hand is especially difficult, we might talk about a heavy or difficult cross to bear. Either way, it’s not a bear with eye problems.

Misheard Alanis Morisette lyric: cross I bear and cross-eyed bear.
Original bear courtesy Yathin sk.

When something is a cross to bear, the suggestion is that it’s a life-long issue, or at least for an extended period of time. Managing an addiction, dealing with trauma, getting over a past relationship (as is the case in You Oughta Know), or living with a chronic illness is someone’s cross to bear. A trip to the grocery store when it’s full of people is not a cross to bear. Nor are the heavy groceries you have to carry back home or to the car.



Speaking of crosses, we often use the verb crucify (to be hung from a cross in the Roman style) to describe being the object of public outrage and derision, or of persecution. Generally speaking, crucify is often used to describe the public’s desire to see a figure suffer.

Christ, you know it ain’t easy.
You know how hard it can be.
The way things are going
they’re going to crucify me.
“The Ballad of John and Yoko,” John Lennon

Why do we crucify ourselves
every day?
I crucify myself;
nothing I do is good enough for you.
Crucify myself
every day,
and my heart is sick of being in chains.

“Crucify,” Tori Amos


A doubting Thomas

This is another expression from the story of Easter. Anyone who is skeptical or suspicious can be a doubting Thomas (even a woman!). Here is the story, from the gospel of John:

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Thomas’s skepticism earned him the eternal nickname (in English) of “doubting Thomas.” More specifically, a doubting Thomas is someone who requires physical evidence of a belief or assertion rather than just taking it on faith. To call someone a doubting Thomas isn’t necessarily rude, but it’s usually intended in a mildly disparaging manner—like the doubting Thomas is someone who has overly stringent standards, or someone who should learn to trust other people.

“Don’t be such a doubting Thomas! I tried this recipe before and it’s delicious, I promise.”

No, not that Thomas. // courtesy HiT Entertainment
No, not that Thomas. // courtesy HiT Entertainment



Now if being a doubting Thomas isn’t an entirely awful thing, being a Judas definitely is. If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Easter, Judas was the disciple who betrayed Christ for 30 silver coins. He’s also anyone who betrays you.

Just like Julius Caesar
was betrayed by Brutus.
Who’d think an accountant
would turn out to be my Judas?

“Betrayed,” from The Producers (Mel Brooks)


To wash your hands of something

This is an image that came to English via the story of Pontius Pilate condemning Christ and has later been reinforced through Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In the Easter story, Pontius Pilate offers the crowd a chance to spare Christ, but they refuse and insist he release Barabbas instead.

Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to releasing to the multitude one prisoner whom they wished. And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. Therefore, when they had gathered together, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” For he knew that they had handed Him over because of envy.

They said, “Barabbas!”

Pilate said to them, “What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?”

They all said to him, “Let Him be crucified!”

Then the governor said, “Why, what evil has He done?”

But they cried out all the more, saying, “Let Him be crucified!”

When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just Person. You see to it.”

And over a thousand years later, Lady Macbeth attempts to wash her hands as a means of assuaging her guilt over the murder of Duncan.

Out, damned spot! Out, I say! … What, will these hands ne’er be clean?

If you wash your hands of something, it means that you no longer wish to be associated with it in any way, and that you no longer wish to have responsibility for it.

This typically happens when you’re completely and totally frustrated with something, or possibly tinged with guilt over it. Since we opened with a lyric from Alanis Morisette, let’s bookend things and close with one, too: Hands Clean.

We’ll fast forward to a few years later
and no one knows except the both of us.
And I have honored your request for silence
And you’ve washed your hands clean of this.

And there you have it! Enjoy your long weekend!