Idiom Puzzles

If money were no object. Wow!  Given that I’m solidly in the category of those blessed with a beer budget and champagne tastes, I could take flight on that idea and not come down for days.

Travel, toys, books, toys, land, toys…..

Alas, I tried to soar, but I kept getting distracted by one of those annoying niggles that just won’t go away:  Exactly what does that phrase mean — If money were no object?  I’ve always felt it doesn’t make sense.  Taken literally, we all know money is a very large object in this world.  As our medium of exchange, it is the tool used to acquire all those things we would get…if money were no object.

Uh, excuse me, but would you rewind and play that last sentence again?

I suspect I have become sensitized to this sort of thing by the fact that I am currently helping a nice retired engineer from Shanghai who is taking an English-As-A-Second- Language course from a friend of mine.  Spoken Chinese is a very simple language with few grammatical surprises, a description that hardly fits English.  Being a very intelligent man, he doesn’t just want to know what to say, he also want to know why.

With English, this can be quite a  problem.  It is such a montage of irregular bits and pieces borrowed from lots of languages.  Try explaining to a logical mind exactly why we “take a bath” (where do you put it once you’ve taken it?) or the reasoning behind swim, swam & swum.

I must confess that I frequently find myself falling back on a useful  Chinese phrase I have learned:  “Dui bu qi.  Yingwen shi fengkuang!”  “I’m sorry, but English is crazy!”

Hardest of all is to explain to him those wonderful idioms that we use.  Particularly when I remember how they used to drive me batty as a kid.  As a language, English is extraordinarily rich in wonderful, vivid phrases that make absolutely no sense if taken literally.  In fact, quite a lot of them seem to have a literal meaning exactly opposite their idiomatic or traditional meaning.

Remember A friend in need is a friend indeed?  (Personally, I’ve always agreed with “A friend in need is a pest.”)  That one drove me nuts until, years later, I discovered it was actually a corruption from its original meaning and should be A friend at need is a friend indeed.

Or another just like it:  I Could Care Less.  I still remember muttering to myself, “But if you could care less, then you must care a lot.”  Another corruption, it should be I couldn’t care less.

Like unsolvable puzzles, these idioms have become nonsense phrases to trap the newcomer of any age.

Still others that I remember struggling  over turned out to be sort of shaggy dog stories, apparently simply designed to confuse the young and uninitiated.  I remember puzzling long and hard over one of my dad’s favorites:  Oh, it’s just six of one or half dozen of the other…Say what?

But back to the original idiom (and ignoring the use of “were” with the singular noun “money”).  I decided the key to its meaning clearly lies in the word “object.”  Obviously, it can’t mean what it seems to mean, that money suddenly ceases to be an object in your world.  I figured they must be using “object” with another meaning.

Rushing off to my Random House dictionary, I found no surprises.  I knew all of the current meanings of “object” and none of them added a lot of insight to my mystery.

Having failed in the bare definition, I usually resort to the etymology.  Finding random house singularly lacking in utility, I fell back on my Latin dictionary (I knew all those years in parochial school would be useful some day).  There I learned it comes from ob + jacio, literally to hurl something in front of something else…Wonderful.

Actually, that explains rather neatly the meaning of “object” as a verb.  (What it does for the noun is rather less neat.)  You can imagine shouting, “I object,” in your best Clarence Darrow imitation, hurling a verbal gauntlet before the court.

For a while I imagined that in this fancy I had stumbled upon the actual explanation.  I thought that maybe there was some archaic English noun “object” derived from the verb.  Perhaps, once upon a time, “object” had been the concrete item created by our verbal gauntlet.  In that case, “object” would be a bar, an objection,  placed between you and your goal.

It would be a lovely embodiment of our idea of the power of language to have your very words coalesce into an actual, physical thing.  (Not too farfetched, either:  In French, when you challenged someone with a metaphoric glove across the face, you “hurled your defy” in front of them.)

Alas, my library provided no support for this lovely theory and no other archaic alternatives.

But, as I was already there, I decided to see if they could find out where this baffling (to me at any rate) idiom derived.  My usually reliable Research Desk was not only not helpful in finding a source, they apparently thought the question fairly dumb as they took the time to carefully explain to me that the idiom meant you didn’t have to worry about money…Gee Thanks.

My semantic ramblings next took me to another meaning of “object” — a target or goal.  The object of your desires is the end place where your affections are aimed.  It would make sense if what the phrase were really saying was, “If money is not your goal, what would you do with your life?”

Lovely idea, but my understanding of the idiom means that you have so much money that it need not be a concern in your plans.  My real world experience has been that those who do not have money as their main goal (like me) rarely end up with enough that they no longer have to worry about it.  English is a very practical language and I decline to believe it would have enshrined any notion so false to fact.

At that point I ran out of alternatives.  My only option was to return to the original meaning, the one I had dismissed.  Using a rather labored distortion of the original meaning, I got a tolerable explanation:  If money was not an object, that is, not an item on your list, then obviously it was so low on your horizon that you could do whatever you wanted without worrying about it.  (Sounds a little like Morton’s Fork.)

Not a very satisfactory solution to my niggle, but then English frequently defies neat solutions.  (Yingwen shi fengkuang!)  Besides, this whole thing was just a digression.  Sometimes the idea is not to arrive at the perfect solution, but merely one good enough that your conscience will let you past.  At least this one scratched the itch and let me get back a higher priority — serious daydreaming.

Let’s see now, where was I?  Oh, yes.  I remember:  Travel, toys, books, toys, land, toys…..


Just for fun, I made a list of some English idioms.  Imagine trying explain any of these to someone new to English.

Like A Bat Out Of Hell
I Was Just Going Bananas
Stop Pulling My Leg
Clean As A Whistle
He Sold Me A White Elephant
Make No Bones About It
You’re A Sight For Sore Eyes
Let’s Talk Turkey
Fall Head Over Heels In Love
It’s As Rare As Hen’s Teeth
She Was As Naked As A Jaybird
Here’s Mud In Your Eye
He Kicked The Bucket
Be Sure To Keep Your Eyes Peeled
Take It With A Grain Of Salt
I Feel Fit As A Fiddle
The Game Is Not Worth The Candle
It Was Raining Cats And Dogs
The World Is My Oyster
She Was Talking Through Her Hat
Cast Your Bread Upon The Waters
I Pulled The Wool Over Their Eyes
A Little Hair Of The Dog That Bit You
Let’s Get Down To Brass Tacks
She Is The Salt Of The Earth
I’m Sure It Was Tongue In Cheek
It Warmed The Cockles Of My Heart
A Skeleton In The Closet
He Got Up On The Wrong Side Of The Bed
A Stitch In Time Saves Nine
Whisper Sweet Nothings
It Wasn’t Up To Snuff
I Was Happy As A Clam
He’s Just Sowing His Wild Oats
Can’t Hold A Candle To It
I Need It Like A Hole In The Head
Pay Through The Nose
It’s On The Up And Up
He’s Off His Rocker
She Really Gets My Goat
Wear Your Heart On Your Sleeve
He Was Three Sheets To The Wind
She Gave Them A Real Snow Job
Pie In The Sky
He’s Got His Nose Out Of Joint
You Turned The Tables On Them
He Was Just Venting His Spleen
Keep Your Nose To The Grindstone
Don’t Spill The Beans
I’m At Sixes And Sevens About It
He Was Putting On The Dog
It Was A Piece Of Cake

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