In “Metropolis” (Random House, 2005), a novel about immigrants in late 19th-century New York, Elizabeth Gaffney has some fun with a recently arrived German’s problems following American English. In one passage, he’s at an employment agency when a clerk tells him:
“Anyway, you’ve had your beauty sleep, and I think I can tell from looking that you ain’t got evening plans.” Beauty sleep? the stablemen wondered. Evening plans? . . . He wasn’t sure how he should respond . . . His English might have been better if only the few people who talked to him had made more sense.
“You don’t know how to give yourself a leg up, do you?”
A leg up? Americans said much that he didn’t understand.
As an international student, you may be feeling much the same after your first few weeks in New York. It’s idiom, of course, that trips up the immigrant in the novel, and probably you. (Trip up is an idiom, meaning to confuse or interfere.)
Every language has its own idioms — groups of words that, taken together, have a meaning that may be entirely different from the sum of their parts. Beauty sleep is a good night’s sleep that will, theoretically, make you look better. Evening plans are pretty much what the phrase suggests — plans for the evening. But a leg up? Definitely an idiom, meaning an advantage or an early start.
It’s important for any non-native speaker, but especially journalists, to master English idioms. Americans talk in idiom, and if you don’t know the idioms, you won’t be able to understand your sources, or quote them accurately. In your speaking and writing, you have to get idioms exactly right, in both word and meaning, or they’ll make no sense to your audience: close, but no cigar.
So how do you get it right? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice.
If you haven’t already, become familiar with the six-page list I handed out during pre-orientation, adapted from NationMaster.com, a website founded “to promote education and understanding about the world.” NationMaster has another chart that gives you even more idioms and their meanings, and tells where in the English-speaking world they’re commonly used. You may not need much Australian slang (flat out like a lizard drinking) in New York, but many idioms on the list may come in handy. (That’s an idiom, meaning to be useful.)
And the title of this post? It’s a play on an idiom — the idiot box, meaning television. Broadcast students, consider yourselves warned.