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Ollie Druttman
| 29TH AUG 2023

Zeno Thinks: Why we need to call it a day on idioms

One of the quirky eccentricities of the English language and frequently butchered by reality TV stars, idioms seem increasingly ubiquitous in today’s vernacular. Beloved by journalists and PRs, they undoubtedly inject colour and fun into our day-to-day communication. Join any PR agency call and they’re a dime a dozen, having almost become industry lingo (we’ve all had to pitch those client stories that feel like we’re “flogging a dead horse”). 

So I’ll cut to the chase. In her pre-match press conference before England’s game against Nigeria, England Women’s Head Coach Sarina Wiegman was asked by a journalist if the “cat was out of the bag with respect to Lauren James”. A puzzled Wiegman, who is Dutch, asked: “Sorry?” Adding: “My English is not perfect,” and requesting of the journalist “a little elementary school English”. Cue plenty of jovial laughter from all – but it raises a point. 

We are fortunate in this country that we can open our mouths and most of the world understands us. But we’re too complacent. We need to stop assuming that people who didn’t grow up here were schooled in the subtle nuances of idioms. Not to mention metaphors, similes and sarcasm.  

I sympathise with Sarina Wiegman. Had my school French exchange buddy exclaimed to me back in 1997 that “le chat était sorti du sac” I too would have been baffled.  

As communicators, it’s back to the golden rule: audience first. Who are we talking to and how can we flex to them and their style? This rule is as pertinent to communicating with people whose first language is not English, as it is to reaching any audience demographic.  

The English language is rife with obfuscation so try to be clear and direct when firing questions at our international friends – particularly during a live press conference streamed worldwide – rather than bamboozling them unnecessarily.  

As the journalist conceded to Sarina: “Your English is a lot better than my Dutch.”  

I’m aware this might sound patronising so I should caveat that there are plenty of brilliant linguists, my colleagues among them, whose first language is not English and who a) navigate our bizarre dialect more expertly than I do and b) know their idioms from their similes more proficiently than I do.  

We Brits can and should do better. After all, it's not rocket science... or do I mean brain surgery?