Until a few weeks ago, I had never actually used the phrase “play it by ear,” even though I’ve heard the idiom spoken by other people countless times. So when I finally included the words in conversation as I was making plans, I decided that I should probably confirm that I was saying it correctly, since I had caught some people pronouncing it as “play it by year.” Thankfully, my instincts were right, and I was spared the profound embarrassment of having walked around for years not being able to speak my native language correctly. I admit that the shame would have been mostly self perceived, because I assume other people couldn’t care less about my vernacular understanding.

Speaking of which, there are a lot of idioms used incorrectly. Although some people do this sarcastically, most probably just go with whatever they interpret or whatever they think they hear. I would guess that some may have done a double take at the end of the previous paragraph when I wrote “couldn’t care less” because they’re so accustomed to hearing others misuse the expression as “could care less.” Whenever I’m talking to someone who says that, I think, “Well, technically that means that you could care a lot more, but I’ll just smile and not say anything because I don’t want to be that pretentious, grammar-obsessed girl who corrects everybody.”

People make all kinds of idiomatic blunders on a regular basis. There’s the classic misspelling of one word within a phrase, such as “tow the line.” This saying has become so garbled over the years that both this version and the original “toe the line” have become acceptable, despite their distinct meanings. The repetition of a word already represented in an acronym, as in “PIN number” or “ATM machine,” is also reasonably common.

In the case of “I could care less,” the error stems from some people using the phrase ironically. The same may be true for the development of “irregardless,” which is grating to the ears and grammatically redundant. Regardless, the misuse of these expressions gradually became popular and is now used fairly often.

My personal favorite is the completely botched rendition of an idiom. I know I’m not the onlykindergartener who replaced “for which it stands” in the Pledge of Allegiance with “for Richard Stands.” Then again, six-year-olds have an excuse, and their malapropisms aren’t really the same as a bunch of adults frequently misconstruing “for all intents and purposes” as “for all intensive purposes.”

Which brings me to my point: Idioms are called idioms for a reason, which is to say that they make no logical sense to an outside culture or group of people. When translated to another language, no one will understand what you are trying to say. Like Georgetown language students thrust into a foreign setting, to outsiders our idioms are incomprehensible. In fact, it seems fitting that the words “idiom” and “idiot” share a common root: “idios,” which originates from ancient Greece and means “one’s own” or “personal.”

Essentially, whether you could or couldn’t care less doesn’t really matter, because there’s no changing the linguistic patterns of a large population. These idioms are entrenched in our culture. “Dog-eat-dog world” or “doggie-dog world?” Same difference.

Allie Doughty is a senior in the College. GEORGETOWN BABEL appears every other Friday in the guide.

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