Well-Placed Phrases: Alien Idioms in Science Fiction
Lutck waved his tentacles maniacally. “The Daphrian Flats might seem unconquerable, but Commander Tatch has an ace up his sleeve.”
Can you see what’s out of place in that short paragraph? I’m not talking about grammar or punctuation or even a stylistic issue. (though it’s admittedly far from the best material I’ve created) The problem rests in the idiom (colloquialism) Lutck uses. “Ace up his sleeve” is a currently-used English idiom, so where the heck did Lutck, who has probably never associated with an early 21st century human, pick up the phrase to begin with?
I’m a reader, a Sci-Fi writer, and an experienced critique writer (a critter, if you will) and in my sojourns into others’ drafts, I’ve come across a multitude of misused idioms. Writers not only don’t understand what idioms are, but they have no idea how to use them correctly.
So, what’s an idiom, you ask? Here are two Merriam Webster definitions:
A: the language peculiar to a people or to a district, community, or class
B: the syntactical, grammatical, or structural form peculiar to a language
Here’s the layperson’s definition I gave my students when I taught College Writing 1010: an idiom is a phrase whose meaning doesn’t translate, on a literal level, between languages and/or cultures. I taught this definition so the students would begin to recognize idioms and stop using them in formal writing. That definition and my red grading pencil worked. They stopped using them.
But this method obviously doesn’t apply to fiction.
Still confused? Okay, let’s look at a few idioms that don’t derive from the English language.
German: Stehen wie ein bewässerter Pudel (I’m running from memory, so it may not be exact)
English literal translation: To stand like a watered poodle
Meaning: to be disappointed/crestfallen
Japanese: Jakuten no otowodasu ni wa (obviously not exact)
English literal translation: To spew sounds of weakness
Meaning: to complain/ whine
French: Sucer mes gaufres