Figures of speech

You’ve heard the expression “to lick someone into shape”? It all started with mama bear, or so we thought.

– language’s time capsules

By Michelle Brooke

Sometimes the best way to express a meaning is with a figure of speech. We use figurative expressions all the time when we converse. They sum up the meaning we want to convey, such as “straight from the horse’s mouth” or “to know the ropes.”

But where do these sayings come from? The origins of these sayings can be quite interesting, and sometimes they can reveal a lot about the times in which they were created. In a way, these figures of speech are like time capsules in our language, dating back to different eras and different ways of life. For example, when we want someone to stop talking, we might tell them to “put a sock in it.” It is thought that this expression originates from the days when gramophones were used for playing music. The early gramophones had no volume control, so to lower the volume, one could stuff a sock in the opening of the horn to muffle the sound. Thus the saying “put a sock in it” to mean “quiet down” came into being.

Another interesting figure of speech is the saying “to lick someone or something into shape,” meaning to use any means necessary to improve someone or something – to bring them into a better, fitter state. This phrase originates from the belief in the Middle Ages that bear cubs were born without form and that bear mothers licked their cubs into the proper bear shape. During this time, it was written in an encyclopedia that bear cubs were “shapeless white flesh, a little bigger than mice, with no eyes or hair… [the mothers] lick them gradually into shape.” Although we now know that this is untrue, the phrase “to lick into shape” has been preserved in our language.

Figures of speech allow us to express common ideas and experiences shared between all of us, and they also provide a window to the past.

Michelle Brooke is a Carleton University student majoring in linguistics and French and minoring in German. She loves learning and writing about language.

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