The three idiomatic expressions above – one Native American in origin, one Chinese-American, and one associated with the practices of American politics – have absolutely nothing to do with the story of George Washington, his little hatchet, a cherry tree, and not telling lies. Or, for that matter, of the tale of Carrie A. Nation’s hatchet-swinging, tavern-busting antics.
I remember plenty of family picnics in the 1950s. After the eating was over the adult male relatives would gather round the picnic table, break out frosty bottles of Schlitz beer, light up cigars, and commence to play penny ante poker.
But seriously, how many people smoke cigars today? Nevertheless, “Close, but no cigar!” is an idiom that still has currency today and is as instantly understood in the way as it has been for more than a century.
If you’ve read my earlier blog entry It’s All Greek to Me, Part 1, you’ll see that a handful of figures of speech still in use refer to Ancient Greek culture, history, arts, writings and mythology.
But what I was lamenting in Part 1 was that fewer and fewer Americans know the backstory of these idioms. And without that knowledge, eventually these expressions, rich in culture and history, will fade away.
Which is too bad, because not only will we lose some really fascinating figures of speech, it also means that before that happens a lot of us will have already lost a valuable part of our cultural heritage.
I dunno. When I was a kid, maybe five years old, my parents gave me an illustrated children’s book of Greek mythology.
And it was all there – Apollo in his golden chariot, Prometheus chained to a rock, Icarus falling into the sea, Jason, Medusa, the Golden Fleece, even tales of the brave Odysseus. And I ate it up with a spoon. I loved every page.
But today, how many people do you think really have had any direct exposure to the history, ideas, art, and culture of Ancient Greece, except maybe having once attended a toga party at a Greek fraternity in college?
“To Fold Like a Cheap Camera” means to back down from one’s position quickly under not so heavy pressure; to abandon one’s argument absolutely with little possibility returning to it in the future; to self-collapse one’s stand.
“Cooking with gas” means performing a difficult task with maximum efficiency and capability. There is a hint in the expression that an obstacle had to be overcome in order to achieve a state of “cooking with gas.”