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Misused Phrases, Take 2 – idioms, adages, and expressions

Last updated on February 26, 2024

Misused Phrases, Take 2

It does so irk me when people get idioms, adages, and expressions wrong. Is it just me? Am I overly pedantic?

It’s been more than half a year since I scratched out the first list. During that time, I saw it happening more and more. There’s a distressing disregard for accuracy that only seems to be growing and I don’t like it. Remember when your mom said “If everyone jumped off a cliff would you follow them?”. Don’t do what the other kids are doing – accuracy still counts. And because it’s still important, we’re taking another crack at a few more misused phrases.

Language and communication constantly evolve

misused phrases change the meaning - this interferes with clarity

When I have my editor hat on and see idioms or expressions mangled into misused phrases? They make me cringe and I develop an eye twitch. If you’re incapable of absorbing why it’s bad to use these the wrong way, or can’t understand the meaning change when you use them improperly, please, do us a favour. Back away slowly from your keyboard and stop writing these things.

And for the love of the gods, stop making memes out of them!

Understanding what’s meant by each of these common expressions is the key to using them well. This will help prevent your turning them into another one of the misused phrases that permeate our current version of English.  As a writer, honestly, do you want to sound uneducated and have people wonder about your upbringing? (*sarcasm)

Seriously, though, this isn’t meant to be a grammar lesson. Language and communication is a constantly evolving thing and should change over time. This is about making sure if you use expressions everyone knows by heart, that you use them well. Use them to make a point. Use them for effect. Don’t use them to make an arse out of yourself by perpetuating misused phrases.

I can’t say it enough – overall, it’s not a good idea to throw any overused expressions into your writing. They take away from the original content you worked so hard to create (*dialogue excepted). Always be original wherever you can to make your writing come alive.

More Misused Phrases – explanation and correction

Hunger pains vs Hunger pangs

While “pangs” are a type of pain, this is a descriptive expression referring to a particular kind of pain.

A “pang” is a sudden sharp feeling, as in the kind you get when you haven’t eaten in a long while.

Saying “hunger pains” while not wholly incorrect, is not how this descriptive expression goes.

Another thing coming vs another think coming

Bet you thought that was supposed to be the other way around, eh? Surprise!

Since we’re generally lazy, we never say the entire phrase, but if we did, it would make a hell of a lot more sense. The whole phrase is “If that’s what you think, you’ve got another think coming”. This simply means, you have an incorrect thought, so you’d better think again, smartypants!

Escape goat vs A scapegoat

If you have an escape goat, you probably want to build a higher fence around its enclosure or start calling it Houdini or Chris Angel.

The beginnings of this phrase actually do refer to goats and comes from the Old Testament in the Bible – Leviticus 16:8,10,26. On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the Jewish chief priest would confess all the sins of the Israelites over the head of a sacrificial goat and then drive it into the wilderness (to symbolically take the sins away).

In the modern world, a “scapegoat” is someone who is innocent and blamed for the wrongdoing of others. Makes sense, right?

Wet your appetite vs Whet your appetite

Some confusion with this may be from mixing the two expressions “whet your appetite” and “wet your whistle”. They have no connection to each other.

At its simplest, the now-uncommon spoken word “whet” is being mistaken for “wet”. See? Language in evolution.

The phrase “wet your whistle” was first noted in 1386. This simply means to take a drink with the “whistle” referring to the throat or the voice.

Though not quite as old, “whet your appetite” has also been around a long while and first noted in writing in 1688 by Thomas Shadwell. In the correct use of this phrase, the word “whet” alludes to the sharpening of tools on a whetstone.

This makes “whet your appetite” mean to “sharpen your appetite”, as in with an hors d’oeuvre or pre-dinner glass of wine.

Tow the line vs Toe the line

The correct use of this phrase “toe the line” has its roots in the military. It means to conform to a rule or standard. This comes from when soldiers are made to arrange their feet in perfect alignment as they stand in line for inspection.

To “tow” something means to haul or drag something behind you. The change of the word “tow” for “toe” definitely changes the meaning here and makes it nonsensical.

Wait with baited breath vs Wait with bated breath

My maternal grandfather was a satirical and well-spoken sort who sometimes mocked the wrong use of this expression with the more literal “I’m waiting with a worm on my tongue”. To “bait” something means, in this sense, to use something to entice or to lure as in when you put a worm on a hook to entice a fish.

“bate” is a shortened form of the word “abate” which means to be held off or postponed.

So, what does this expression say then?

When you “wait with bated breath”, you are going to hold off on a gasp of surprise until the person you’re conversing with reveals the astounding or anticipated information.

Waiting on tenderhooks vs Waiting on tenterhooks

Trust me, there are no such things as “tenderhooks”.

In our modern society, things like “tenterhooks” are foreign, because these objects are no longer in our day-to-day – no wonder people get this one wrong. What the heck is a “tenterhook”? Tenterhooks are actual hooks attached to wooden frames used for stretching cloth.

When we say we’re waiting on tenterhooks, we mean that someone’s emotions are uncomfortably strung-out much like a piece of cloth stretched tight on tenterhooks.

I predict this phrase will fall wholly out of use in the next one hundred years along with a few others due to the lack of context for the words they contain in our modern society.

Play it by air vs Play it by ear

“play it by air”… like air guitar? This is nonsense.

To play something by “ear” means someone listens to a song and can figure out how to play it just on what they heard without needing sheet music. What we can extrapolate from that is it means to play without a predetermined course.

The way we use this expression in everyday language refers to deciding how to deal with a situation as it develops, making changes and decisions on the fly, without a concrete plan.

What comes around goes around vs What goes around comes around

“What comes around goes around” is sometimes said backward for “What goes around comes around”.

“What goes around comes around” is another cultural description for karma. It expresses the concept, if you are not a kind person and give out negativity, bad things will come to you versus if you’re a good and kind person and reflect that outward, then good things will come to you.

It might be helpful to remember which way around to express this if you think on what “goes” as what you give out and what “comes” as what is returned to you by the universe. The personal action of what “goes” out must occur first in order to receive the return of what “comes” back, either negative or positive.

The spitting image = The spit and image

I’ll give you a break on this one. Both are currently correct.

This phrase’s origin is in the book of Genesis in the Bible and refers to the Christian God making man out of spit and mud in His image.

We use this phrase to describe someone who we think looks exactly like another, an exact double.

“spitting image” is the modern form of the idiom, so you wouldn’t be incorrect as it’s been in use for about a century now.

If you’re a purist and like to stick to the original, then off you go and it’s also still valid.

It’s a doggy dog world vs It’s a dog-eat-dog world

Where is this “doggy dog world” of which you speak? I like dogs – can we go there? All joking aside, this makes no sense at all. This particular expression has its roots in observations put forth by Marcus Tarentius Varro waaaay back in 43BC.

While making his point that human beings are less principled about destroying their own kind than any other animals, he said that even “a dog will not eat a dog”. By the 16th century, the phrase was being used as a metaphor for ruthless competition and today, we still use this phrase to describe ruthless behaviour.

The correct way to use this phrase (if you must) is “It’s a dog-eat-dog world”.

Sitting in the cashbird seat vs Sitting in the catbird seat

I have no idea what a “cashbird” is, but if you’re using it in this phrase, you’re wrong. Stop it now.

If you’re “Sitting in the catbird seat”, it means you have an enviable position where you have the upper hand or a greater advantage.

Some people attribute the invention of this expression to broadcaster Red Barber. However, it’s more likely he borrowed the folksy expression from his American Southern roots and made it popular during his announce career.

The probable source of this expression is from a North American bird species called “mimic thrushes”. These birds mimic the sounds of other animals. According to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute, the gray catbird’s “most famous call, and the one for which they are named, is a very catlike meow sound. They can also mimic the noises of other birds and even other animals like frogs.These “catbirds” like to seek out the highest perches and sing mocking cat noise songs very safe from cats below.

Mute point vs Moot point

The word “mute” describes being unable to speak, so unless you’re talking about a point with its tongue cut out, you’re wrong.

Adjective: The word “moot” has several meanings from having no significance to being open for debate or argument.

Noun: Its roots are in the law and referring to hypothetical cases law students argue over as an exercise.

Verb: It means to think about carefully and weigh the consequences of an action.

For our modern purposes, this expression takes its roots from the legal adjective meaning. The phrase “moot point” in modern vernacular means an irrelevant point or topic of discussion.

Case and point vs Case in point

“Case and point”… Oh man… Which case are you referring to and why are you pointing at it? This is simply incorrect.

The expression “Case in point” is for when a specific instance serves as evidence for a point you are trying to make.

Pour over vs Pore over

If you’re “pouring” over anything, what you’re saying is that you’re causing something (liquid, people, insects, whatever) to flow profusely over them. If you’re doing this at work, you may short-out your laptop or soak your printed documents.

To “pore over” something means to focus or direct your attention on something. In other words, when you’re concentrating hard.

Slight of hand vs Sleight of hand

True, we can appreciate magicians for their slight hands. I think the slender and nimble fingers allow them to perform “sleight of hand”. However, using the word “slight” in this expression is incorrect. “Slight” means slim, thin or svelte, which would make that phrase make no sense. Well, unless you’re describing someone with skinny hands.

The word “sleight” means “adroitness in using the hands”. In other words, nimble fingers or dexterity in the more negative sense of that, as in deception.

This is totally okay if you’re watching magic tricks by an illusionist. Sucks pretty hard if you’re watching your accountant make your money disappear with some sleight of hand.

A blessing in the skies vs A blessing in disguise

Not sure what you have falling out of the sky around your area, but that’s not where blessings usually come from. Okay, unless there’s a drought and then it began to rain. Sure, you would be well within your rights to misuse this phrase in a satirical manner to fit the situation. If you don’t live in the desert and there’s no drought where you are, though, in that case you’ll want to be sure to use this phrase correctly as “a blessing in disguise”.

This simply means something that seemed bad or unlucky at first later turned out to be a good thing.

Pro tip - not one of the misused phrases, but good to know!

Bonus points: if you know that words that sound the same, but have different meanings are called homonyms!

Misused phrases? Let’s knock that off now.

Now armed with this information, you may proceed to use some of these idioms in a much more effective manner. But again, try to avoid them. Let your awesome ideas speak for themselves.


[Related article:  Misused Phrases – 15 idioms, adages, and expressions]


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