Every language has a few words or phrases that are used because everyone is used to them. Some of them work pretty well, but others are used in silly ways. If you take the world at face value, some of them are literally very funny without meaning to be.
You can call them clichés if you want, but a lot of phrases that appear to be rich in meaning fall into our language because they are simply useful. I like to know where these phrases come from because, if nothing else, it makes it easier to mis-use them for a stupid pun or other kind of gag. Language is a cultural thang, as much about status and networks as it is communicating, and people playing with words that sound important can be a lot of fun to skewer.
I recently saw on twitter someone asking why we use the phrase “Push the envelope”, which it doesn’t appear to make any sense on the face of it. The person asking, bless his honesty, didn’t see why pushing an envelope around was particularly interesting or fun. It turns out that this phrase comes from the “envelope” of air that appears as a shockwave in front of an aircraft approaching the speed of sound – it dates from the glory daze of the “skunkworks” when Lockheed was developing genuinely high tech. It may sound like a strange phrase to use if you don’t know the origin, but it’s usually used correctly.
I’ve often wondered about the phrase “Full blown”, which I guessed came from another macho pursuit, supercharging engines. Apparently, it’s a variation of “full bloom” and refers to the more tranquil arrival of Spring. It’s probably best to not use this term in a power situation for that reason.
One word that I really dislike is “Brainchild” as a substitute for “idea”. The origin is certainly the birth of Athena, whose mother was eaten whole while pregnant with her so that dad Zeus wouldn’t see a bitter rival born. Athena wound up springing from Zeus’ head when full grown, ready to take him on. While I often use many big words, I do try to choose their color and texture and taste very carefully – this one only adds “I have a college degree!” to the process of creation. If nothing else, not everything is Athenian, folks.
A phrase that I think requires care is “Pull out all the stops”. This comes from organ playing, where the “stops” are what control the air moving to the pipes. Pull them all out, and all the pipes sound – really loudly, too. This needs to be used in the context of something festive or it may sound a bit strange.
Why do we use these phrases? Usually, it’s just a bad habit that it’s best to avoid. Sometimes they do in fact make sense and are worth using. Like all language, a little bit of care goes a long way. I’m sure there are many more that you may love or hate, and I’d like to see what you come up with in the comments.