An idion - please be patient -- is "an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either grammatically (as 'no, it wasn't me') or in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (as 'Monday week' for the Monday a week after next Monday)."
That sluggish definition of an idiom lurches in from Merriam-Webster. The American Heritage College Dictionary is to the same effect. As an example, it offers "keep tabs on." Random House concurs, and nominates "kick the bucket" as an idiomatic expression whose meaning "is not predictable from the usual grammatical rules of a language or from the usual meanings of its constituent elements."
The Oxford American Dictionary joins the chorus with a clarifying note: "For example, when you say that someone has 'a skeleton in the closet,' you don't literally mean that the person has human bones hidden behind a closed door. Because the meanings of idioms usually cannot be deduced from their individual words, they are among the most difficult features of the English language for a non-native speaker." Idiomatically speaking, that's for sure.
Idioms are the curveballs of every language. They can take the form of metaphors: a can of worms, a kettle of fish. They appear in rhetorical questions: The haughty dowager asks of the leering Groucho, "What do you take me for?" On the comic pages, Irving idiomatically takes the plunge; he pops the question to Cathy.
Of the coining of idioms there shall be no end. We act on the spur of the moment. We blow hot and cold. We inquire of an acquaintance, "How do you do?" To which the acquaintance naturally responds, "Do what?"
These reflections are prompted by a recent headline in the Washington Post. The story dealt with an ill-managed prison in Iraq. Poorly trained guards behaved badly because "Usual Military Checks and Balances Went Missing."
"Went missing"? What kind of English is that? Idiomatic English, ma'am, and our language is the richer for it. Here the meaning is perfectly clear. Certain checks and balances had been provided at one time, but in recent months they had disappeared. The phrase cannot be easily parsed or diagrammed, but it crops up everywhere.
Thus the New York Times recalls the disappearance 60 years ago of the writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery. He "went missing" shortly after flying from his base in Corsica. The Associated Press reports the return of the body of Charles Dean, who "went missing" in Laos in 1974.
Marilyn Hogue of Buffalo writes to express her exasperation at another crabgrass idiom: "one of the only." There's nothing wrong with "one of the few," she concedes, or "one of the many," or even "one of the last," but "one of the only" is a mathematical impossibility!"
Indeed it is, but in idiomatic English, rules do not apply. Typically, the Washington Post comments that Berlioz's "Requiem" is "one of the most unusual devotional works in the repertory." USA Today gives four stars to Sean Penn's movie, "21 Grams." It was "one of the most powerful films of 2003." And Penn's performance "affirms his status as one of the best actors of his generation."
What has become of the superlative degree? The happy crocodiles of idiom have eaten it up. Why "up"? Why do crocodiles not eat something down? Such classic superlatives as most, best, least and last have been drained of exclusivity. How do we explain an outing in which a boat is "all but capsized"?
The venerable H.W. Fowler defined "idiom" in his "Modern English Usage." An idiom, he said, "is any form of expression that has established itself as the particular way preferred by Englishmen . . . over other forms in which the principles of abstract grammar, if there is such a thing, would have allowed the idea in question to be clothed."
Now that explication is copper pipe, the cat's meow and the real McCoy. You dig?
Readers are invited to send dated citations of usage to James J. Kilpatrick in care of The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.