Turning over a new coin: the modern curse of mixed idioms and phrases

A creeping war of annihilation against the English language is reducing me to tears.

I’m not trying to pin you to a promise, but the next time there’s a white elephant in the room, will you grab it with open arms? And don’t try to wriggle off the hook. If you do, I want you to get down on your hands and knees and apologise. So try to stay one foot ahead and I won’t say a dickie word about it.

You may think I’m talking gibberish and you’d be absolutely right. But you may also think I’ve made it all up. On that score I stand an innocent man, surrounded, as I believe I am, by some strange and disturbing new phenomenon: the increasing use of mixed idioms and phrases. Or as I know them, complete nonsense. All the phrases in italics – above and below – I’ve heard. Hand on heart, I have. Whether slipping from the mouths of television and radio presenters, or uttered by friends, work colleagues or strangers – every one of them has escaped the subterranean, collective psyche of absurdity, emerged blinking into the light, and now lays festering along with its kin in an embarrassing swamp of silly phrases.

I mean, why turn over a new leaf, or toss a coin? Have the best of both worlds: turn over a new coin, and have done with it. Perhaps I notice these things because I’m too stressed out. Or do I mean worked up? Neither, apparently. According to my doctor, I’m stressed up. You see, mixed idioms and phrases spew forth equally from the educated, the almost-educated and idiots, of whatever class or age group.

No safe havens
photo of andrew marr raising leg

Saying it how it isn’t: Andrew Marr

They don’t need to combine, say, two idioms (it creeps me out). They can, of course, be a single corrupted idiom or phrase. Or a combination of an idiom with a phrase (pin you to a promise, spoken by the BBC’s Andrew Marr in an interview with William Hague, UK Foreign Secretary). Or even a completely new word (uprest, from ‘uprising and unrest). In whatever form, they will worm their way into your brain at any time of the day and from a variety of locations, from the car radio as the sun comes up, to the apparent safety of your bed as you nod off listening to BBC Radio 4. You don’t have to go looking for them.

Nick Clegg – although I don’t know why – seems particularly adept at transforming perfectly straightforward English into a mix and match stew worthy of an art installation. Grab it with open arms, mentioned above, is his. As is flamingly obvious, which, Nick, is blatantly, obviously wrong.

Ten years ago this rarely happened. Today it’s very much on the rise. I am fascinated and appalled. I don’t understand the change. But I’d love to know why it’s taking place. And why now?

English has a rich stock of wonderful idioms and phrases. They are one of the joys and strengths of the language, their meaning often not apparent from their constituent parts. Without a knowledge of idioms, for example, a foreign speaker of English would struggle. They are integral to how we use our language. But what is someone thinking, if anything, when they dispense with convention and stray into the rubbish heap of nonsense?

Natural habitat

I cannot recall ever seeing one in print – unless in a quotation. Along with day-to-day speech, the broadcast medium, preferably live, is their natural habitat, which perhaps explains why many of them are heard during sports commentary.

Golfing commentator: “He’s just got to get to the green and hang it out.” Take time to read that again. Be strong. It’s worth it. It’s a gem. I have a question: at which point in that sentence did the speaker’s brain, having already instructed and guided his mouth to say one thing, subsconsiously abort the mission entirely and switch to an entirely different thing? One or other would have hit the target. It’s either ‘stick it out’, or ‘hang in there’. But not both. Or indeed the result – neither.

One doesn’t need to be a pedant to be annoyed. While disliking the seemingly near-complete replacement of ‘you’re’ with ‘your’, usually in texting, online chat and the like, I can live with it. And at least it’s quicker and easier to type. I rarely, if ever, pick anyone up on it. Life’s too short. And when a footballer says, “we played brilliant” then I won’t lose sleep. If he wishes to use an adjective instead of an adverb, in this context it’s still meaningful, although wrong.

photo of a sheep

Sheep are incapable of uttering mixed idioms

I am, however, pushed to the limit by the seemingly astounding and comprehensive illiteracy of landlords of cheaper properties – especially in some eastern counties, it seems, where I once suffered the ignoble experience of looking for a flat. I turned down a bedsit that was kitted out with “bed, wardrobe and chester drawers”, and waded my way through large numbers of emails and adverts with an impressive array of unnecessary capitalisations, random and excessive use of full stops, no punctuation at all, or – a real treat – no spaces between sentences and sometimes even between words. It was all like a set of bizarre word puzzles sent to try me, a war of annihilation against the English language and the reader’s patience. I don’t demand perfection, only that I shouldn’t be reduced to tears of frustration. That my need to comprehend should be borne in mind by the writer, that I was raised to communicate using a human language not the grunts and snarls of beasts. How these people ever arranged a mortgage is one of the wonders of the world. The scrapping of cheques must have been a joyful day for them, because grasping a pen with a cloven foot is impossible, or at the very least time-consuming.

Yet all of these abuses I can handle. Just. But if a commentator says tennis player Djokovic has been chest-pumping, or a BBC radio presenter uses the phrase not that much of a big difference, then is a rational person supposed to turn the other cheek and let language and sense be mangled and made a mockery of?


What is so infuriating about them is that they are utterly meaningless. One can try to appreciate an element of creativity in them, but the endeavour always fails.

If you haven’t noticed this new phase in our linguistic development, from now on you will, I guarantee. Injurious both to the mind and the ear, they are not part of some creative, organic change to English, whether from the street, abroad or elsewhere. They are a blatant act of vandalism against our great language. And soon, like me, despite your perfect reasonableness over matters of language and meaning, you’ll experience the loneliness of the few who have noticed. In darker moments you’ll begin to suspect that it heralds some future communal madness, where the super-volcano of gibberishness finally erupts from the depths, destroying all meaning and taking with it you and I, who just want language to mean what it says, and say what it means.

I didn’t mean to go on, but the whole thing just riles me up the wrong way.


Copyright © 2012 David Hansard /
All articles on are written by David Hansard unless otherwise stated.



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