7 Idioms to Avoid for More Inclusive Communication: Part 2

Idiom: “An expression unique to a language, especially one whose sense is not predictable from the meanings and arrangement of its elements, such as kick the bucket a slang term meaning ‘to die’, which has nothing obviously to do with kicking or buckets.”

As noted in part 1, idioms can bring a language to life. They can help explain complex concepts in easily understandable images. They are, however, potentially problematic for non-native speakers of a language as they may rely on unfamiliar cultural references.  Beyond that, many commonly used idioms have been based on outdated and incorrect views and dubious racial and sexual stereotypes.  

Let’s take a look at some popular idioms to avoid.

Wearing the pants in the family/relationship

Originally “Wearing the breeches”, this phrase dates from the mid-15th century, a time when men wore breeches and women wore skirts or dresses. The phrase has always been inherently sexist.  Applied to a couple, the implication is that the male is weak and submissive and the female is domineering and strong. The couple is not fulfilling the traditionally expected cultural gender dynamic. Furthermore, the implication is that the wife has surpassed the husband within the relationship, which used to be a serious social transgression. Women’s roles in “Western countries” have changed enough that a marriage where a woman has a powerful job and her partner has a lower profile no longer carries a socially poor reflection on them both.  Power and strength are not exclusively masculine or feminine qualities and culture and language are changing in acknowledgement. 

Selling Ice to Eskimos

As the Canadian Football Leagues’ Edmonton football club has come to understand, the term “Eskimo” is no longer an acceptable term for the Indigenous people of the Arctic. Despite the club’s attempts to position the name as an homage to the hardiness and toughness of the Inuit way of life, the club has changed its name to the Edmonton Elks.

In 1977 the Inuit Circumpolar Conference meeting voted to adopt “Inuit” as “a designation for all circumpolar Native peoples” and the Government of Canada has followed suit. Climate change is bringing massive changes to life in the far north and as coverage of the Arctic increases, the courtesy of respecting the name the people have chosen in news stories becomes more important.

With this, it is no surprise that the idiom, “selling ice to Eskimos” is one to avoid. The phrase suggests that a person is extremely good at their job. So good, in fact, that they can overcome the good sense of their customers and convince them to buy something which is already available free of charge. It’s not always a compliment, in that the phrase has been used to describe confidence tricksters. 

If you want to acknowledge a person for their ability to sell, why not simply acknowledge them for that specific skill and avoid this outdated idiom.

Always a bridesmaid, never a bride

This phrase originated in a more superstitious era when it was believed that a bridesmaid who served three or more times would never marry.  Marriage was seen as a path to freedom and financial stability, there was, therefore, a stigma to being an unmarried woman. Today it is most often used to describe someone who is never the most important person in a particular situation or the winner of some particular thing.

Since women traditionally had no legal status other than as a daughter or a wife, unmarried women in many parts of the world were not legally persons, could not inherit family property, and could not own a business outright. Indeed, here in Canada, the 1867 British North America Act did not define women as persons and it wasn’t until the 1929 British Privy Council decision in the “Persons” case that Canadian white women gained person status. Notably, women of colour didn’t get full voting rights until the late 1940s and Indigenous women only achieved Federal voting rights in 1960.

Superstitions persist, but thankfully the idea that women must rely on a husband and family to reach their potential is not a mainstream position in Canada. The rationale for the original phrase no longer exists so it is past time to remove this phrase from our lexicon.

Pleased as Punch

Rooted in the 16th-century Italian commedia dell’arte, the Punch and Judy puppet shows first appeared in the United Kingdom in 1662 during the Restoration period, when King Charles II allowed the opening of theatres that had been closed under Puritan Oliver Cromwell.

Punch is a nasty piece of work.  He generally carries a stick, known as a slapstick, with which he often beats his wife Judy, and their baby. The puppet shows are meant to be comic in nature, and they not only gave rise to the term slapstick comedy, but also the term punchline, but the humour relies on Punch’s misogynistic violence.

“Pleased as Punch” comes from his ability to outsmart his adversaries, and escape punishment for his crimes. His happiness is derived from outwitting and punishing rivals and family.  A recurring theme of Punch and Judy shows is that Punch often cheats the Executioner by tricking him into hanging himself.

Unless you wish to align with Punch the abuser and it is probably best to drop this idiom from your discourse. A clear explanation of why you are happy with your accomplishments is a fine substitute or even just a smile.

To call a spade a spade

To call a spade a spade relates to speaking honestly and without deception. It is derived from the Ancient Greek phrase  "to call a fig a fig and a trough a trough”, which scholars have suggested may have been ribald wordplay. The phrase became “to call a spade a spade” when the Latin scholar Erasmus translated it, incorrectly, from the Greek, and it entered the English language when Nicholas Udall translated Erasmus in 1542.  At that point, the “spade” in the phrase was simply a gardening tool.

Separately, in late 15th Century France, playing cards with suits reflecting different roles in society became popular. Royalty, clergy, merchants, and peasants were represented by spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs respectively. The connection will become clear.

Centuries passed with the phrase appearing in the works of many novelists, among them Charles Dickens. Then, during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, Black authors including Claude McKay, began to use “spade” as code for Black folk. The connection between cards and the phrase grew stronger as the phrase “black as the ace of spades” became common.  From that point, “spade” had become racialized and was used by white Americans as a derogatory term for Black people, particularly men. 

Use of the phrase may easily offend, and using it and then defending it by talking about its Ancient Greek origins only compounds the offence. It’s a phrase worth avoiding. Perhaps a return to calling a fig a fig, or if you don’t want to risk a naughty ancient Greek double-entendre, perhaps you should suggest that people stop beating around the bush.  That’s a phrase from medieval hunting.

Master bedroom

This example is not truly an idiom but it is a term that is in common everyday usage. The term “master bedroom” came into popular usage around 1926 due to its inclusion in a Sears catalogue.  The reference, however, is to the Antebellum South of the United States of America. It’s true that “master” predates the slave era and the historical connotations were often sexist than racist (the bedroom of the male head of household even though it was shared with his spouse), but the American context has led to the replacement of the term with “primary bedroom” in many North American real-estate markets. A more inclusive language is developed step by step.

Cakewalk/Takes the cake/Piece of cake

The Antebellum South spawned an inordinate number of idioms, among them “cakewalk”, “piece of cake”, and “takes the cake.” Today these phrases relate to a task that is easily done, but they come from a time when slaves competed for a highly decorated cake by dancing for their owners and other white spectators. A “cakewalk” involved complicated steps that the best dancers made with style and flow. The cakewalk wasn’t easy, but the dancers made it look so, hence the phrase. It is said that the participants used the competitions to mock the judges under the cover of the performance.

There is much more to the history of the cakewalk as it persisted for a time after the Civil War and provided the basis for the musical genre Ragtime, popularized by Scott Joplin. The idioms, however,  that came from the practice are overdue for retirement from everyday usage.  

What are possible replacement phrases?  It’s a cinch?