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OnWords: Swinging at Idioms

Enokson, flickr Creative Commons

A post-holiday conversation with a co-worker led to an exploration of the origin of the phrase “get back in the swing of things.”

We speculated that perhaps the phrase originated with golf, or maybe with work involving the swing of an ax.

More formal research proved all but fruitless, but it did reveal something interesting: a lot of people, mostly non-native English speakers, are interested in the meaning of the phrase “get back in the swing of things.”

Most of us wouldn't even think about it: as native speakers, we've heard “get back in the swing of things” so often that its meaning seems instinctive.

But to those new to the language, it could be baffling: what “things” and what, exactly, is doing all that swinging?

That even a native speaker would be hard pressed to answer those questions helps show how idioms operate.

Moving from a metaphor that would once have been very alive for a certain population, idioms quickly ripple out into mainstream usage, their original source unknown.

So if you've ever wondered why we simultaneously eat stuff up and swallow it down, or how we can have a carry forward from a fall back position, you've entered deep into idiom, and from there you can readily see why understanding only the grammar and vocabulary of a language is still a long way from truly learning it.