Space & Innovation

'I'm Just Ribbing You': Where'd That Come From?

For nearly as long as humans have had speech, there has been figurative language. In fact, it's hardwired into our brains.

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When new speakers learn a language, they can often get bent out of shape over idioms. Starting from scratch with a new language is daunting enough when trying to learn the literal translations of words, and upon hearing an idiomatic expression when chewing the fat with a native speaker, novices often clam up.

Idioms are a language device to convey a non-literal meaning through a figurative expression. All languages make frequent use of idioms, and English has at least 25,000 idioms, leaving ESL students with an even taller mountain to climb for an already difficult lingual study.

Give (someone) a ribbing
To non-native or fluent English speakers, "ribbing" someone might sound almost violent, but it means teasing and refers to tickling ribs to induce laughter.

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Multiple studies have shown that are brains are hard-wired to understand figurative speech.

Treat (someone) with kid gloves
This idiomatic expression means to deal with somebody carefully and/or gently. The phrase is based on the literal meaning of kid gloves, an article of clothing made of soft leather. Kid gloves are also white gloves often used by servants for handling objects without leaving a trace.

A 2005 study out of the University of California - San Diego found that a region of the brain known as the angular gyrus is at least partly responsible for our ability to understand figurative language.

To come to this conclusion, researchers enlisted study right-handed participants who were fluent in English, intelligent and mentally lucid, but had suffered damage to their left angular gyrus. Each participant was asked to explain the meaning behind proverbs such as "The grass is always greener on the other side," or "An empty vessel makes more noise."

Cut to the chase
If someone asks you to cut to the chase, he or she wants you to get to the point. The phrase originates from the early silent film era, when movies often hit their climax during chase scenes. "Cut to the chase" back then referred to not boring the audience with unnecessary dialogue or exposition and get to the part of the movie they were most interested in.

What the researchers found is that patients often gave definitions for each proverb that tended toward a literal meaning, the metaphorical underpinnings of the expression seemingly lost on them.

"[T]he patients often came up with elaborate, even ingenious interpretations -- that were completely off the mark," lead author V.S. Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at UC San Diego, said at the time.

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Meeting a deadline
A deadline conveys a sense of urgency, a point past which something is lost or foregone. The phrase has its origins in Civil War prison camps, when prisoners were surrounded by a line past which they would be shot should they attempt to cross it.

A 2009 study published in BioMed Central determined that we use both hemispheres of our brains to understand idioms.

After analyzing brain activity of 11 study participants, researchers in Italy determined that idioms activated the right middle temporal gyrus and the right medial front gyrus on one side of the brain.

Any fluent speaker knows not to take a familiar idiom literally, but does the brain? When a listener heard an idiomatic expression, the part of at the brain thought to be used to suppress literal meaning, the left inferior frontal gyrus, in fact did not activate. The limbic regions involved in emotional responses did, however.

Blow off steam
Given that it's Friday, no doubt more than a few readers are going to blow off some steam this weekend after the workweek. Figuratively blowing off steam means getting rid of pent-up aggression or alternatively relaxing. The expression derives from steam engines, use steam as a source of power and periodically have to discharge it so pressure doesn't build up and the engine explodes.

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If our brains are built to understand idioms and other figurative expressions, that suggests that non-literal speech is an intrinsic part of language. Perhaps for nearly as long as there's been language, there has been figurative speech as well.