What makes an idiom?

I’m sure most of us saw the Tweet from animal-rights organization PETA last week, proposing non-“speciesist” alternatives to common idioms involving animals. PETA was roundly lambasted on social media and the criticism ranged from pure mockery to sociolinguistic (around the pronunciation of the word ‘scone’), to  denouncing their conflation of “speciesism” with other forms of oppression such as racism, homophobia and anti-semitism.

Wider debates aside, and regardless of your take on PETA’s proposal–I personally agree that conflating “speciesism” with other forms of oppression is completely absurd–, these idioms could be great fodder for the classroom. You could start with discussions of the descriptive approach to language, where use determines what’s “right” and grammatical. That leads into the question of what actually makes an idiom: if what is grammatical and acceptable is what’s commonly used, and idioms are established by usage, can you just propose new ones like this? Are they even idioms if no one uses them? You could bring in counter examples, though, where a concerted effort was made to force language to evolve to reflect changing societal attitudes, such as gender-neutral language. Especially when it was first introduced, gender-neutral language received (and still receives) backlash. Would students see the PETA examples as the same phenomena of proposing changes to have language better reflect certain societal attitudes?

Then you could have some fun. You could present some established idioms involving animals (the ones on PETA’s list, and some others), teach their meaning and use, and then have students create their own non-animal alternatives. As always with lessons on idioms and expressions, fun conversation could ensue with cross-cultural comparisons of idioms, and what images and metaphors are used to express the same meaning in different languages. 

Finally, with the list of students’ new, creative idioms in hand, you may or may not want to embark on a discussion about creativity with language, and who gets to innovate and be creative and who doesn’t. When an author gets creative and creates a new expression, or PETA proposes new idioms, that’s ok, but if a learner of English or a speaker of a non-local or non-standard variety of English does the same thing, it’s often considered a mistake; they’re delegitimized as users of English.  

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