Some of us just keep that candle burning.
Some people love idioms, maybe even use them occasionally. Some people love teaching them, delight in watching students uncover the mystery, how “ants in your pants” doesn’t literally denote that tiny creatures are crawling all over your legs, only that you’re wiggling around as if it were the case. Some teachers just love to reveal these secrets of native language, “to let the cat out of the bag” on what people really say. It probably comes as little surprise that I don’t.
First of all, I don’t really like when native speakers use idioms too much, all those bulls in china shops, held horses, cows waiting to come home: It’s animal cruelty if you ask me. Furthermore, we are taught not to play with our food, so why don’t we dispense with buttering people up, catching flies with honey rather than vinegar (what the hell), and for the love of good, eat the damned nutty fruitcake and leave the crazies alone.
Secondly, some of them just make you sound lame. If I’m burning the midnight oil, then I don’t need you coming around pointing out my misery with some catchy turn of phrase: Take your 19th century lighting and bug off. Bug off?—who says that besides a 1950s geek (imagine Marty McFly). F*** off will suit me just fine and seems more effective. Such witticism, then, often goes over like a lead balloon and has you skating on thin ice before a conversation even gets started. Heavens to Betsy, other than angry parents and comic book villains, who talks like this?
Of course, I can’t dismiss them all. “Kiss my anything” just seems to work, and I can accept fingers-crossed and the like, which actually have physical gags to go along with them. And, who can resist a well-placed facetious idiom, something of the-bee-in-your-bonnet variety or, say, “blind leading the blind”, where the phrasing humor is more about timing than showing off your new English skill. But, that’s where issue three comes in: When most EFL/ESL speakers try to execute most idioms, they come off all-thumbs.
Admittedly, idioms are idioms because they do crop up into everyday conversations readily enough to be noted as special, to be blacklisted for writers, who have to come up with original moustache-twisters…jelly-rollers…ball-ticklers to keep audiences happy. However, that’s not to say that we use them every chance we get. I know how to use “pay through the nose”, but I’ve never felt moved to say it. Nor have I found myself in a bad situation and thought, hmm, let me use this chance to say “up a creek without a paddle.”
Nothing is sadder than an otherwise fantastic speaker who has recently learned some ridiculously antiquated phrase and is trying at every chance to include “like finding hens’ teeth” into a 21st century conversation with someone who grew listening to Nirvana. I respect the effort, but I loathe the teacher—that wolf in sheep’s clothing—who introduced this drivel to an impressionable mind. It’s not the student's fault.
Come to think of it: Why can I recall having used “on egg shells” multiple times in my life? What the hell is wrong with us? Where the hell did I learn that? Who taught me to talk like a farmer’s wife? Why can’t I just say you make me really uncomfortable or go suck an egg you grumpy bastard? Mostly though, why should walking on egg shells be disconcerting? Try laying an egg, MF.