Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Linguistic Value of the Internet

A lot of times I come up with idioms and then I'm not quite sure if they're real. I don't know if anyone else has this experience, but when I look at or think about a word or phrase for too long, it inevitably starts to look weird to me, and I can't believe it's right. Once this happened with the word "petticoat." Think about petticoat. Is that a weird word, or what? Why is it spelled like that? What does it mean? (No need to respond to those questions, because I know the answers, but the word, isolated on the page, or screen, can become a disembodied entity, detached from etymology and the laws of spelling, and if you're a word kind of person, this can be profoundly disconcerting.)

The internet has been, as in so many realms, a great help in this area. When a phrase starts to seem odd to me, I can google it and see if it is out there in the shared discourse. Where did I come up with "strike new ground"? No idea, but it is not right. Neither is "blaze new ground." "New ground" was not useful, but my brain took over at that point: of course, "break new ground," which is both idiomatic and logical, because that's what you're doing: breaking new ground, and of course you wouldn't be striking or blazing new ground, though (my brain at work as I write this), you would be blazing a trail, and in fact (just checked), one could "blaze new trail," so now I have to decide whether to break new ground or blaze a new trail. And, yes, this is a moment where cliches are appropriate.

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