How to sum up 2020? It’s as if we got stuck on the second phrase of Dickens’s opening line to A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the worst of times.” This past annus was so horribilis we had to bend language to fit the not-at-all normal new normal. We social distanced, contact traced, stayed in our pods, and tried to flatten the curve. Suffice it to say we’re all feeling Covid fatigue.
Lexicographers — the people who get paid to keep track of new language like this — have always known that bad times breed new buzzwords. But this past year set a new kind of record. Every December, the language experts at the Oxford English Dictionary choose one word or phrase that best captures the year’s zeitgeist. (For reference, 2019 gave us climate emergency.) Instead, the OED declined to select a single winner for 2020; there were just too many contenders.
As 2021 begins and as vaccines increasingly enter the global bloodstream, I decided to put last year’s buzzwords aside and look instead at words of wisdom from deeper in our past.
Right on cue, enter a new book by Harold and Shirley Kobliner: So to Speak: 11,000 Expressions That’ll Knock Your Socks Off. The couple, both retired educators, spent more than a dozen years jotting down expressions, idioms, and figures of speech that they came across in their daily lives. (No Google, no peeking at existing lists.) What started as a hobby ended up as the largest book of expressions of its kind. It was an incredible undertaking during the last decade of their 65-year marriage. I know, because they are my parents.
So to Speak makes clear that there are many more expressions to describe bleak situations as there are to describe happy ones. For instance, the book contains three times as many devil- and hell-related expressions (deal with the devil, snowball’s chance in hell, etc.) as it does ones about angels and heaven (angel of mercy, match made in heaven, etc.).
As my parents found while writing So to Speak, expressions can teach us life lessons by tapping into the phrases and sayings previous generations used to cope during tough times. Given that 2020 was the most brutal year in living memory for most Americans, this list might help us keep the faith and see the light at the end of the tunnel in 2021 because, well, this too shall pass. With that in mind, here are seven phrases from So to Speak that showcase earlier generations’ attempts to put often-unspeakable experiences into words.
When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras: We may be the most plugged-in generation ever, with a chorus of news (and fake news) popping up every few seconds on our feeds. But even with all that information available, this equine phrase is a good reminder that, more often than not, we should trust our common sense (and science) rather than let our imaginations run wild with far-fetched explanations and (alleged) solutions.
All wool and a yard wide: This one dates back to the Civil War, when the sturdiest uniforms were made from a generous amount (that’s the yard part) of all-wool material (rather than some mix of felt or other inferior material). Over time, the expression came to describe someone genuine and friendly — and honorable. This past year introduced us to essential workers, who have our backs day in and day out. These health care workers, teachers, and delivery people are indeed all wool and a yard wide.
Time to break some eggs: Many of us found ourselves diving deep into the unchartered waters of the kitchen in 2020 (and hopefully rising to the occasion). But this expression describes an approach to life in general. This past year turned lives upside down, and many Americans had to come up with new ways to approach work, school, and even fun — while trying to support neighbors when they needed it. My father, Harold Kobliner, liked to repeat the mantra, “We do what we have to do, not what we want to do,” whenever he felt his children or his students needed a reminder that to achieve a goal, you must work at it.
Keep a weather eye on: The pandemic caught many of us off guard. The hope is that we will learn from this experience and be more aware of such threats in the future. That said, this phrase doesn’t mean living with paranoia; it’s all about keeping a keen watch out for the unpredictable while still living your life.
You can’t pour from an empty cup: Whenever the chaos gets to us (and it gets to pretty much everyone, eventually), this expression is a reminder that we all need to slow down and take care of ourselves — especially if we plan on helping others. Remember what flight attendants used to say (back when we still flew!): Secure your own oxygen mask first before assisting others. Words to live by in tricky times.
It’s always darkest under the lighthouse: Sometimes we need a reminder that when we think we see the whole picture, it’s often just the view from where we’re standing. This phrase, about missing what’s right under our noses, is not just nautical; it’s universal. From Japanese to Polish to English, many languages have a similar expression that reminds us that although a beacon can offer assistance for those in the distance, directly underneath it is darkness.
A two-cents plain: During the Great Depression, the soda fountains of New York City’s Lower East Side served up a “two-cents plain” seltzer — a drink that infused a glass of water with a zippy shot of carbonation to make it bubbly. In other words, it’s a phrase that celebrates the mother-of-invention skill of making the everyday seem special, using whatever you have at hand. And that is something we can toast to in 2021.
So to Speak: 11,000 Expressions That’ll Knock Your Socks Off is available wherever you buy books.