I don’t learn idioms intuitively. I learn them through study, by rote. I have a mental list of all of them, and I’ve learned most of their etymologies because that helps me make sense of why, for example, a pot calling a kettle black is an expression for hypocrisy when most pots are the lustrous light grey of aluminium, or maybe a darker, dull grey of Teflon-coated steel. and most (electric) kettles are white. The answer: Back when they were made of cast-iron, they both were black. The expression makes a lot more sense when you know that, doesn’t it?

In fact, my difficulty with idioms was why I got interested in etymology in the first place, as a kid. I couldn’t get why having a chip on your shoulder meant that you were angry and looking for a fight, or why someone who rises quickly in something was referred to as a dark horse. Me being me, my thought process at the time went something like this: I don’t get these things! ->ย  why would they use something that makes no sense? -> maybe people use them because everyone else does, like a code -> but then why did they start using them? -> did they made sense once upon a time? -> maybe, if I read about their history, I can make them make sense to me.

Likewise, I learned metaphors and symbolism through research and memorization, and because I had to do through careful analysis and deconstruction what most do through intuition, my answers were often off, and I was often marked down. Imprecise and figurative speech was often something I’d often misunderstand.

My difficulty with idioms came from the same place as my difficulty with figurative language: I’m literal-minded, probably to a fault. If someone says something, I take what they’re saying at face value. I have a hard time with subtext and an even harder time with inferring what someone means if what they say and what they mean don’t match up well.

Case in point: When I was a kid learning to ski, the ski instructor told me to ski into the lodge. So I did. And nearly got banned from the ski hill. I was told not to be stupid, that I knew what he meant when he told me to ski into the lodge, but no, I didn’t. My parents later made sure to tell other ski instructors that I would take their words at face value, and so if they want me to stop in front of the lodge, they should say so in those words, because if they tell me to stop in the lodge, I might just do exactly that.

Another time, I was told to roller blade into the wall and stop that way when I was learning to rollerblade. Crash. And I refused to go roller-blading with my mother for the next year. What she meant was for me to rollerbladeย alongside the wall and use it to stabilize myself as I stopped. But she told me to rollerblade into the wall, and being a kid without the experience to know that was a bad idea, I did as she told me.

And of course, there was the whole “books don’t talk” confusion when I was in elementary school and being told by teachers the kids might like me better if I didn’t talk like a book all the time.

And while I’m a lot better at it than I used to be, if you surprise me with a new-to-me idiom, my response will most likely be a blank stare.


18 thoughts on “Literal-mindedness

  1. autisticook says:

    Wait until you get into the fun of learning idioms in a different language. ๐Ÿ˜›

    Love your examples. People really don’t seem to realise how little of their language use is figurative and non-literal. Even “rising quickly in something” as an explanation for dark horse doesn’t actually make sense. Because they’re not going up into the air.

    I’ve learned to see my literal-mindedness as a gift. Because it makes me much more precise in the language I use. And it gives me the ability to play with language because I’ve had to learn all the different meanings that words can have depending on context. I have far greater cognitive awareness of words than people who just talk without thinking.

    • ischemgeek says:

      I did learn some French idioms in my French classes as a kid. I find it easier for a second language because most second-language teachers I’ve had explain the etymology to help people remember. XD

      • autisticook says:

        Maybe French idioms make more sense? With English, most of the instruction I got was just “*shrug* that’s how those crazy English people express themselves”. I know most of the common expressions by now after 27 years of studying English, but I still get thrown by the more idiosyncratic ones.

      • ischemgeek says:

        They probably do.

      • invisibleautistic/Robin says:

        I second what autisticook says. In Chinese there’s a phrase when literally translated in English means, “that has a lot of creativity!” But depending on context can mean, “wow that’s really ugly” all these years and I never knew until now

      • autisticook says:

        For Dutch (my native language) my parents got me two wonderful little books explaining metaphors and common idioms and sayings, when I was about 8. WITH PICTURES. It’s like they knew I was autistic. ๐Ÿ˜›

  2. invisibleautistic/Robin says:

    I especially have problems when someone tells me to “go talk to him/her.” I can’t read the intention behind that even though i might know that i am being hinted to and will actually go talk to the person without knowing what to talk about

  3. This is so interesting, and so like me (although I haven’t put nearly as much effort in trying to learn the idioms).

    I have such a hard time with idioms, even if they’re explained to me; for exampe “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”. What does this mean? I’ve pretty much given up on figuring it out. I know that once you eat said cake, you are no longer in possession of a cake, but I have no idea how that relates to anything in the real world. I also can’t understand hints or implied meanings (usually I can’t even tell that there’s any hidden meaning at all.)

    • ischemgeek says:

      Helps that, for me, it was a special interest for a while.

      The cake thing used to be phrased as a question (i.e., “Would you eat your cake and have it still?”) or as an accusation (i.e., “You want to eat your cake and have it.”), with the verb order reversed (eat before have) and additional clarification that it’s referring to having the cake after it’s been eaten. This in my mind make the actual statement more logical (because if you obtain cake an then eat it, you do in fact have your cake and eat it – you just don’t do it simultaneously) and also easier to understand what the person is getting at. The statement is a bastardized metaphor for a person wanting both of two mutually exclusive options. So when someone says “you can’t have your cake and eat it,” what they mean is that you (or the person under discussion, as the case may be) are wanting two mutually exclusive things.

      But it’s one of the more obtuse idioms.

      • Wow, thank you. That makes so much more sense when explained logically and with background info.

        It’s one of my dad’s favorite idioms (much to my dismay), and despite him and others trying to explain it to me many times, I never got it. Funny that I get it when another autistic person explains it ๐Ÿ™‚

      • ischemgeek says:

        You see why I thought etymology was like the coolest thing ever for about half a decade. It’s useful for figuring out what people mean when they utter nonsense cliches. ๐Ÿ™‚

        I still still look up origins to idioms whenever one stumps me, not gonna lie.

  4. Alana says:

    Words words words! Thank you. This was interesting and I liked it.

    • ischemgeek says:

      Thanks! ๐Ÿ™‚

      Amusing thing: Mental response to “Words words words!” was “What is the matter, my lord?” I read Hamlet in high school English.

      Also, did you see the video about people at the Globe theatre performing Shakespeare in a reconstructed authentic Elizabethan accent? Really cool.

  5. notesoncrazy says:

    I love your examples! I definitely skied INTO the lodge every single ski trip and no one could figure out why and I actually didn’t realize until reading your post right now that that’s where the confusion was!

    And literal thinking and idioms is what drove me to my love of etymology and later semantics and linguistics as well. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • ischemgeek says:

      Yeah. See also: don’t tell me to toss something fragile unless you want me to toss it. And also don’t tell me to grab something and then yell at me for being rude when I grab it. And don’t tell me to “watch” the pizza when you mean “take it out of the oven when it’s done”.

      Because when I was a kid, I’d watch it. I’d watch it turn golden, then brown, then dark brown, then black, then start to smoke, then catch fire….

      I think there’s two approaches you can take when idioms give you a hard time: Do your best to eschew them entirely, or study them until they make sense. Which one is best will depend on the person and their own interests, I think.

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