Saturday, 26 January 2013

71 - Idioms of Fear

In the second part of this series, I will attempt to explain some idioms that relate to fear. While most native speakers will be familiar with the meaning of these common phrases, my explanations will hopefully be useful for those learning English as a foreign language.

First of all, 'scared the wits out of (someone)'. This is a common phrase and is used like this: "Godzilla's tail flattened a building and scared the wits out of her", or "Feathers scare the wits out of me".

The origin of the meaning is quite obvious. In days gone by, people, especially men, would chew the seeds of a now extinct plant. These seeds were called 'the wits'. If someone was given a shock by, say, a cow falling from the sky and landing just a few feet in front of them, then they would invariably spit out all the wits they'd be chewing and exclaim "golly". Thus the phrase 'it scared the wits out of me' came into common usage. Of course, to learn English well one does not have to take to chewing seeds and, if you plan to be shocked by falling cows, or anything else, it is in fact best not to have a choking hazard in your mouth, a fact sadly lost on the youth of today, due to the decline in popularity of the admittedly cumbersome phrase 'it killed him by making him choke on his wits'.

A second phrase, 'scared out of one's wits' has become synonymous with 'scared the wits out of me'. This phrase is used like this: "Clowns scare everyone out of their wits, except for foolish children", or "Rodney has a thing about ladybirds, they scare him out of his wits."

The similarity between these two phrases owes to a coincidence, with 'the wits' that people used to chew sounding very much like 'the wits' that exist in one's head. The latter are often used, as in when you are being chased by a tiger and have to find a way of out-smarting her, since you'll never out-run her. You also use your wits when mocking a friend, causing mirth and a sense of togetherness. However, when you encounter something extremely scary you may become so scared as to disconnect yourself from your wits. This will make you incomprehensible and stupid. You might shake and act like a tired old woman. If you're lucky someone nearby will be familiar with the procedure for dealing with this problem, which involves speaking to the victim extremely slowly, while throwing a blanket over them and laying them down on their back with their arms folded over their chest.

Finally, let's look at the phrase 'scared the living daylights out of me', as in "The plane flew straight at her head, scaring the living daylights out of her."

Here, 'living daylights' have nothing to do with 'wits'. This idiom sounds quite poetic, leading many to imagine that 'daylights' are representative of mental stability, comparable perhaps to 'wits' (not the chewing kind). The reality is, however, far more mundane. Instead, 'living daylights' is a euphemism for 'feces' with them, or rather it, being scared out of you being all too common when one gets a shock. In this way, "My bank balance scared the living daylights out of me" is interchangeable with "My bank balance scared the shit out of me".

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