Child meets idiom

Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky reports on her blog:

Opal: “I’m really tired.” Me: “Good, then get ready for bed spit-spot.” Opal, winsomely: “Sometimes when I’m really tired I don’t have to brush my teeth.” Me: “Those are times when you didn’t just eat a dried apricot.” Opal: “What difference does a dried apricot make?” Me: “They’re yummy, but they stick to your teeth something terrible.” Opal: “What?” Me: “The dried apricots.” Opal: “No, what thing terrible?” Me: “Umm, it’s difficult to explain.” Opal, astounded: “You don’t KNOW?” Me: “Ask your grandfather.” Opal: “You think he can explain it?” Me: “I’d certainly like to see him try.” Pause. Opal: “When I said ‘What thing terrible?’ I really meant ‘What terrible thing?'” Me: “Yes, I get that.” Opal: “Oh, good, you understood me.”

Well, the grandfather in question (me) doesn’t have a lot to say about the idiomatic adverbial¬†something terrible ‘terribly, to a great degree’. It’s often hard to explain why idioms mean what they do, and it’s especially hard to give an explanation that will satisfy a child.

It’s not a lot of help to point out that something terrible is in a something Adj idiom family that also includes something fierce, something horrible, and something awful, as in these examples:

Try foliar feeding (I use fish/seaweed extract/kelp emulsion, sprayed on the leaves- it stinks something fierce but the plants love it!). (link)

But a serious part of the problem is how horrible most discount scents actually are. In particular, the new ‘body spray’ stuff for men stinks something horrible. (link)

If you’re willing to compound a developer from bulk chemicals, why not use good ones? This coffee stuff stinks something awful! (link)

I have no idea what the history of the idiom family is. But it’s clearly distinct from the NP construction with indefinite pronoun head and adjective postmodifier (“Something terrible happened to me yesterday”, “I met someone fascinating yesterday”, etc.) — the way Opal understood something terrible.

One Response to “Child meets idiom”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    The division of labour between “something” and “somewhat” is not fixed. “It hurts something awful” is punchy, whereas “It hurts somewhat awfully” would be incongruous. I, personally, dislike “somewhat of a NOUN” in the sense “something of a NOUN”.

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