There was this cartoon I used to watch in the early nineties called Bobby’s World. The intro, featuring the most inane and hypnotic music imaginable, might jog your memory. After the music ended, actor Howie Mandel (who went on to host Deal or No Deal) would talk to Bobby about the upcoming show. Watching it now, you get a sense of how excruciating it must be to act against a green screen, talking to the air. Howie made a valiant effort of it, but, yeah.
Much of the show was about wordplay. Bobby, the youngest in the family, would hear a phrase meant to be figurative but take it literally; or he’d fixate on an alternative meaning of a phrase with more than one interpretation. The show would then spiral around a fantasy sequence powered by Bobby’s imagination. In one episode Bobby’s Dad talks about a “foul ball”, referring to a baseball game – but Bobby imagines a formal ball room decorated with garlic and fish, with everyone prancing about in suits and gowns.
As a kid I would often get distracted by rogue idioms, metaphors and double meanings – I could relate to Bobby’s experience of the world. I’ve come to learn what most of those confusing phrases really mean, but there are some (below) that I’ll never properly get my head around.
Butter wouldn't melt
This is supposedly related to insincerity, and the relative body temperature of a person who can no longer melt butter in their mouth because... they are just so calm and collected. But: Why are they melting butter in their mouth? Are they… trying to bake without a heat source? Melting the butter is the least of their concerns.
Chalk and cheese
These are apparently opposites of each other. At least with “oil and water” the chemistry is a little more straightforward. I’ve heard that one origin of this phrase is that an English shopkeeper from forever ago would sell chalk – cheap – under the pretence of cheese – profitable! Surely his customer base did not allow this to go on for long.
Have your cake and eat it too
Now: Are we saying you can have your cake and eat it too, or you can’t? I mean, if I ate the cake, wouldn’t that mean I’d also already “had” it, so I’d met all the conditions? The simpler cousin “You can’t have it both ways” has always made more sense to me. I am easily confused by cake. I will always eat it all – mashing it into my face with my palm – and have it too.
Doesn’t mince words
I just can’t escape the meaty connotations of “mince” – and seldom hear anyone use the non-meat meaning of the word. I just picture an old-school meat grinder. At a stretch, that grinder could be processing dictionaries and spitting out pulp… but by that point I’m thoroughly mincing the metaphors.
The jury’s out on this one
Why? Where did they go? Are they out reneging on their decision-making duties – or out making the decision? If there’s an important decision at hand, surely it would help for them to stick around and make it. Whenever I hear this I think: Get that jury to come on back. They’re not done yet.
Live each day as if it's your last
Now, this one I get. But honestly, it sounds way too stressful. It’s hard enough already to get through a normal day without the constant threat of impending mortality. How am I to enjoy anything with the pressure of requiring every moment to be at its absolute peak?
The gloves are off
This is supposed to indicate an escalation in seriousness, but... you pause the fight to unlace your gloves? While you pause to get a hold on the lace, surely that’s a prime opportunity for the other fighter to clock you one? And you’re both going to end up with very sore hands, for no reason, tripping over those nice gloves on the ground.
Don't judge a book by its cover
Here the metaphor made sense, but the literal interpretation always threw me. I mean, in a bookstore, you almost exclusively judge books by their cover. It’s practically inescapable. Go have a look at some cover reprints of books you know and love. I guarantee you’ll find covers that give an entirely different impression of the book, which might have compelled you to give it a miss.