So I was doing what I do to waste time the other day: looking up the etymology of phrases that catch my attention. Specifically, I'd read someone say someone else was "grasping at straws" and started to wonder where that phrase came from. When did it come into common use as an idiom for trying to bring the useless into the realm of the useful?
As I searched, I came to the conclusion that nobody really seems to know from whence the phrase came. Several sites cited the term "proverb" as its origin, and as you probably already know, that term means the same for etymology what "interesting" means for victualization: to wit, that we find ourselves in the uncomfortable reality of not knowing what to say, but having to say something regardless.
And then I came across a site that tried, apparently, to be cute. "We were literally grasping at straws," the writer wrote, "trying to figure out the origin of the phrase, 'grasping at straws.'"
My greatest pet peeve, that is.
I actually talk back to web sites sometimes. I only do it when nobody else is watching, mind you; I know perfectly well that I'm at least a little bit crazy, but I don't wish for my companions to witness it. Luckily for me I was alone at the time I found that turn of nonsense phraseology, and so I felt perfectly free to yell at the completely lifeless and fairly hapless screen in front of me.
See, you can't literally do much of anything that's an idiom. To do something literally means you actually do what the words mean. To be literally grasping at straws means you're actually in a barn (or worse, at the drink station at McDonald's) grasping with your actual fingies (or toes, I suppose) at straws. In the same vein (but only figuratively), it was raining cats and dogs the other night here in Memphis, but certainly not literally. That would've been quite scary. The news the next day would have been covering events like, "The Smiths here were trying to get from the restaurant to their car when this beagle hit the husband on the head, landing him in critical condition in the emergency room. His wife was hit too, but only by a Maltese, and so she fared much better. Their daughter was struck by a Persian who used her dress as a means of slowing its fall; the cat will be okay but the dress is a complete loss."
Similarly, "of course I can eat this plate of spaghetti; it's a piece of cake," is fine, but were you to say it's literally a piece of cake then I'd better see that famous Italian staple somehow worked into a baker's presentation (and no, it doesn't sound any tastier to me than it probably does to you). To make a slip of the tongue is something our politicians excel at doing, but I really have no desire to ever see them doing it literally.
A slap on the wrist might be appropriate when performed literally on a child, but that same expression might land you in hot water (but not--well, you get it) at work.
"You did what?"
"Well, Mr. Human Resources Manager, you said to give him a slap on the wrist."
"I didn't mean it literally."
Sometimes it might not be so bad. For example, being high as a kite, literally, might be more fun than the figurative meaning if you've got the eventual landing taken care of. And being a fan of bagpipes (professional bagpipes, that is--one high school I attended had a bagpipe clan that sounded like a flock of angry geese, literally), I'd much rather pay the piper literally than any other way.
And on that note, I'll end this little rant. It's literally been a blast.
No, no, just kidding. Just. Kidding.
It's been fun.