Breaking the Lockjam and Buttoning Down the Hatches

By Maeve Maddox

The President has invited some factions to Washington to break the lockjam.

The copywriter who came up with this statement confused two common English expressions used to convey a state of of inaction: deadlock and logjam.

The term “deadlock” refers to a stoppage brought about by the opposition of two forces, neither of which will budge. The term “logjam” comes from the practice of floating newly-cut trees (logs) down a river. When several logs become so crowded they can no longer move, the result is a logjam.

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I understand such idiomatic confusion in the speech of someone speaking off the cuff. We all come out with mixed-up speech from time to time, especially when we’re surprised or nervous.

My examples are not from people responding to impromptu interview questions. They come from newspaper stories and the words of professional announcers or scriptwriters.

I see the tendency to conflate idioms in this way as a result of limited reading. Others may disagree, seeing it instead as innovation, the deliberate altering of old expressions to avoid cliché. It may be the latter–some of the time.

Idioms are something that have to be absorbed from immersion in the language. My own language patterns were set when English teachers corrected their students’ grammar every time they opened their mouths, and assigned book reports and summer reading. Back then, movie and radio scripts were written by men and women who observed not only pronoun case, but the subjunctive mood of verbs!

Somewhere there’s a growing disconnect between the usual sources of idiomatic language and the people who write for the media. I think that it is a problem and that the solution is close reading of the best authors.

Here are some more examples:

“They took it in good stride.” The context was a news story about a group that was dealing with disappointment. The two expressions mingled here are to take something “in stride” and to take something “in good part.” Both have the sense of dealing with something without making a fuss.

“if other airlines join suit and raise their fares.” This is from a news story. The altered expression is “to follow suit.” It is an expression taken from a card game. One player leads with a heart and the next one must “follow suit” by putting down another heart.

“guess we’ll have to button down the hatches.” This was spoken by a Fox anchorman talking about a coming storm in Florida. The expression is “to batten down the hatches.” It refers to the act of nailing lengths of wood (battens) across trapdoors in a ship’s deck so they won’t open during a storm. We use it in the sense of securing things before a storm, either a real storm or a metaphorical one. The present participle form is “battening.”

Deliberately altering a familiar idiom for effect is one thing. The result can be witty and entertaining. Mixing them up out of ignorance is something to be avoided.

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7 Responses to “Breaking the Lockjam and Buttoning Down the Hatches”

  • Roshawn

    I wasn’t even aware of this problem. If writers follow suit and read Daily Writing Tips, then much of our bad grammar and word usage would be corrected. Even if it’s difficult to apply these tips, we’ll have to take it in stride. (I hope I get points for trying 🙂 )

    As always, keep delivering the tips.

  • Daniel

    Roshawn, thanks for the nice words. Yeah, take it in stride and make sure you don’t try to break any lockjams…

  • Alexandra

    Thanks for the wonderful post. I was just curious. I’ve seen writers refer to phrases similar to “They took it in good stride.” as cliches.

    There definitely seems to be a fine line between mixing idioms, using cliches, and good writing.

    I hope you talk about those authors that you mentioned soon. 🙂

  • Maeve

    Alexandria,
    You raise an interesting question: When does an idiom become a cliché?

    Or, perhaps, what’s the difference between an idiom and a cliché?

    Which authors would you like to hear more about?

  • Alexandra

    Any authors that exemplify concise writing in their works would be a nice feature
    (in any writing genre so its more fun for you) Thank you!

  • shahieda_yasmein

    Thanks for ur tips. It is very helpful for a teacher.

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