idiom: noun — an expression, the meaning of which is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements

My recent post about malaprops had me thinking about idiomatic expressions. One, in particular, has stuck with me because of its pertinence to the definition above:

While I was in college, I shared an apartment with another student who wasn’t a native speaker of English; although, his fluency was quite accomplished. One Friday night, while were trying to decide what to eat, he suggested we “command a pizza”. I marveled at the precision of his terminology, even as I was wonder-struck at the lesson in perspectives he’d inadvertently afforded me. There was nothing definitionally wrong with his expression. But what he couldn’t account for were the semantic, syntactical, idiomatically shaded differences allowed in order vs. command.

Generally speaking, I find non-native speakers of English to be more critical purveyors of it, more discerning students of its meanings and structures. They may not understand that barking up the wrong tree might cost them an arm and a leg. I suppose they can cross that bridge when they get to it. I don’t imagine they’ll cry over spilt milk while they figure out if their appreciations for idiomatic expressions cut the mustard. They certainly won’t be the first to jump on the bandwagon to let the cat out of the bag. And they’re highly unlikely to steal someone’s thunder straight from the horse’s mouth.

But their precise diction will always remind us: Take one simple phrase — order a pizza — and insert an errant term — command a pizza — and Bob’s your uncle, you have a malaprop.

Image from (, via Wikimedia Commons.