To Coin a Phrase

Sept. 30, 2021


One of the things I love most about soccer is that it’s the world’s game. 

While many sports are played in only a few regions around the world, according to FIFA, the world soccer federation, soccer is played on every continent—by 240 million people in over 200 countries. 

With this many people enthralled by soccer, it should come as no surprise that the World Cup, the once-every-four-years global tournament, is the single most-watched sporting event on the planet. Almost 4 billion people—roughly half the world’s population—watched the final match of the 2018 World Cup. 

And with players and managers hailing from every corner of the world, it should also come as no surprise that communication can sometimes get a bit tricky. 

Take Liverpool’s recent Champions League match against Porto. In the pre-game press conference, Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool’s manager, was asked whether a win that day would be an advantage because it would give Liverpool some “wiggle room” in their group standing. 

Klopp, who is German, looked quizzically at the journalist because he didn’t understand what he meant by “wiggle room”. The interview moved on, but a few moments later, we see Klopp pause, look to his right, presumably to an assistant, then nod his head and say quietly, more to himself than anyone else, “ah, breathing space.” The penny clearly dropped for Klopp; he understood that “wiggle room” in this context meant “breathing space.” 

Wiggle room is what we call an idiom. An idiom is a phrase or expression that typically has a figurative, non-literal meaning. It’s a form of language spoken in a particular locale and that typically relies on that area’s words, grammar and pronunciations. In that sense, an idiom is like a dialect. 

The key thing about an idiom is that it is an expression with a meaning all its own; it can’t be understood from the meaning of its separate words. 

According to Merriam-Webster, wiggle room means leeway or latitude. Cambridge Dictionary gives two, slightly different definitions, depending on whether you’re in the UK or the US. In the UK, wiggle room is “the freedom or opportunity to do something, or to change your mind and do something differently if that is what is needed.” In the US, wiggle room is said to mean something more specific—“the degree to which it is possible to change details like prices, times, etc, in an agreement or decision.” 

Sources differ on when wiggle room as an idiom first entered the English language. Some attribute it to a 1978 Businessweek article cited by William Safire, the New York Times language columnist: “Congress has drafted regulatory legislation in a way that gives agencies…as little ‘wiggle room’ as possible.” Others say it entered our lexicon as early as 1946: “The policy wiggle-room for local decisionmakers is remarkably small.” Either way, wiggle room seems to be very much at home in discussions about politics, and in this respect, Klopp’s “breathing space” might have been the more appropriate expression. 

Another idiom I find myself using a lot lately is gets my goat. As in, “Shoppers who have more than their allotted number of items in the Express check-out line really get my goat.” Or, “Drivers who sit at a red light in the left turn lane, and signal left after the light has turned green really get my goat.”  

Maybe the pandemic has made me just that much more intolerant, that much more impatient. Or maybe I’m just getting old and grumpy. Over dinner the other night, my friend Pierre posited that, “a lot of things get your goat, don’t they?” His comment was good-natured, so we all had a good laugh and proceeded to hatch a plan for a new podcast called “What Gets My Goat” (or WGMG for short). 

I’m not sure if I’ll ever get around to launching that podcast but it did make me wonder about how and when the idiom gets my goat originated. 

One well-worn theory is that it comes from horse racing. Apparently….(apparently)….goats were put into stalls to calm horses before they raced. If someone “got your goat”, they took the goat out of the stall thus upsetting your horse. 

Another theory is that gets my goat comes from boxers in the US navy. Sports blogger Peter Jensen Brown found the phrase in a 1905 edition of The Washington Times: “I think the crowd got his goat, or the idea of fighting – one or the other – because he did not say boo and sat down like a mope.” 

As Michigan Radio NPR pointed out in a May 2018 episode Don't let this idiom "get your goat", “whether someone is annoyed or they’ve had the fight taken out of them, it’s safe to say they’ve lost their composure.” 

A simpler explanation is that goats are irritable, so it makes sense to use the phrase when you are irritated or annoyed by something. 

In short, no one knows for sure.

A similar idiom is get my dander up. Like get my goat, to get someone’s dander up means to cause someone to become angry. And, like get my goat, the origin is unclear. 

According to the online source Idiomation, the phrase is Dutch in origin: “The Dutch phrase ‘op donderen’ means to burst into a sudden range, and ‘Dander op!” in Dutch means ‘Get out of here.’” Idiomation says the first published reference can be found in an entry in the 1831 edition of the American Comic Annual

Grammarist, another online source, says that get one’s dander up is an American idiom, a comedic alternative to raise one’s hackles, referring to the dander or dandruff that would be stirred by the raising of hackles. Or, it could refer to the froth resulting from the brewing of yeast. Getting one’s dander up would conjure an image of billowing froth, a good metaphor for becoming angry. 

Then there’s rub someone the wrong way, yet another expression meaning to annoy or irritate someone. Most sources say this idiom comes from cats. Apparently, felines prefer to be stroked only in one direction, from head to tail; they get annoyed when petted in the opposite direction. There is another theory, having nothing to do with cats and everything to do with wood floors and maids in well-to-do Elizabethan households: If a maid cleaned the wood floor the wrong way, it would leave streaks on the floor, and the lady of the house would be annoyed. 

That’s the thing about idioms. They creep into our language, and before you know it, we are using them willy nilly without really knowing why—or where or how they came to be. 

Returning to Jurgen Klopp, I recall my friend, Lucille, who lived in Germany for many years, telling me that Germans have an abundance of rules and that it tends to annoy them when others fail to follow those rules. (This is generalizing of course – as we inevitably do when we seek to explain cultures other than our own.) 

That said, I’m beginning to wonder if I have some German blood in me. More importantly, I wonder about Jürgen Klopp and whether trying to understand all those English idioms ever gets his goat.

Remember this: 
Use idioms now and then to spice up your communication; they can make your writing more colourful, less stuffy, more succinct, less formal. But, as always, be mindful of your audience. People who don’t speak your language may not understand your idioms, and your carefully-chosen phrases might fall on deaf ears. (And you may well ask, is deaf ears also an idiom? Or just a descriptive phrase!)