Mighty Morphing Power Idioms

I woke up this morning, sans alarm thanks to the “blizzard” [^ donot], and fired up my Hulu queue to catch The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. As I prepared my breakfast I suddenly became aware that our culture had hit a tipping point. Idioms which have been around for decades, and so popular that using them is considered cliché, are on their way out.

During Larry’s panel discussion one of the panelists talked about people doing the same thing over and over and over and over and over again. She described this endless process by saying, “It’s like a broken…”

She didn’t say “record.” The panelist on Larry Wilmore said, “It’s like a broken Roomba, just banging into the same corner over and over.”

“Like a broken record” has been a go to idiom for decades, and even people like me who grew up as vinyl was on it’s way out 1 have used it without thinking. It’s just part of speaking English – it perfectly captures hitting the same point over and over with no hope for change without external intervention. I can even hear the sound of the record skipping.

If you’ve never seen a record player, however, this phase means nothing. It’s become “just something you say.” So the idiom evolved into a new picture which captures a similar meaning – it’s morphed into a malfunctioning robot vacuum cleaner, literally banging itself against the wall 2. I’m sure the idiom has been around for a while. It was the first time I’d heard anyone use it in a mass media setting, though, which made it stand out. Even more telling, especially in an open banter environment, no one commented on the phrase.

For communicators like writers, teachers, and pastors this does not mean to suddenly update all your idioms in an effort to sound “cutting edge.” Idioms, after all, convey meaning because they draw pictures created from shared experience. If a Roomba doesn’t actually match your experience, for example, then trying to use this updated idiom will probably be an obstacle to communication, not a vehicle for it. Your old idioms will undoubtedly work for years to come, just as the floppy disk served as the “save” button years after floppies had died off. You’ll still be understood for some time, but you will be increasingly recognized as coming from an older generation – get over it 3, it’s just reality.

We do have to understand that as new idioms assume mass appeal the pictures people are drawing for one another are morphing. This means we can’t assume the people with whom we communicate interpret things the same way “we” 4 do. Exploring the popular culture from which new idioms arise, even if we don’t embrace every aspect of it, will be important for understanding how verbal pictures are now being drawn. Sometimes these explorations will make people seem even more alien to our vantage point. Most of the time, I think seeking understanding will show us that people truly are different, but they really aren’t aliens 5.

Just remember, if you’ve never seen a Roomba, don’t use the Roomba metaphor. You’ll make the rest of us “old people” look bad.

  1. No, the ironic adoption by hipsters doesn’t mean vinyl is back on it’s way “in.” Even if it did come back in the hipsters would all start using CD’s. 
  2. Sadly, the Roomba has not yet evolved so much as to accomplish the art of *headdesk*. 
  3. This is why I hang out with geeks. Star Wars, Star Trek, and Dr. Who span generations – but don’t get me started on the inferior re-make of Wrath of Kahn. 
  4. By “we” I’m kinda referring to Gen-Xers and our nearest kin among the Boomers. Yes, it’s shorthand cheating. It’s early in the morning as I’m writing this and I haven’t had coffee in a week, get over it. 
  5. I will make an exception for adolescent girls, who live in an alternate reality and only appear to live on our plane of existence.