Why do we still call it a “glove compartment?” Do you keep gloves in yours? Do you know anyone who does? Does anybody even wear gloves while they’re driving any more?
Even in South Dakota in January, even those of us with chronically cold hands only keep our gloves on for the first few minutes, until the car warms up. Then we toss them—not into the glove compartment, of course, but onto the seat beside us, along with the ice scraper, our extra scarf, two overdue library books, and yesterday’s junk mail. After all, wearing gloves while you’re driving makes it hard to use your cell phone, and texting is nearly impossible.
Speaking of cell phones, why do we still say we “dial” them? Probably 75 percent of the cell phone users in the world have never even seen, much less used, a dial phone. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to admit this, but we still have a dial phone in our basement. It’s a heavy salmon-pink thing that probably was put in when the house was moved to its current location in 1973 or 1974, and it was going out of fashion even then. It still works, and it’s useful to have around, because neither of our modern phones with their built-in answering systems will function if we have a blizzard and the power goes out.
Even though our language is changing all the time, it still doesn’t keep up with the changes in our world. We keep on using expressions and idioms even though we don’t really know what they mean any more. Because we don’t have any context, sometimes the expressions come out just a little crooked.
I remember reading a magazine profile of a young actress. She was talking about a well-known actor she had recently worked with, and how she had learned interesting things from his down-to-earth manner. She quoted a saying she had learned from him, about staying out of other people’s disagreements because “I don’t have a dog in the sights.”
That made no sense whatsoever until I figured out that what the actor must have said was, “I don’t have a dog in this fight.”
Then there’s one of my pet peeves that I see misused in print more and more: having something or someone “on a loose reign.” Someone who’s never been around horses won’t necessarily have any idea what a “loose rein” is. They’ve heard the expression, they know it means not controlling things too firmly, and perhaps they have a vague idea that it has something to do with a king or queen ruling leniently. Hence “loose reign” instead of “loose rein.”
This used to show up in our local newspaper regularly, until I wrote them a letter about it some time ago, and they don’t seem to use that expression these days. I can imagine the editor issuing a memo: “Don’t use ‘loose rein’ at all, because if you get it wrong that annoying nitpicky woman will write us another sarcastic letter.”
My all-time favorite mangled expression, though, may be the infamous “baited breath.” This actually appeared in our paper some years ago, used by a young intern in a column about anticipating her upcoming wedding. I wrote a letter inquiring whether “baited breath” was what young women used to capture unsuspecting bridegrooms.
Years later I was talking with a former reporter for the paper, and somehow that letter came up in our conversation. He said, “You wrote the ‘baited breath’ letter? That was a great letter; it was up on the bulletin board in the newsroom for years.”
It was one of my proudest moments.