It struck me the the other day how many idioms I use when I speak and write. I am not sure if it is just me or if everyone has this ‘Achilles Heel.’ See what I mean?
As I was pondering why I default to these communication shortcuts, I remembered a book I had bought in the late 80s called ‘The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.’ It was promoted as the ‘ultimate book of knowledge,’ which sparked my curiosity.
The authors, E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Joseph R. Kett and James Trefil, defined cultural literacy as “a shifting body of information that our culture has found useful, … the foundation of our public discourse, …the context of what we say and read.” One of the first chapters is on idioms that they describe as things that make no sense “unless you know what they allude to.”
These definitions hint at the dangers of using idioms in writing. Information does ‘shift’ over time and idioms only are useful when the reader knows what they ‘allude to.’ And what about ‘our culture?’ Which culture is that? Given these variables, there is a high probability the reader will not understand some of the words that are written. The probability is even higher when the text is translated into different languages.
When I started my book, one of my goals was to “create a resource that people find relevant, practical and helpful.” I was keen to avoid change management jargon, which I find is a barrier to understanding many books on the subject. I didn’t realize I need to avoid cultural jargon, too – ‘Blinding you with cultural science’ is a version of the same mistake.
So, as I write I will screening for cultural expressions. I will also have others do so in the editing phase, both in Canada and abroad. Keeping it clear and simple is a good principle to follow.