One of my favorite greeting cards has a picture of two women on the front. One woman is asking the other: “Is it ‘butt naked’ or ‘buck naked’?” The inside reads: “These are the kinds of questions I come to you for.”
I doubt you need to know the answer to that question before your next meeting, however people do use common idioms incorrectly all the time.
What’s the big deal? Well, much like it looks bad when someone states incorrect facts and stats, misquoting common phrases undermines your credibility. Read on for some of the worst offenders.
Correct Idiom: Nip it in the Bud
Incorrect Version: Nip it in the Butt, Nix it in the Bud, Nix it in the Butt
This idiom references gardening. A flower that is “nipped in the bud” wouldn’t grow and blossom. This phrase is often used to suggest that by handling a something when it’s a minor problem, you’ll be able to avert a crisis.
It has nothing to do with anatomy.
Correct Idiom: Broach the Subject
Incorrect Version: Breach the Subject
By “broach[ing] the subject” you’re bringing something (often a tough topic) up for discussion.
To breach means to break. (You may have heard the term “breach of contract” to mean a broken promise or “levee breach” to mean a levee is overwhelmed by water.) Use this version and you’re basically saying that you broke a difficult matter, in that you literally sculpted the word and then dropped it off a balcony.
Correct Idiom: Irons in the Fire
Incorrect Version: [Anything Else] in the Fire
If you have many “irons in the fire,” you’re pursuing several opportunities at once. If you have “plates in the fire,” you’re me, circa 2012, erroneously combining this phrase with “plates in the air” (another way to say you have a lot going on).
I think people got the message that I was really busy, but it also made me look kind of stupid—and so busy that I couldn’t even manage to get my idioms right.
Correct Idiom: 3 Sheets to the Wind
Incorrect Version: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, or 7 Sheets to the Wind
It’s ironic (and kind of funny) to think that someone wouldn’t know how many sheets to the wind he or she was. Why? Because this phrase means drunk.
So, if you’re seven sheets to the wind, you’re more inebriated than someone who is three sheets to the wind, and you should probably call in sick immediately.
Getting your idioms right isn’t always a piece of cake. But instead of crossing that bridge when you come to it, grab the bull by the horns: If you’re on the fence about whether or not you’re saying a phrase correctly, look it up. You may have to go back to the drawing board, but that’s better than barking up the wrong tree.