Idioms Delight


An intelligent and gracious person e-mailed me to ask if I was as unhappy as she was about one of the only, meaning “one of a small number of.” For example: “Dave DeBusschere is one of the only people to have played in the NBA and for a major-league baseball team.” The phrase is nonsensical, she declared, since the adjective only denotes uniqueness and can have no truck with pluralness.

I replied that I saw her point but that the usage didn’t really bother me. One reason is that only is not only an adjective, but also (for example, as it was used 11 words ago) an adverb, and serves that function, by a process of elision, in the offending phrase. That is, the sentence given above is a streamlining of: “Only a small number people have played in the NBA and MLB. Dave DeBusschere is one of them.”

The second reason is that a disproportionate number of all idioms are nonsensical, or, at the very least, don’t parse. That’s why they’re idioms. Take (randomly) Be that as it may. We all know the idea it conveys. But exactly how (if at all) do the words in the phrase combine to mean that? I’m sure some of you smart people out there can answer the question. I cannot. And that’s no big deal.

Sometimes idioms start out as sensical and make a transition to non-, and it’s fun to chart their progress. One I have my eye on at the moment is can’t help but, as in I can’t help but think that Philip Roth is going to win the Nobel Prize. It’s easy to see how it emerged—as a new, improved combination of two older idioms, I cannot but think that … and I can’t help thinking that. … The grafted version may be strictly speaking nonsensical, but it’s got rhetorical punch and has had remarkable success in taking the place of its parents. (Specifically, of can’t help thinking. Cannot but think could not but be rejected as fatally old-fashioned any time after about 1900.)

The brass ring is acceptance by The New York Times copy desk and this idiom has grabbed it. From an article a couple of weeks ago by a new mother about her efforts to take off some pounds: “In the way men can’t help but check out a woman’s cleavage, women glance repeatedly at my midsection.”

At an earlier point in what will ultimately be an equally triumphant voyage is of a, as used in phrases like not that big of a deal or not too good of a book. It apes grammatically pristine constructions like a he’s a prince of a fellow or it won’t be too much of a problem—where prince and much serve as nouns. Swapping in an adjective, such as big or good, forfeits any grammatical standing. But it makes for a stronger-sounding statement—the of has percussive force—and consequently the idiom has serious legs. It hasn’t made The New Yorker or the Times yet, except in quotes (frequently from athletes). But it rules on the Internet, as the Google Fight graphic at the end of this post shows. And mainstream success will surely come.

You can’t help feeling that the writer of this “InStyle” magazine feature (“Your Salon Secrets Revealed”) mightily struggled not to use the prevalent idiom forms, “not that big of a deal” and “can’t help but feel.”

Those two are at different stages of steady upward climbs. A third idiom appears to have reached equilibrium, with continuing strong showings of both the airtight and the nonsensical forms. I refer to I couldn’t/could care less. Idiom Classic is the couldn’t version, indicating that the speaker has so little interest in the matter under discussion that it would be physically impossible (hyperbolically speaking) for him or her to devote any less attention to it. I could care less conveys the same meaning by applying to the original a particularly Yiddish irony; the sentence should ideally be delivered with a shoulder shrug and a slight rise in vocal pitch. Over the years, the irony has fallen by the wayside, and now both forms are used, in roughly commensurate numbers, to convey the same meaning.

This is offensive to some people, because the could form is nonsensical. I think you know my reaction.

I could care less.



The above three charts were generated by the Web site and show the number of Google hits generated by the three sets of idioms discussed in this article.

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