Idioms & Oddities, part one

In the popular HBO series The Sopranos, we saw amid this crowd of lovable Mafia gangsters one character who was completely unsympathetic, Ralph Cifaretto. Ralph, played as exquisitely hateful by Joe Pantoliano, seemed like a gift from the show’s writers. It was as if, to reassure our consciences, the writers gave us one villain we could despise without qualification. That was Ralph: completely vile and vicious, utterly nasty and horrid, vacant of any redeeming quality.

They were all a bunch of criminals: murderers, cheaters, serial philanderers, liars, but they were human. They were anti-heroes: characters with serious flaws but also with qualities we recognize in ourselves and can sympathize with. They have families, they have problems with their kids, they have to take out the garbage.

But not Ralph. Ralph stood out for sheer nasty. The show’s writers threw our better angels a bone and gave us this one unmitigated splatter of evil. His character provoked a visceral response. He made you wince and actually shudder with revulsion. Ralph was Iago on steroids, a demon, a devil. He made you feel like you’d just eaten something that was just waiting to come back up.

Then the writers pulled the rug out from under us.

In an episode from the show’s sixth season, Ralph’s young son is playing archery with a friend and gets an arrow through his chest. The arrow misses his heart, but just barely, and it’s not clear that the boy will survive.

For the first time we see Ralph acting like a human, in the throes of a conscience he didn’t seem to possess. He wonders if God is punishing him for being a bastard.

When a friend recommends that he see a priest, Ralph scoffs at the suggestion. He hasn’t been to church in 20 years. But then the anguish gets too intense. His son is dying. Ralph goes to talk to a priest.

The scene opens in the priest’s office. The priest is doing his best, but Ralph counters the priest’s earnest clichés with a bitter and self-absorbed cynicism. The priest reminds Ralph that God too had to watch a son die, but Ralph retorts sharply, “Yeah, but that’s not like this.” And the priest replies in turn, “How do you know? Were you there? Were you around when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain?”

The words come, of course, from a Rolling Stones song, Sympathy for the Devil: “I was ‘round when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain.”

The show’s writers were not suggesting, of course, that the priest was quoting the Rolling Stones. Not that the Stones don’t voice plenty of sentiments a priest might find useful. You can’t always get what you want, right?

But the writers were using the priest’s conversation with Ralph to telegraph their punch. They knew that a lot of us watching would recognize the allusion. We’d hear the words and get the message, the secret message, as it were: Watch out if you’re starting to sympathize with Ralph; it’s like having sympathy for the Devil.

The writers of The Sopranos were using a fairly sophisticated literary device that is common among poets and playwrights and novelists: the literary allusion. It’s a way for an author to peek out from behind the curtain of her fiction and wink at her readers and acknowledge a shared culture.

In the television hospital drama from the 1980s, St. Elsewhere, one of the hospital’s surgeons is telling his psychiatrist about a dream he had: “I dreamed I saw the silver spaceships lying in the yellow haze of the sun.”

It’s a line from Neil Young’s song, “After the Gold Rush.” And just in case we didn’t get it, the surgeon goes on to tell his psychiatrist that in the dream “I was kneeling, I was young.”

Shakespeare frequently has such allusions, jokes really, that let the playwright wink at his audience — allusions that are often geographical instead of literary, as when a character in Hamlet notes that the King of Denmark is sending Hamlet to England because there no one will notice his madness; they’re all crazy in England.

I think all writing is like this on a certain level. Allusions are cultural idioms that writers expect us to recognize. When we write, we always write in idioms, peculiarities of our language that we’re not even conscious of, linguistic oddities we learn not in school but in talking and listening to others virtually every day of our lives. Idioms are ways of communicating that are peculiar to one language alone and no others.

Think about the phrase “I’m going to stay.” It’s an idiom in English to use the verb “to go” to indicate the future tense, but the phrase “I’m going to stay” is most peculiar to people for whom English is a second language. I have an Asian friend who thinks that makes no sense whatsoever: You can’t be going and staying at the same time.

(French has the same idiom, actually, but the shared idioms simply reflect the close kinship of English and French.)

Like literary allusions, idioms communicate something the words themselves never say, something beyond the words themselves, something we understand only from sharing a common context, a common language, a common culture. Idioms are a way of winking at our readers; we know each other, you and I; we belong to the same family, we know how to talk to each other, we get the inside jokes.

We can’t write without idioms, but we talk so much less about them than about words and sentences and grammar and syntax. Maybe that’s because idioms tend to make no sense and are so difficult to teach. In our next column, however, we will look a little more closely at how idioms help us write and how, if we’re not careful, they can make us sound more idiotic than idiomatic.

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