One of the most potent tools in the graphic facilitator's toolkit is that visual turn of language that packs serious cultural meaning in a surreal phrase: The Idiom.
In its loosest sense, the word idiom1 is often used as a synonym for dialect or idiolect--that unique combination of words, phrases and inflections used by a specific induvidual.2
In its more scholarly and narrow sense, an idiom or idiomatic expression refers to a construction or expression in one language that cannot be matched or directly translated word-for-word in another language.3
This NPR Morning Edition piece, An Enchanting Tour Through a World of Idioms, features an interview with author Jag Bhalla on his new book I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears, a compendium of worldwide idioms.
- To stand like a watered poodle (German for "to be humiliated")
- Onions should grow from your navel (Yiddish insult)
- By candlelight, a goat looks like a lady (French for an awkward situation indeed!)
The use of idiomatic expressions is as automatic to us as it is befuddling to non-Native speakers. As a teacher of English as a second language in Eastern Europe, I became acutely aware of how essential idoms are to understanding a culture and to becoming "fluent" in conversation.
Meaning is buried, obtuse, hinted at with a wink.
For GFs they are visual gold. A well-rendered idiom or cultural image plucked from conversation can capture the context or subtext of a discussion better than any list of bullet-points or transcripts.
Sometimes, interesting variations present themselves during facilitated sessions as verbal metaphors merge and mutate.
During a scribing session at the Pentegon several years ago, I heard this awkward mixed metaphor: "We need to show a little leg to get'em interested--but just enough to get'em to want to take a bite out of it!"
However, idioms can also obscure meaning if too insular or cute. Of course, when working for an international audience, idioms or culturally specific references can lose an audience, or worse, offend or alienate your observers. Tread these waters with cauton and glee.