An article in today’s Boston Globe (available online only to subscribers) quotes a New Hampshire state rep as saying “I had a pit in my stomach” when he saw an inaccurate résumé from a colleague. Ouch! I would have expected something like “I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach,” but I guess I haven’t been paying attention. Here’s an interesting article giving all kinds of similar usages from the Times. Language Log recently ran a followup, noticing that Thomas Friedman continues to have a pit in his stomach. The original article connects these two versions of the cliché with the competition between “hone in on” and “home in on,” which I certainly have noticed.
Here’s the Google ngram for “pit in my stomach,” which shows that the usage has been taking off starting around 1990 (although it’s still relatively rare compared to the much older “pit of my stomach”).
As the article in Language Log says, the newer usage is not obviously less plausible than the older usage — we’re just more familiar with “pit of my stomach”. So who am I to complain? Still, “pit in my stomach” gives me a bad feeling . . . somewhere or other.
I suppose I should have something interesting to say about Lisa Randall’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door, which I have finally finished. But instead I find myself pondering these two sentences from her section on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC):
Nothing substitutes for solid experimental results. But we physicists haven’t just been sitting on our thumbs for the last quarter century waiting for the LHC to turn on and produce meaningful data.
“Sitting on our thumbs?” Doesn’t she mean “sitting on our hands”? Or “sitting around twiddling our thumbs”? “Sitting on our thumbs” evokes an anatomical image that I find a little distressing. Did I miss the memo that made this an acceptable cliché?
I decided to ask Mr. Google Ngram Viewer Person, who has helped me in the past. But he just throws up his hands — or maybe his thumbs.
“Sitting on our hands” showed up around the beginning of the twentieth century and took off in the nineties. “Sitting on our thumbs” doesn’t even register.
But regular ol’ Mr. Google tells me that “sitting on our hands” currently has 269,000 hits, and “sitting on our thumbs” has a whopping 74,000 hits. So it looks like something’s been happening to the language lately — at least in the unedited wasteland that is the Internet. (The first hit for “sitting on our thumbs” is from Ann Coulter in 2011. Good job, Ann!) In every case that I looked at of “sitting on our thumbs”, “sitting on our hands” would have worked just as well, so a lot people just seem to have lost the feel for the older metaphor.
Clichés and dead metaphors are what they are — few people think deeply about them, and “sitting on our thumbs” seems to be completely comprehensible. So who am I to complain? Time for me to stop being distracted and to return to contemplating the search for the Higgs boson.