Can I Correct Misused Idioms at Work?

I just got an email from my supervisor that says, in part, “We need to flush out the agenda area with this additional content.”

I need guidance. Is it appropriate to point out that the phrase is “flesh out,” not “flush out?” Or should I ask if she wants me to hunt for the agenda hidden in some shrubbery that she needs me to flush it out by startling it with additional content?

I like my job and my coworkers, including the person who sent me this. But I’m also frustrated by incorrect usages like this. I’ve heard people use “flush out” a number of times in the past year, and I’m just not sure if I should be correcting them or not, because I don’t want to be an asshole — but I also want them to use the term correctly.

– Word Nerd

Dear Word Nerd,

The answer to your question is very simple. But before I answer that, I need to answer the scores of people who just read this and rolled their eyes at you.

Those of us who are in love with idioms do not yearn to run around lips pursed, buttocks clenched, demanding Absolute Linguistic Correctness. We are the people who visualize and celebrate idioms, and you are killing us when you use one that just sort of sounds like the original.

This idiom is lovely: to flesh something out is to take a skeleton of something and add flesh to it. We are filling it in, bringing it to life, making it fuller and more useful and more alive. When you flush something out, you either beat bushes to startle out animals, as Word Nerd described (and yes; asking her this is making fun of her and thus being an asshole, no matter how funny the image is — and it’s funny), or it’s to wash out something. Flush out an eye with a bug in it. Flush out an ear with impacted earwax. Flushing something out rids you of something unpleasant, in this usage. It is not the same as giving form and life to the skeleton of an idea. And to ‘flesh something out’ is a really cool idiom.

This is not an instance of how language has migrated from people playing with it. Verbing nouns. Contracting previously uncontracted. Throwing in slang. Using the opposite meaning of words for irony that eventually become the meaning of that word (‘literally,’ for instance). All of that can be glorious, or awful, depending on your preferences — but it’s often how language evolves. It’s how language is designed to work.

This? This is just an idiom someone misheard and repeated thoughtlessly without understanding the origination.

I fear Word Nerd and I have lost this battle; in workplaces especially. But I want to fight for the flesh, as it were, and so I’m going to tell you, Word Nerd, the following:

Do not correct people who are not your students or your children. Don’t don’t don’t. (Except for me; I love to know when I’ve screwed up and have a chance to fix it. But nobody else!) This gets you a reputation as a pedant, it makes people dislike you, it’s seen as trying to put yourself above others, and it makes people a little afraid to speak around you and feel defensive.

But also: Do not cave in to the temptation to then use it incorrectly yourself.There’s not seeming like an asshole and then there’s bending over backward too damn far and contributing to the misunderstanding. You know it. Use it back at them correctly.

When you’re in a meeting or receive an email like this, you respond: “Sure!I’ll flesh it out.”

If the person hears or sees the difference and wants to know what’s up, s/he can ask you. If they continue to hear no difference between flush and flesh and/or they don’t care, they won’t ask and they won’t learn. And a teeny bit of your soul will die, but you can at least know that you did not go gentle into that good night.

This letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on June 23, 2016.

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