What in the world does “in case” mean? I started wondering about this the other day when I used the phrase and started thinking about how silly it sounds. You’ll know what I’m talking about if you say it and, at the same time, think about each word as it comes out.
Put the words together, however, and say them without a pause between them and without thinking about them and you know instantly what the phrase means. The sum of the parts equals much more than the parts themselves.
It doesn’t mean that something is “in a case,” like a fork might be inside a utensil case. “Case” has several meanings when studied as an individual word. In fact, the Web site dictionary.com gives no less than 38 meanings for the word “case,” including its uses within idioms.
Now, what is an idiom? No, it has nothing to do with idiocy although sometimes it seems that there might be a relationship. It’s a phrase whose words make little or no sense when taken on face value, such as the phrase “in case.” Another example of an idiom is “about face.” Think of the words in that phrase. They certainly don’t refer to something that is about someone’s face. You know what it means. I know what it means. But think of some poor soul from Timbuktu who understands little English and who must deal with interpreting the meaning of those words used by a native English speaker. What would that poor soul think? He would pull out his English dictionary and check the meaning of the word “about,” then look up the meaning of the word “face,” then attempt to decipher the meaning of the phrase based on the meaning of the individual words within the phrase. He would think the speaker was saying something about someone’s face. He would not think that the speaker was talking about people changing their minds about something.
We hear and speak idioms every day, and think nothing about them. They liven up our speech and make it interesting. They also make our speech special to those of us who communicate with one another every day. We develop specialized idioms in our work groups or social groups that only the members understand. This creates a climate of exclusivity that tends to enhance the bond between the groups’ members. If you think about it, you can probably recite idioms that people you work with or play with use, that others outside the group wouldn’t understand.
In case you’re wondering what prompted me to write about this, I needed an ace in the hole to stay ahead of the pack and make sure that all eyes are on me. I might be a pain in the neck, but I’m only a paper tiger trying to find my pie in the sky.