I'm trying to place a short story told from the viewpoint of a person who understands common idioms literally. For example, if someone asks him to “lend a hand”, he would understand that the hand needs to be detached from his body. I think a lot of the idioms were related to body parts. The story was carefully ambiguous as to whether he was disconnected from reality or the universe was an sf-nal one where the idioms came true. The character was aware of the strangeness.

I read the story a few years ago in a collection or anthology, and I have no reason to believe it was new then. For some reason I think it may be by Sturgeon, but I can't find it my Sturgeon collection, so that's probably a false impression.

  • Cool question, What does "sf-nal" mean? Jan 23, 2011 at 18:32
  • 3
    Makes SF an adjective. Not a fan, but that's the grumpy old guy in me muttering. ;) jeffmountjoy.blogspot.com/2007/02/sfnal.html
    – Saiboogu
    Jan 23, 2011 at 18:38
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    Not SF, but Amelia Bedelia comes to mind. Jan 23, 2011 at 19:31
  • Not SF either, but it made me think of that (Tom and Jerry? maybe?) cartoon where the story of this cat is told entirely in idioms. "I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth", "It was rainin cats and dogs!"
    – morganpdx
    Jan 24, 2011 at 18:44
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    @morganpdx: TeX Avery, MGM, standalone, technically SF: Symphony in Slang
    – user56
    Jan 24, 2011 at 19:33

5 Answers 5


It's a Philip K. Dick short story called "The Eyes Have It".

Excerpt from a Goodreads review:

In this little story, we have got an unnamed first-person narrator who found a book on a bus and starts reading it. Seemingly harmless sentences like “his eyes moved from person to person”, containing cliché metaphors, set off the alarm bells in the narrator’s head because he takes them as evidence of an invasion of aliens who, unlike us (?), are able to disintegrate their bodies in unsettling ways. He even writes to the government about this invasion, but they send him back “a pamphlet on the repair and maintenance of frame houses”. Later, after continued reading sessions of the book outside his house, i.e. his usual frame of reference, our narrator is so wrought up that he seeks solace in a game of Monopoly with his family, playing with “frantic fervor” and not wanting to know anymore about the silent invasion going on, which is probably “under control”, anyway.


I know they have to be careful with idiom at first in Stranger in a Strange Land. Jubal comments on having to remember not to use phrases like "Get lost" around Mike.

  • Okay, I'll bite. Why was this voted down? Jan 26, 2011 at 0:44
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    I'm not the downvoter, so I can only guess, but it could be because that's not a very good match for the question, or because your answer is technically useless since CodeByMoonlight provided the correct answer. I've asked what people think of downvoting in this case on Meta.
    – user56
    Jan 27, 2011 at 21:23
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    I downvoted it because the question has a clear answer, which has already been given, and this "answer" adds nothing to answering the question. Do you think that what you posted here is in fact the answer to the question? If you don't, then you should hardly be surprised if it gets downvoted.
    – Mike Scott
    Jan 27, 2011 at 21:31
  • I was asking because I wanted to know what I'd done wrong. This is the first time I've had an answer downvoted. Jan 28, 2011 at 2:41

Even if the sentence To Serve the Man is not an idiom, Damon Knight's short story is indeed about different literal meaning of the sentence.


Perhaps it's “The Proverbial Murder Mystery” (2019), a short story by Scott Alexander. The story is told by a police officer who is investigating murder in a strange government office building. It starts sort of silly.

“We’re the United States’ only proverb laboratory. Our mission is to stress-test the nation’s proverbs. To provide rigorous backing for the good ones, and weed out the bad ones. […] Consider: he who hesitates is lost. But also: look before you leap. Suppose you’re a business executive who spots a time-limited opportunity. What do you do? Hesitate? Or leap without looking? Eggheads devise all sorts of fancy rules about timing the market and relying on studies, but when push comes to shove most people are going to rely on the simple sayings they learned as a child. If you can keep your stock of proverbs more up-to-date than your competitor’s, that gives you a big business advantage.”

But the investigator gets used to all the strange things happening in the building, and uncovers the dark secret of the agency.

The Proverb Laboratory didn’t exist to test proverbs at all. Or they did, but not in the way they claimed. The Proverb Laboratory existed to test the Machine. A device that makes proverbs real. The Machine exerted some kind of invisible force. The closer you got, the more the English language warped reality in order to make proverbs come true.

Then the story gets even more silly, as the investigator and the murderer both use the power of proverbs offensively in a deadly chase scene.

  • 1
    Interesting sounding story, and you've given a nice description. But this question was asked and answered in 2011! So...a 2019 story could not be it....
    – Basya
    Nov 4, 2020 at 15:46

From a fun book series, XANTH by Piers Anthony, everything is a pun. :) I wish he had a guide at the end to explain all of them, since I hope I get them all, but I am sure I do not!

  • 1
    There's a Visual Guide to Xanth available that has all of the creatures and major characters up through the first trilogy of trilogies. Jun 10, 2011 at 21:29

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