July 12, 2005

Department of rarely-used cliches

According to an AP wire story by John Leicester that ran yesterday, Bobby Julich of Team CSC said that Lance Armstrong

rode to a second-place finish in the opening time trial, building big time gaps over Ullrich, Basso and others.

"That was scary," Julich said. Such a strong starts shows that "he's ready to rock some cages in the mountains."

Today was the first mountain stage, and Armstong indeed regained the lead in the race, increasing his margin over Julich by 5:18.

When Julich (a native speaker of American English) predicted that Armstrong was "ready to rock some cages", he seems to have meant something like "ready to shake some people up". This way of putting it is not quite unique, but there's only one Google hit, which was surely not his inspiration:

Shame about Wisenut, when it was forst released it looked like it could rock some cages, but unforunately its not doing to well on keeping current.

The expression "rock some cages" is an idiom blend. One of the sources is "rattle * cage(s)", which metaphorically evokes the taunting of captive animals:

I need to rattle some cages to get the permissions to do my job.
He's an innovator who is not afraid to rattle some cages just to get people thinking.
...the al Qaeda operatives who rattled the American cage via the murderous attacks of 9/11 were not, in fact, denizens of Iraq.
Sounds like the Lakers rattled some cages in Michigan again!

The other source is "rock <someone's> world". This started as reference to romantic impact, as in Michael Jackson song "You rocked my world, you know you did...", but has come to be a general phrase for psychological impacts of all sorts, as in "Joe Perry's Rock Your World Hot Sauce", or the headline "New TVs .. Will Rock Your World", or the slogan "... watch how you rock their world with this awe inspiring garden stone". The verb has been generalized from this source in expressions like "rock the vote", with a meaning something like "act so as to have a dramatic impact on <something>".

Because it makes a certain amount of sense on its own terms, the combination "rock some cages" is more subtle than other idiom blends featured in previous LL posts: "it isn't rocket surgery"; "page burner"; "the way the cookie bounces"; "he flipped his cork"; "that's a different cup of fish". You can find some related structures in Saul Gorn's Compendium of Rarely Used Cliches: "This subject is so important that I'd like to see it deserve considerable study."

[Update: Several readers wrote to suggest that another source might be the very common expression "rock the boat". This could well be in the mix -- and especially in the background of "rock my world", "rock the vote" (which rhymes with it), and so on. When I first read Julich's expression "rock some cages", I thought that the ideas of "psychological impact"and "taunting beasts" were dominant, but maybe the sense of disturbing an equilibrium is just as important. It's hard to allocate credit (or blame) in an individual case like this.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 12, 2005 06:03 PM