Although English is widely spoken, it’s seldom spoken well. And nowhere is this more true than in the use of idioms. People who speak English as a first language are often tripped up by the idiomatic turn of phrase.
For example, the other day at a meeting, I heard some speaking about “standing on the shoulder of a giant.” It jarred immediately because no self-respecting giant would have just one shoulder and if you were going to stand on one – it would be a difficult balancing act.
Suffice to say, any self-respecting worshipper would want to stand on both shoulders, not just the one.
The idiom, therefore, is “to stand on the shoulders of giants”. This throws the balance requirement out the window, as you would have to find more than one giant on whom to place your feet. But then again, it’s idiomatic, so logic does not always follow. Just let it be said that his idiom works in plural – plural shoulders and plural giants.
I just had to get this off my chest… by the way my shoulder has been really sore – just the one – perhaps it’s because a certain someone is trying to stand on it.
The idiom was most notably used by Isaac Newton in 1675: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” so says Wikipedia.
Phrase.org explains the idiom as, “Using the understanding gained by major thinkers who have gone before in order to make intellectual progress.”
In other words, you acknowledge people for what you have learnt from them about important concepts or theories – your own knowledge is attributed to them. That’s the basic usage.
If you are going to use an idiom, make sure you use it correctly. This giant of the English language is blushing in embarrassment.
Multiple giants, multiple shoulders – please.