ENGLISCH/946: Questions to Mrs Gobbledygook (210) - nip in the bud ... (SB)

Hello Mrs Gobbledygook,

Recently I came across the idiom "to nip something in the bud", but I don't know exactly when and how to use it. Is the expression only used in a certain context and what is really meant by that?

Irene W. (Chur, Switzerland)


Dear Ms W.,

Well, that is a very interesting phrase, because it actually comes from harmless gardening, to be more precise it derives from the de-budding of plants, and yet it is not always politically correct these days. That is why it should be handled with care.

First of all, you have to imagine that pictorially: When a plant grows and is about to flower, you see at first a small green bud. Then the bud gets bigger and finally breaks open and the flower appears with its bright colour. However, buds not only produce blossoms, but also the leaves and stems of a plant

But back to our idiom "to nip something in the bud": "Nip" means to remove or cut something really small, especially buds. If you go on imagining, that this small bud carries the core of the whole next generation of plants. Then this means for the plant that if you remove a flower bud from it, it can no longer achieve the desired aim, which is after all to blossom and produce new seeds. So nipping it in the bud means you prevent further growth and development.

Native speakers of English also use that idiom in a figurative sense meaning to stop something while it is still in its early development. Nevertheless, the phrase has meanwhile undergone a slight change in meaning. So if you nip something in the bud, you either stop something before it has the chance to get established or you stop it before it becomes a problem.

However, the latter has little to do with the original notion of hindering a fine flowerplant from blossoming and growing, because in what world or factual context should that be a problem? But this is exactly how the phrase is used today when you look at the following conversation, for example:

Alan: "My son is to get a motorcycle."
Bert: "Oh dear!"
Alan: "Exactly, I don't think it's a good idea. They are so dangerous. But he says he needs some way of travelling around fast. My wife tried to nip the idea in the bud by talking about the danger. But that doesn't impress him. So what can we do?"
Bert: "Well, perhaps you could help him to buy a small car. He pays as much as a motorcycle would cost and you pay the rest. That might nip it in the bud."

Anyway, in this case, the son's idea is frightening, so that the father wants to "nip it in the bud", i.e. to persuade his son not to think about it any more by offering him something much better. And if you look at this case with a benevolent eye, then perhaps you could actually see something like the rather brutal horticultural intervention in which some buds are removed, so that all the power and energy of the plant is concentrated on a single blossom, which is then supposed to produce a particularly gorgeous fruit.

But if you are playing with the idea to send me another question on English grammar and usage I won't nip that in the bud.

Miranda Gobbledygook

16. November 2018

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