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(From A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe, Part II Cambridge Choir, chapter 14)

'Where are we going?'

'Song room,' says Martin

'Not the chapel?'

'Choristers go there for evening practice and then evensong, but it's here in the morning.' It's a small, very ordinary room, with cream walls and rows of benches. 'Probationers sit over there.' Martin points to the far corner and gently presses his back.

Even though William knows he'll eventually become a chorister, a pebble of disappointment plummets the length of him.

I take the bold phrase to mean "he is overwhelmed by disappointment". I don't think it's an idiomatic phrase - I can't find any corresponding idiom. Is the phrase derived from a common expression or idea?

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    This is poetic, not idiomatic. Imagine your feelings of disappointment. Now pack them together, tighten them, make them a small hard thing. Now drop them from the crown of your head and feel them as they plummet through your entire body. It is quick and hard and small. Does it feel overwhelming?
    – YonKuma
    Commented May 2 at 19:54
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    I interpret it differently, because of its smallness and quickness. I imagine an overwhelming thing as a big thing that crushes you down, not a small thing that passes through you like a ghost. But the point of poetic language is that you get to imagine it and decide for yourself how it feels. Your interpretation is the right one for you.
    – YonKuma
    Commented May 2 at 20:04
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    I think at this point you can assume that any metaphors in this book are bespoke and not idiomatic until proven otherwise. It's probably no easier for us to interpret them than it is for you - harder, even, as we haven't read the book and only have so much context. Commented May 2 at 20:22
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    I’m voting to close this question because it's not really an ELL question. There is, as you rightly say, nothing idiomatic. It is figurative language that could be used in French, German, Japanese or isiXhosa
    – James K
    Commented May 2 at 21:01
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    @JamesK: I think the pebble here is only because to drop like a stone is such a standard image in English. Other languages may not make much use of that particular metaphoric usage. Commented May 2 at 21:49

1 Answer 1

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This is a metaphor and poetic language. You are right that it's not an idiom you will likely see anywhere else.

Most simply, the author means that he is disappointed. However, he is describing the physical feeling of disappointment as it travels throughout William's body. We, as readers, should imagine a small stone - a pebble - being dropped through our bodies as if they weren't there. How would it feel? Probably cold, and strange, and maybe leave a feeling of emptiness. It would fall quickly, because it's a stone, but the hole it leaves would just be a small one, since it's only a pebble. (Which gives the sense that this isn't an overwhelming disappointment, just a regular one.)

This author's choice of metaphor likely alludes to more common idioms such as:

  • I feel my stomach drop - the sensation when you experience dread, shame, fear, etc. and your stomach feels like you are falling.
  • I have a sinking feeling - the sensation when you start to realize that something is going wrong and your mood changes from positive to negative.
  • My stomach feels like it's full of stones/lead - the sensation when your stomach feels heavy and ill, likely because you are anxious or dreading something.

As you can see, feelings of stress, anxiety, embarrassment, etc. are often portrayed by something falling or something heavy. A pebble is a small way of saying the same thing.

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  • @MichaelHarvey: I didn't want to leap to judgment on the basis of a few sentences, but the more I see of this book, the less I think of it! This one looks like a really clumsy attempt to breathe new life into the hackneyed drop like a stone metaphor. Commented May 2 at 21:44
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    @ Friendly Racoon - Thank you very much for your detailed answer. I much appreciate your help.
    – philphil
    Commented May 3 at 12:43

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