The word ‘air' is used in a wide variety of idioms, each with a distinct meaning
The famous movie ‘Roman Holiday' tells the story of a princess who is unhappy with the severe restrictions on her behaviour and movement. Since she is royalty, she must behave in certain ways; meet people based on political expediency, and so on. The situation she finds herself in can be described as a feeling of suffocation. ‘Suffocate' is a common word that refers to lack of air, and to struggling to breathe.
As you can imagine, being possibly the most basic activity in our experience, breathing is an important metaphor. The word suffocate is a good example.
Literally, the word only refers to having difficulty in breathing, either because of an obstruction--tight or thick clothing, for example-or because of a lack of fresh air, in close or crowded spaces. But then ‘suffocate' also becomes a metaphor, that allows us to refer to an experience of suppression, or lack or freedom and especially to an experience where someone is denied self-expression. For example, you might say, ‘I found the rigid formality of the party suffocating, so I left early.'
Related to the concept of breathing is the word air. In general, the word ‘air' is used in a wide variety of idioms, each with a distinct meaning, giving us a sense of how wide ranging the metaphor of air can be. Let's consider a few such expressions this week.
Breath of fresh air: A breath of fresh air is a welcome change from the current situation. For example, you could say ‘most of the movies last year were clichéd slapstick comedies; in this situation, this new movie for children is a breath of fresh air.' As metaphors go, this one is perfectly straightforward: fresh air feels like a welcome change after being indoors for some time, where you might have been inhaling stale air.
In the air: This expression is most used to refer to mood or emotion--something you can perceive, but does not have a physical presence. For example, you can say, ‘After the row I had with my brother, there was a lot of tension in the air.' Or you might say: ‘After my exam results, there was joy in the air, and we went out to celebrate.' ‘In the air' can also refer to something being in circulation, something that is current news. For example, someone might tell you, ‘There is a rumour in the air that our exams are going to be postponed'.
In this case, the expression is particularly appropriate since air is something we simply perceive around us, without it having a specific location, just as a rumour is something people around us know, though we do not quite specifically identify the exact people who know a rumour.
Nilesh Jahagirdar, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.skillspark.com