In Outlier: The Story of Success Chapter 2 Section 4, there is a sentence saying

Is the ten-thousand-hour rule a general rule of success? If we scratch below the surface of every great achiever, do we always find the equivalence of the Michigan Computer Center or the hockey all-star team - some sort of special opportunity for practice?

I look it up in LDOCE5 and Merriam-Webster but only find what scratch the surface means. Googling this expression seems only examples rather than a good explanation.


Scratching the surface is related to scratching below the surface. When you scratch the surface of something in the non-literal sense, you're just beginning to learn about something and only know a few superficial details. When you scratch below the surface, you've learned more information about a subject. At that point, you have moved beyond a simple understanding of the subject and are delving into the depths of it, to use another idiom.

Both scratching below the surface and delving into the depths are similar in their idiomatic meaning in that they both imply that you are learning more about a subject.

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I respectfully disagree with Shaun that "scratching below the surface" has a standard idiomatic meaning. "Scratch the surface" is a cliché meaning to not go too deeply into something. It's usually used in the phrase "barely scratched the surface." I think the writer here is trying to extend and freshen the cliché by turning it on its head: "scratch below the surface" would mean to definitely go deeply into something.

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  • So I think here in this sentence, it means "delving into the depths". And what you disagree is whether this phrase has a standard idiomatic meaning, according to Shaun. Do I make a correct understanding? – Alan Xu Jan 30 '11 at 16:26
  • That is correct. – Robusto Jan 30 '11 at 16:30
  • I think it's not so much as trying to turn it on its head as just plain getting a metaphor wrong. You can't 'scratch below the surface' of anything. You can 'scratch the surface', revealing what's underneath or as Robusto says, barely do so. – user3444 Jan 30 '11 at 16:38
  • I would be happy to entertain other idiomatic meanings if you can find citations/examples. – Shaun Jan 30 '11 at 18:10
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    I agree that the original idiom was "scratch the surface". I also know that, if you search for it, you'll find many usages of this new form. It may be a juxtaposition of existing idioms, but it's one with increasing usage nonetheless. I also think arguing that you can't literally perform an action in an idiom is kind of moot considering idioms aren't meant to be taken literally, but instead figuratively. Regardless of whether you can literally scratch below the surface of something, the figurative meaning of the idiom still stands. – Shaun Jan 30 '11 at 18:33

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