By Louise Ure
I’m not touring and teaching like Alex this week, nor have I been at a high-powered writers’ workshop like Pari, or out striking big TV deals like Rob.
What I’ve been doing is falling in love with words. Again. As usual.
In my last post I wrote about my gelatophobia, one of those top-drawer words that does not mean at all what it sounds like. Others on my “I don’t think so” list would be: enervate, choleric, pulchritude, necromancy, fungible and my newest favorite, gongoozler. “Choleric” has nothing to do with cholera, “pulchritude” is actually a good thing, and a “gongoozler” is an idle speculator, especially one who stares for a long time at nothing.
That’s me today.
And that idle staring has taken me on a detour through idioms today. An idiom is an expression that usually can’t be translated literally. Its meaning is often quite different from the specific word-for-word translation. They’re the worst kind of clichés if we dare to use them in our writing. In dialogue, they connote a lazy-thinker or someone from Hicksville.
“I’m not pulling your leg.”
“It’s no good crying over spilt milk.”
“I’m living the life of Riley.”
They’ve become such comfortable, worn out moccasins of phrase that we don’t even think about them any more. But they jump up like a soliloquy on stage when you hear them in another language.
“I’m not hanging noodles on your ears” (Russian) and “I’m not pulling the hair out of your nostrils” (Japanese) = Not pulling your leg.
“Biting the elbow” (German) = Crying over spilt milk.
“To fart into silk” (French) and “live like a maggot in bacon” (German) = Live the life of Riley
In Spain, if you feel like a fish out of water you’re “like an octopus in a garage,” and if two things are well suited for each other they’re “like fingernails and dirt.”
A “mouse milker” in German is a detailed-oriented person, but an “ant milker” in Arabic is a miser or a tightwad. In Spanish, that same tightwad would be someone who “walks with his elbows.”
In English, you could be “in a jam” or “in a pickle.” In Latvian, you’d be “up a stovepipe.”
We make a mountain out of a molehill, but the Poles “make a fork out of a needle.”
We think of ourselves as “the third wheel” – the unnecessary one – on a date, but the Portuguese would say they were “holding a candle.” Yep, someone just standing there, lighting the scene so the two lovers could see each other.
When the Japanese dine with a foreigner, they’re having “a sideways meal.” (Since the Japanese write vertically and most westerners write sideways, talking to a foreigner is “speaking sideways” and lunching with one becomes equally horizontal.)
When the French stand someone up for an appointment, they “donner le lapin” (give a rabbit.) For the Spanish, it’s “give a pumpkin.” Which would probably leave their Russian date “looking like September” (looking miserable).
If an Italian woman decided to “reheat cabbage” (rekindle an old romance), her Chinese husband might be accused of “having a pretty green hat” (having a cheating wife).
A window-shopper in France is “window-licking” and to attempt the impossible would be like “biting the moon” (French) or “climbing a tree to catch a fish” (Chinese). That would be nothing more than “making tea with your navel” (laughable, in Japanese).
Clearly, you should always look before you leap for, as the French say, “in candlelight, a goat looks like a lady.”
I know I’ll never be able to use this linguistic exercise in my work. I don’t want to write in trite idioms nor do I often like characters who speak that way. But it’s fun. And it gets my mind working.
And maybe, just maybe, it helps me come up with new metaphors on my own.
Whatcha’ think, Rati? Do you have any favorite idioms (English or otherwise) that I’ve missed? Or would you like to create a new one to confound all future students of English As A Second Language?