Friday, April 10, 2015

I is for Idiom

CatMan and I have been studying Spanish together for nearly 20 years now. Actually, "studying" might be a bit of a misnomer because mostly we read together in Spanish and watch a few Spanish language movies and TV shows.


We're a long way from being fluent - I think one has to actually be immersed in a language to achieve that - but our vocabulary is downright respectable these days. We're able to read fairly smoothly, only stopping here and there to verify that certain words mean what we think they do.

However, there's one thing that still trips us up on a regular basis, and that's the idiomatic phrases.


But even though they often give us fits trying to understand them, I still think idioms are pretty cool. They're like a whole other language... using the same words, only with radically different meanings.

It always reminds me of the Star Trek episode where Captain Picard ends up alone on some planet with a guy whose species (the Darmok) communicates purely through metaphor and social reference. So while they can understand the each other's words, without knowing the cultural context, the words are meaningless. In order to communicate with him, Picard must learn the stories and culture of their people - which he, of course, does in a few days - he's Picard, after all... and all is well:



For some reason it always cracks me up to be reading along happily and then stumble upon something like: Aqui hay gato encerrado which literally translates as: here there is an enclosed cat - Say what??


The phrase actually means: something is suspicious or hidden here and it apparently dates back to the 16th century when coin purses were known as "gatos" and people would hide them so as not to fall prey to robbery or taxation.

Anyhow, what fascinates me about idioms is how the phrase becomes part of the lexicon, and remains in common usage even after the original cultural reference has long ago fallen into obscurity.

It makes me giggle to think of people 100 years from now saying "she sounds like a broken record" but having no clue what a "broken record" actually is, or how it would relate to repeating oneself over and over.



Of course modern day English is filled with examples of just this sort of thing. Like, for example:


Close, but No Cigar.


Apparently, back in the wayback times, carnivals used to give out cigars as prizes for games such as shooting and the like. So if you almost hit the target, you were close, but didn't get the cigar!

Three Sheets to the Wind.


This phrase means to be stumbling down drunk, and it's actually a nautical reference. This may be obvious to folks in places where sailing is common, but to this land-locked chick it was a surprise. Apparently a "sheet" is the rope that controls the "trim of the sail." I don't know exactly what that means, but apparently if you have a sailing ship with three sails, and all three sheets break loose, your ship will rock and reel like a drunk.


Cost an Arm & a Leg


OK, this one was a surprise. The phrase actually relates to portrait painters. As it turns out, limbs are some of the most difficult things to paint - especially hands and feet. So portrait painters used to base their fees on the number of limbs appearing in the image - the more limbs, the higher the cost!


The Limelight


Being "in the limelight" means that you're the center of attention, but the phrase refers to a type of lighting that used to be used in stages and music halls. The light functions by pointing an oxygen/hydrogen flame at a cylinder of calcium oxide or quicklime... hence the name "limelight!"


But what I find even more intriguing are the phrases where the original reference has been so far lost that nobody can even agree on what it was!

Take for, example, The Whole Nine Yards a phrase meaning everything possible or available.


I had always heard that this was a reference to early machine guns whose bullet strings came in lengths of nine yards. So giving someone "the whole nine yards" meant to fire all of the bullets.


But according to the interwebs, this is one of those idioms that nobody really knows the origin of. People have claimed it refers to the amount of fabric needed to make a burial shroud, or a man's suit, or an Indidan sari, or a Scottish kilt, or a number of other garments. Some folks say it refers to the number of cubic yards that a cement truck can hold, or that must be removed from the ground in order to dig a grave. And the speculation goes on and on and on...

I'm not sure why, but this really amuses me. I mean, picture some poor linguist centuries from now trying to parse out the origin of a phrase like "voted off the island."



Well, you see, it dates back to a time when shipwrecks were common, and there was a tacit understanding among seamen that if a group were to become marooned with inadequate resources, a vote would be taken and those deemed least capable of contributing would be set to the sea in a lifeboat or raft. A cruel practice indeed, but life was tough back in the early 21st century.


There is also a danger of over thinking stuff like this. The other day I was on a long bike ride, and about 15 miles in I started to get a bit of a stitch in my side, just as we were heading into the most difficult uphill portion of the ride.

To occupy my mind I started musing over the word "stitch".  My internal dialog went something like this: "Stitch... stitch... now that's an interesting word. A stitch in time saves nine... I wonder what that means... let's see... a stitch in time... a stitch in time... sounds like some sort of a temporal anomaly... perhaps a breach in the space time continuum! A stitch in time saves nine... wait... I know! it's a temporal wormhole!"

Did I mention I like Star Trek?

 

"or wait... maybe the phrase is about mending clothes in a timely manner."

Good Gawd! Well, at least I amuse myself.

Anyhow, tell me... do you like idioms? What are some of your favorite idiomatic phrases?



36 comments :

  1. I love idioms but, as a language teacher, I have a hard time explaining to my students that the English see "cats and dogs" falling, when it is raining hard while we the French see "ropes" coming down. Also, when someone doesn't speak a foreign language properly, we say for example : "He speaks English like a Spanish cow". Go figure why ..... I love that soy milk photo, btw !

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    1. Ha! Well, apparently Spanish cows have very poor language skills! Thanks so much for stopping by.

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  2. What? You, of all people, didn't list "let the cat out of the bag"?

    I think one of my favorites is "bull in a china shop".

    I love idioms and your examples (as well as their explanations) were fun for me.

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    1. You know, I researched that one but for some reason I forgot to include it. Apparently that one dates back to a time when pigs were sold live at market and delivered inside of a canvas bag. But unscrupulous con-artist types would try to cheat people out of their money by putting a "worthless animal" like a cat in the bag instead.

      Perhaps my sub-conscious just couldn't bring myself to publish the words "worthless animal" and "cat" in the same sentence! :-)

      And "Bull in a China shop" is that one an idiom or more of a metaphor? Hmmm..... Well either way the visual is priceless!

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    2. Ah! I knew that 'don't buy a pig in a poke' came from that practice, but I didn't know that it was because you might find a cat in the bag (poke) instead.

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    3. Ha! Pig in a poke... I didn't know that was related. Come to think of it, I have no idea what the idiom even means, though I have heard it.

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    4. It means don't part with your cash until you've thoroughly checked the goods (to make sure it's not a cat).

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    5. Well, that makes sense - still I think I'd rather end up with a cat than a pig that I had to slaughter! Maybe I'd feel differently if I were hungry though.

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    6. ... if I was hungry, I think... Grammar, OY!

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  3. LOL with the cat one in Spanish. Idioms are interesting, honestly hadn't thought too much about them before I read your thoughts on them. So true in years to come people won't have the understanding of them like we do, like the one with the broken record. I do admire you for trying to learn another language and I think you're doing great in it! That was one thing that we never did when we lived in the San Diego area, 10 miles from the Tijuana border. It would have been helpful to have been able to speak Spanish there.

    betty

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    1. I studied Spanish in school, but CatMan was told by his teachers that he lacked some sort of linguistic aptitude and couldn't learn a language. Can you imagine someone telling a child that?

      Anyhow, CatMan has a neurological condition, and when it acts up he's stuck inside, sometimes for weeks at a time. So it started as a fun thing to do over the phone together and just sorta took off from there.

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  4. Like betty, I don't really pay attention to idioms very often, though they are interesting. I once saw someone online saying that she likes to mix or double-up her metaphors or idioms. And I realized I like to do that myself. For example: You don't have to hit me over the head ... twice ... with a brick wall.

    I definitely didn't know any of the ones you talked about except a stitch in time--which is so true for certain kinds of mending! And I basically knew about close but no cigar except that I never knew carnivals gave out cigars as prizes.

    When you do come across an idiom, how do you find out what it means? Dictionaries don't work. (Although SpanishDict definitely shows many uses of most of the words they have, so maybe I'm wrong about that nowadays.)

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    1. Actually, I don't think the stitch in time one is a true idiom - more like a saying. I just thought it was funny how my mind tried to turn it into one with the temporal wormhole thing!

      Anyhow, I have a wonderful Spanish English dictionary - the Harper Collins unabridged version. It's a hardcover book that's so big I can barely lift it! In the definition for each word, it includes a section on idioms "modismos, in Spanish" and most will show up there. Sometimes we have to resort to various language forums online though.

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    2. Good to know! Thanks!

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  5. Well, my new favorite is "it costs and an arm and a leg" because I never knew the explanation before. I'm going to start to look at portraits in a whole new way.

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    1. I know, right? Perhaps that's why Napolean had his hand tucked inside his uniform like that... he was too cheap to pay for the fingers!

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  6. I am the sort of person who will use idioms every now and then in every conversation. My overly used everyday idioms are "Let bygones be bygones" "Bury the hatchet" "It's no use crying over spilled milk" "At the drop of a hat" "Ball is in your court" and "once in blue moon".
    Enjoyed reading your post!
    Naqvee

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    1. Ooooo.... those would be fun to research. I think a blue moon is when you get two full moons in one month, but I'm not sure.

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  7. this post was the cat's pajamas!
    not sure if that applies, but all the cats made me say it!
    fun post!

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    1. Ha! I wonder where that one comes from...

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  8. My hubby is a Trekkie :) You would love our Star Trek themed Christmas tree.

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    1. A Star Trek themed Christmas tree?!? The mind reels...

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  9. I actually knew where three sheets to the wind came from, but I grew up along a lake. Now you got me on the record. My kids and I have talked about how much things have changed just since they were little and that their children would never experience the same things. Landlines, dial up, these kids would look at you with a blank look if you tried to explain dial up. But back to idioms. My grandmother told me a stitch in time saves nine meant that attending to mending as soon as it was needed would save you countless hours repairing the damage that would inevitably happen if you put it off. Not sure if that's true, but that's what she believed.

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    1. I'm pretty sure your grandmother was correct - and I don't think it's an actual idiom, just a saying designed to keep people from being lazy with their mending.

      It is mind boggling how much things have changed since we were kids. I read an article about a teacher who challenged his students to go for an entire week without texting or social media. They quoted one of the girls saying something like "It was so strange to actually have to talk to people. This is what it must have been like in olden times!" Oh my!

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  10. Hi there. I am hopping over from the 2015 Blogging from A to Z Challenge participants list. I noticed you don't have the official Challenge badge displayed on your sidebar. You can pick it up from either of the following URLs:

    http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/p/to-z-badges-and-banners.html

    http://i1139.photobucket.com/albums/n547/Jeremy-iZombie/A2Z-BADGE-0002015-LifeisGood-230_zps660c38a0.jpg

    I hope that helps. I look forward to reading more of your writing during the Challenge.

    Michael Abayomi
    www.michaelabayomi.com

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    1. What? You mean you want me to actually brave the world of Blogger settings just for the sake of installing a badge? OK, well... if you insist... :-)

      Thanks for stopping by! :-)

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  11. Very entertaining post! The cat's out of the bag, now you're cooking with gas, and Elvis has left the building.

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    1. Wait... "cooking with gas?" I've never heard that one!

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    2. I think that one may have its roots in a UK advertising campaign, but that's off the top of my head. Yup, I'm too lazy even to google!

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    3. When people were making the transition from cooking with wood to cooking with gas it meant you were really on the ball, up-to-date, efficient, or so I've been told - I'm not quite old enough to remember that : )

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    4. Ha! I guess that makes sense. And apparently there was a big advertising campaign to that effect. Who knew?
      http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/cooking_with_gas

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  12. I don't tend to notice idioms in English - I just use them, I guess. I just came across a Welsh one - in the dictionary, my Welsh isn't good enough for conversation yet. I was looking up "dros", which I find means "over, for, instead of, on behalf of" (yeah, Welsh-English translations can be a bit approximate) and one example phrase was "mynd dros ben llestri" meaning "to go over the top". OK, "mynd" means "to go", "dros" means "over" (in this context), "ben" (mutated from "pen" - don't ask) means "top" but hang on, doesn't "llestri" mean "crockery"? Check... yep, "vessel; cup, dish, pot." "Go over top crockery"? I have no idea.

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    1. Come to think of it, "go over the top" is an idiom I use without even noticing. I have no idea where it comes from. The only "over the top" that comes to mind involves first world war trenches, and that doesn't seem very likely.

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    2. You were right! It is from WWI trench warfare! I'm impressed!
      http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/over-the-top.html

      Over the top crockery though... hmm....

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    3. I don't know whether these last few minutes of Blackadder Goes Forth have the same impact if you haven't seen the rest of the series, but no-one who's seen this could forget what it meant to go over the top.
      Good Luck Everyone

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    4. Wow... that's intense. Was that show a comedy? Seems like a heavy ending for a comedy.

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