I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms From Around the World, page 1
I’M NOT HANGING NOODLES ON YOUR EARS
To stand like a watered poodle
German: to be crestfallen
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Copyright © 2009 Jag Bhalla. All rights reserved. Reproduction of the whole or any part of the contents without written permission from the publisher is prohibited.
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This book can save you decades of effort!
I’m not hanging noodles on your ears!
The Language of Love: Swallowed like a postman’s sock
Kith & Kin-dred: Seventh water on a starchy jelly
Animals: Here the donkey falls
Appearances & Health: Go out by the neck of your shirt
Heads & Tails: Pull the hair out of someone’s nostrils
Countries: Oranges to China
Numbers: The twenty-two misfortunes
Time: When dogs were tied with sausages
Colors: Sighing with blue breath
Emotional States: Bang your butt on the ground
Work & Money: To have no time to die
Food & Drink: Give it to someone with cheese
False Friends: One’s belly is thick
In Conclusiveness: The end is musk
In memory of my parents, Bachan Singh Bhalla MBE
and Tripta Bhalla
To bang your butt on the ground
French: to die laughing
THIS BOOK CAN SAVE YOU DECADES OF EFFORT!
I’m not hanging noodles on your ears!
THIS BOOK IS DESIGNED to fit into our attention-deficit-disorder-ly lifestyles. I’ve tried to focus on the fact that we all have much else that we are struggling to keep in mind. So this horde of plundered international idioms is intended for low-commitment sampling and easy reading. The main attractions can be enjoyed, in any order and without any preliminary reading. This introductory text is not essential. Nor are the introductory texts of the chapters that follow. Some readers might benefit from the overview “On Idiom Technicalities.” But don’t feel obligated; in fact, feel free to cut to the chase and to start discovering the joys of randomly diving into the idiom lists (seren-dipping).
On the Origin of This Book
I love language. Sadly that’s not plural. I’m essentially monolingual. That’s what led me to write (or, more accurately, compile) this book. I marvel at the joys of the one language I’m fluent in. Stumbling upon a new word, a surprising construct, or a well-sculpted phrase can be thrilling. I’m constantly reminded of how important language is to the way we see the world. Languages give their users different lenses through which to view their respective corners of the world. I’ve always worried that I’m missing out on a whole world’s worth of linguistic riches. I’ve always been envious (or, as they say in Hindi, “had a snake writhing in my intestines” or, in Japanese, “burned grilled rice cakes”) of those whose vision isn’t limited to a single language. And that includes the more than three-quarters of humanity that is at least bilingual. I’ve always been envious (or “rolled on thorns” in Hindi) of the sophisticated illuminating anecdotes that well-traveled multilinguals throw around at cocktail parties. And my worry and envy haven’t all been for naught.
Monolinguals’ brains are less well exercised than those of bilinguals. On average, lifelong bilinguals get Alzheimer’s four years later.1 Neuroscientists think that being bilingual builds mind “muscle” (or, to use the technical lingo, “cognitive reserve”). And having brawnier brains protects against dementia. Seriously, I’m not pulling your leg (or, as the Russians say, “I’m not hanging noodles on your ears”).
Even if there weren’t a potential mental health benefit, I’d love to be able to revel in the world’s linguistic treasure trove. Unfortunately, I don’t have an aptitude for languages. Technically speaking, I’ve lost that aptitude, since all healthy babies are born with the remarkable ability to effortlessly learn any of the world’s languages. Nor do I have the time, energy, or discipline to spend years learning even one or two more languages. Put another, more accurate way, I’m too lazy (or, as the French say, “I have a hair in my hand” or “I’m a codfish,” or, according to the Japanese, “I smell of things”).
Is there an easy way to be a lazy armchair polyglot? Of course there is! Talented and dedicated explorers have ventured to the four corners of the world (“eight corners” in Hindi) and returned with souvenir collections of linguistic gems. The books recording their adventures can be easily acquired and read in an armchair near you. No visas, immunizations, or actual travel required.
Two of the best such books are Howard Rheingold’s They Have a Word for It (sadly now out of print) and Adam Jacot de Boinod’s The Meaning of Tingo. Both collect words and ideas from other languages that have no direct translation into English. Rheingold goes into some depth for a scholarly and fun selection from 20 or so languages. Jacot de Boinod doesn’t go into as much detail but amazingly and very entertainingly covers 120 languages. For example, he reports that Germans have a single word that means the “disappointment one feels when something turns out not nearly as badly as one had expected.” Something about that just seems quintessentially German. Another wonderful example that comes from one of my peoples is a two-word Hindi expression that means: a person so miserly that if a fly fell into his cup of tea, he would fish it out and suck it dry before throwing it away. Truly marvelous!
In addition to untranslatable words, those books contain a smattering of idioms, like the Russian “I’m not hanging noodles on your ears.” Idioms are colorful and curious expressions that have always fascinated me. The technical definition of an idiom is a group of words always used together as
The search for a collection of entertaining international idioms proved disappointing, though there are many books that cover idioms for use in learning a particular language. Idiom’s Delight by Sue Brock (also sadly out of print) was the closest thing out there. It’s a witty collection of idioms from four related Romance languages…but it still didn’t quite hit the spot.
Thus I set about filling the gap. Given my already confessed deficiencies, I’ve had to rely on dictionaries that include idioms and literal English translations (or in a couple of instances, on hiring translators). Herein are more than 1,000 amusing and thought-tickling idioms from several languages: Italian, French, Spanish (including several Latin American versions), Japanese, Russian, German, Chinese (Mandarin), and Hindi, with a smattering of Hebrew and Arabic, as well as fleeting guest appearances from others. These I’ve loosely organized by theme. Also, I haven’t been too nit picky (or, as the Italians say, “looked for hairs inside an egg” or, according to the Japanese, “made the outside corners of my eyes stand up”). I’ve included expressions that might strain the technical definition of an idiom, such as amusing proverbs, phrases, or words that were simply irresistible.
On the Uses of This Book
Clinical trials to support possible therapeutic claims for this book are underway, but it’s too early to know if reading it can delay the onset of dementia. Initial results indicate that it might at least be an entertaining diversion (or, as the Italians would say, “a thought expeller”). I hope it might also help you see the world a little differently, through the eyes and words of other cultures.
The recommended dose is a few pages at a time. Beyond that, there is a small danger that the idioms in this book might cause you to die laughing (or, as the Japanese might say, to “get your jaw dislocated” or the Spanish “to be as peeled as a banana”). Assuming you are prepared to take that risk—this book is guaranteed to help you avoid having to spend decades mastering the subtleties of multiple languages….
If you already are fluent in all of these languages, however, this would be a nice gift for your less accomplished friends, acquaintances, colleagues…etc.
On Idiom Technicalities
As I’ve mentioned, the definition of an idiom is a group of words that are used as a single unit, the meaning of which is not clear from the meanings of the constituent words. To a linguist, idioms and words are both lexemes. They are self-contained units for conveying meaning. Words themselves are often compounded from simpler words (e.g., scarecrow) or from other smaller meaningful elements, called morphemes. Their study is called morphology. The word morphology itself provides an excellent example of morphemes at work. You know that ology means the study of whatever it’s appended to, even though “ology” isn’t a word in its own right. It’s a morpheme. Combinations of morphemes are responsible for creating and conveying the meanings of many words—a sort of lexical-Lego.*
Idioms add further layers of complexity; words made of morphemes are strung together in a phrase that follows normal syntax and grammar rules—plus the further twist that the words just don’t add up. In idiom-ology, two plus two isn’t four, and often isn’t even close to four. An idiom’s compound meaning is not the sum of the meanings of its parts. That makes idiom comprehension an interesting exercise. As you hear or read an idiom, at some point you have to make a switch from understanding the individual words in sequence to interpreting the phrase as a whole and then substituting the non-literal meaning. That’s a complex cognitive activity—one usually mastered only by speakers with a very high degree of fluency. Clearly, using idioms isn’t the most efficient way of getting one’s point across. Why say “he kicked the bucket,” which has five syllables, when you could say “he died,” which has just two? No one knows…but interestingly, despite this inefficiency, we often prefer to use idioms. We use them significantly more frequently while speaking than in text. Perhaps it’s preferable for us, in other ways, to rely on these well-worn grooves of thought and expression.
Idioms are related to metaphors, similes, and other figures of speech, and to slang, proverbs, aphorisms, jokes, and other forms of non-literal language. All known cultures use non-literal language. One way to think of some idioms is that they are fossilized metaphors. Their meanings were probably quite clear when they were coined and gained wide currency, but their use continued, even after the direct connection was lost. For example, letting the cat out of the bag originally referred to a way of avoiding the common fraud in 16th-century markets of selling a cheap substitute—a cat hidden in a bag, instead of a pricier piglet. Similar expressions exist in Spanish “to sell cat for rabbit” and Germans “to buy a cat in a bag.”
The word idiom has the same root as idiosyncratic and idiot: idios, Greek for “of one’s own” or “private.” The original meaning of “idiot” was someone who was not interested in public affairs (considered a key duty in ancient Greece*). Similarly, idioms are a form of private expression, private to the in-group, that is. Someone not in the know would not be able to understand an idiomatic usage by interpreting the meaning of the constituent words. So, in addition to making language more colorful, using idioms is a way to bind insiders and separate them from outsiders. Slang and professional jargon have similar functions. Their enduring popularity implies that we enjoy something about these prefabricated, pre-solved language puzzles.
I should slightly modify my earlier statement that I am monolingual. I’m fluent in three Englishes: English English, i.e., English as spoken in England and other parts of the United Kingdom; American English, as spoken in the United States and increasingly everywhere else; and Indian English, as spoken in the nation that at the moment has the second largest number of English speakers in the world. Linguists consider each of these as having some degree of separate identity. Many of you will have heard the quotation attributed to Winston Churchill explaining the relationship of two of my Englishes—that the U.S. and the U.K. are “two nations divided by a common language.” As regards Indian English, no speaker of another English would use a word like “prepone.” You can probably easily unpack its morphemes to decipher that it means to reschedule something by bringing it earlier (rather than postponing it). As Nicholas Ostler points out in his monumental history of languages, Empires of the Word, English (of any kind) as a first language has peaked demographically.3 The natives of lands where it is the first language, to borrow and abuse a term from nuclear physics, aren’t sufficiently fast breeders. The future of the Englishes will likely be dominated by those who use them as a second language.
On Ludic* Language and the Seriousness of Humor
Our brains seem to be built to enjoy language novelty and word play. As David Crystal, the prominent language expert, notes in the very first sentence of his excellent book on the subject, called Language Play: “Everyone seems to engage in or respond to language play.” He also points out that two-thirds of jokes in a typical collection depend on word play.
Speaking of humor, I recently heard some wonderful language to describe why it’s such a serious business. Bob Mankoff, current editor of the New Yorker cartoons, said in a Charlie Rose Show interview that he thought of humor as a “counterweight to the hegemony of reason.”4 That sentiment is well supplemented by the following quotation from Clive James,5 an encyclopedically accomplished commentator on culture: “The idea—an idea built into the English language over centuries of comic richness—is that learning and knowledge must be kept in balance….” As we’ll see in the following chapters, there is much other scientific weight being added to counter this hegemony of reason. Since the Enlightenment, rationality and dispassionate logic have been given
On Scientific Correctness and Being “Sciencey”
Within the bounds of my natural laissez-fair* leanings, I have striven to be as correct as possible with the science in this book. Despite attempts to take occasional comedic license, I have stuck as closely as possible to the best reported relevant science I can find. I have tried to ensure that the contents of this book are “sciencey.” I’m deeply indebted to the incomparable and incorrectable Stephen Colbert’s insightful coinage of “truthiness” as a model. “Sciencey” is to science as “truthy” is to truth. While it may not be accurate to the nth level of minutiae, it captures the essence, the emotional truth, the truthiness of the scientific facts.
Another way to put this is that I have tried to be “scientifically correct,” which I define in contradistinction to being “politically correct.” I have not let the fashion for oxymoronic political correctness stand in the way of speaking scientific truth to power, or to power’s friends, or to the people power definitely needs to not offend, or to constituencies that power might possibly need help from. Armed with the scientifically correct, we should be prepared to speak truth to anyone.
However, I have to caveat* that noting all that is scientifically correct is to some degree subject to being overthrown by better evidence. Though you shouldn’t let that technicality encourage you to hold out hope of the repeal of the fact of, say, gravity!