Astonishing, confounding, and admirable – all relevant verbs and adjectives to convey what individuals undergo to acquire a language. An interesting example of one such individual I discovered recently is Eugene Ionesco. At the age of 40, Mr. Ionesco decided to learn English. He conscientiously copied whole sentences in order to memorize them (appropriately termed the Assimil method). Re-reading these sentence, Mr. Ionesco began to feel he was not learning English, but instead he was discovering some astonishing truths such as the fact that there are seven days in a week, that the ceiling is up and the floor is down; things which he already knew, but which suddenly struck him as being as stupefying as they were indisputably true,
As Mr. Ionesco discovered – and as many of us who have tried clearly know – learning a language is so much more than simply picking up Mr. Chérel’s Assimil program, Rosetta Stone software or for that matter any other language instruction program. The process of truly learning a language – and being effective in that language – demands a deep, focused social and cultural immersion. Only within this type of surrounding will numerous nuances that simply cannot be learned within classrooms, text books or online programs be revealed, unfolded, and captured – and be assimilated.
Several years ago, this lesson became real for me. After 12 years of academic “immersion” in the Spanish language, I felt confident and ready to spread my wings and apply my “fluency.” So, in June 2001, I journeyed to Costa Rica. During my visit, I warmly noticed cassette players bellowing out English language programs in many taxi cabs and within vendor stores. The Costa Ricans (or Ticos as they’re affectionately called) were extremely friendly and helpful – desirous of engaging in conversation in order to exercise their newly acquired English language skills. Sadly for me…while Spanish may be the National Language of the country, the number of individual “living” languages spoken in Costa Rica is ten (10). Despite the Ticos’ friendly, accommodating nature, it quickly became clear to me that I was sorely lacking a comprehensive grasp of their language (and culture). I continually stumbled – frequently (and continually) feeling like the proverbial “butt of the joke.” These experiences, though, did help me hone my skills on the art of a soft smile and the smoothness of that gentle nod to compensate for my obvious shortcomings during my visit. The time in Costa Rica definitely equipped me with a much greater understanding and appreciation for what non-native English speaking folks must endure in the United States when trying to learn the complex English language.
Thinking and reflecting on all of this caused me to wonder…what about some of those quirky and sometimes tricky idioms, analogies, even figures of speech that tend to infect the English language. What a challenge those must present for non-native speakers?! Upon initially hearing some of these phrases during routine conversations, one finds oneself questioning whether the phrase being used even refers to or aligns with anything that’s being spoken about. The meaning of these phrases can seem so abstract (or from such ancient historical times). Oftentimes, they’re even difficult for someone like me – a native speaker and prolific writer – to grasp, comprehend or understand what is trying to be conveyed. Here are a few examples…
- “He’s as jumpy as a spring.”
- “She’s as bright as the brightest light.”
- “My dog is as smelly as dirty socks.”
- “My best friend is as sharp as a pencil.”
Okay, okay…those last few examples were relatively easy to process, align and figure out…but, how about these:
- “Portable phones are marketed as the best thing since sliced bread, but to me they’re just another expensive gadget.”
- “I can’t miss another day of work. That’s my bread and butter.”
- “Don’t worry, he’s just busting your chops.”
A little tougher to understand, right!?
On the surface, many metaphors, phrases, and idioms may seem abstract. Quite the contrary. More often than not, they are rich in social, cultural and historical context. Below are a few of my favorites which I hope you will grow to appreciate…
- The greatest thing since sliced white bread
Meaning: An invention benchmark.
Origin: Otto Rohwedder (1910), an American inventor/engineer, had created the first automatic bread-slicing machine for commercial use. Bringing his bread slicer to market, however, created many challenges for Rohwedder until the Continental Baking Company introduced and heavily marketed Wonder Bread as a “sliced bread.” It was believed that “things couldn’t get any better than the sight of colored – red, yellow, and blue – hot-air balloons and a feeling of ‘wonder’.”
- Bread and butter
Meaning: Someone’s livelihood or source of income.
Origin: 1) 1620-30 noun. A basic means of support, source of livelihood, sustenance. This idiom alludes to a very old and basic food, that at one time was an essential – bread spread with butter. 2) 1720-30 adjective (not always hyphenated). Providing a basic means of support, source of livelihood; supplying the basic needs of life. 3) circa 2nd half of 1800s. Ordinary, routine.
- Busting your chops
Meaning: To make fun of; tease; joke around with someone in a harsh way; working hard
Origin: At the turn of the century, wearing very long sideburns—called mutton or lamb chops — was en vogue. In the late 1960’s lamb chop side burns also made a comeback. A bust in the chops was to get hit in the face. Since Mutton Chops are no longer considered high fashion, the term has come to be figurative rather than literal.
- Back-handed compliment
Meaning: Round-about, indirect or devious.
Origin: Back-handed is synonymous with left-handed. In tennis, for example, a backhand stroke is a strike by a right-handed player from the left side of the body. Historically, the left side of the body has always been deemed sinister (from Latin)
- Dressed to the nines
Meaning: Dressed elaborately, flamboyantly or very smartly.
Origin: Common lore has it that a high quality suite requires more fabric – close to nine yards – for a tailor to make. While this may seem like a lot, however, all the fabric must be cut in the same direction to be parallel and ensure alignment with vertical line of the suit. This requirement creates a large amount of waste, so, if you want to go “dressed to the nines”, you must pay for such waste. Another theory shares that the phrase dates back to the 99th Wiltshire Regiment, known as the Nines, which was renowned for its smart appearance. This theory is a bit problematic since the regiment’s sartorial reputation dates from the 1850s, while the first recorded use of the phrase is from 1837. Secondly, dressed to the nines developed as an extension of the much earlier phrase to the nines, meaning ‘to perfection, to the greatest degree’: the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary‘s first example of this earlier form dates back to 1719. Why it should have been to the nines rather than to the eights, to the sevens, etc. remains unclear.
- The apple of my eye
Meaning: An object of great affection; usually elevated above all others.
Origin: The “apple” of an eye (its aperture) is its central point. The phrase first appears in Gregory’s Pastoral Care – an Old English work attributed to King Alfred (the Great) of Sussex in AD 885. In 1600, Shakespeare used the phrases in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the 1611 Bible (King James Version – Deuteronomy 32:10 and Zechariah 2:8), the phrase appears several times. Wider use entered the population through Sir Walter Scott’s use in his 1616 novel Old Mortality.
- Barking up the wrong tree
Meaning: To make the wrong choice or pursue the wrong course.
Origin: When hunting raccoons for fur was a popular sport, hunting dogs would sniff them out of trees. Since raccoons are nocturnal animals, the hunting party had to work at night which resulting in the dogs frequently choosing the wrong tree. The term was first printed in 1833 in a book by Davy Crockett.
© 2013 EM Carlock
The Write Resources, LLC™