The Village Idiom

We should have a reason for writing things; a purpose.  I suppose sometimes the purpose is just to purge a flow of ideas from your mind and let it go, or a way of expressing things that are important to you.  That said, I begin a topic that I have thought about for years.  It may not be important or even something we think about often, but as cross-cultural things and language things are cool, so is this.

Idioms are those phrases we use, that don’t have the same meaning as the actual words we are saying.  And the literal meaning of the words that are said are different than what we really intend to say.  This can confuse those in our midst who don’t speak English as their first language, especially if they are very new to it.

We don’t often think about these things that we say, we use them in everyday speech, usually correctly, and we all know what we mean.   When I tell you that “ I am shot” so “I have got to hit the hay”.  (let’s pretend for a minute that I actually talk like that), then you would know I don’t mean that I’ve been shot and to solve that I must now go strike some hay.  You would know that I mean, I’m tired and I need to get to bed, but it may shock a person new to the English language (and my own mother) to hear those phrases if they didn’t know what they really meant.

In England, when you make too big a deal out of something small, you may be told (indirectly of course) “That’s a storm in a teacup”.    In another part of London, you may be getting directions and then be told that Bob is your uncle.  Now in my case I do have an Uncle named Bob but I might wonder what that has to do with getting to my destination.  “Bob’s your Uncle” simply means – and there you go!  Such as “Turn left at the fish and chips place, then right at the very next street.  Soon you’ll see the Thames and then Bob’s your Uncle!, there’s the bridge.”

There are idioms in America that we don’t tend to use in polite society.  I would never give condolences over a friend’s father who “kicked the bucket”, and yet it is true that to kick the bucket means one has died.  In Britain, someone has “popped his clogs”, which seems equally disrespectful.  Even the polite euphemism “passed away” seems… too ethereal, yet we use it to soften the blow.

There are many times that an obvious truth, glaring behavior problem, or any other major problem or a difficult (or controversial) issue that we all know is there, but don’t want to deal with because it seems more comfortable to ignore.  This is ignoring “The Elephant in the room”.  And this happens all the time.  Sometimes for the right reason, sometimes for the wrong.  But know this- the longer the elephant stands there, the more chance of it making an elephant sized mess.

A non-native speaker to any language will have to suffer the indignity of trying to understand the native language’s idioms.   If you are in an Arab country, you may ask the Arab friend to do something for you, and you might be told  “I will do this on my head and my eyes”.  Don’t be alarmed, they only mean they will absolutely do this thing.  Or you may be just talking, trying to learn to know a neighbor and be told that another neighbor “sold them for an onion peel”.  This also is not literal, but means that person threw away their friendship for no good reason.
In Russia, you might like one thing, a friend, another.  You’d perhaps be told something that would translate to something like “On taste and color, are comrades not”, which we would know as a fairly familiar (to us) phrase saying “Each to his own taste

I have enough idioms to cobble dogs with but I’m afraid if I listed them all you’d do a runner, so let’s just remember to help those around us who came from another place or culture, to understand what we mean.   We should think carefully what we say (a good exercise at all times anyway) and say exactly what we mean.