The Idiomatic Idiosyncrasies of Place
In Germany, to be drunk is “to be full of stars and hail.”
French teachers urge their students to “seize the moon by the teeth.”
In Russia, the concept “never” calls crustaceans to mind: “when the crayfish sings on the mountain.”
As peculiar as those expressions may seem, many of ours are equally strange. Who knew that dust could be bitten, or words minced? Secrets are analogous to cats in bags. Guns can be jumped, and kicking buckets is lethal.
While foreign expressions can be startling, our local idioms are so hackneyed that we forget how weird they really are. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “idiom” as “a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from the meanings of the individual words.” Etymologically speaking, idioms are not too bright. The words idiom and idiot stem from the same Greek root: “idios,” meaning “one’s own.” Idioms, in other words, are a rare case in which nonsense is common sense. And the nonsense can get pretty outrageous:
“Like fingernail and dirt” – well-suited, Mexico
“Ant milker” – a miser, Syria
“Squeezer of limes” – a self-invited guest, India
“Onions should grow in your navel” – a mild insult, Israel
“Belch smoke from seven orifices of the head” – to be furious, China
“Reheating cabbage” – to rekindle an old flame, Italy
“When snakes wore vests” – very long ago, Spain
How did these phrases find their way into language? Why do we use absurd—and sometimes poetic—images to convey ordinary concepts? Most models of language development—while they explain the underpinnings of syntax—shed little light on our use of idioms. These curious expressions fall less into linguistics than into the realm of metaphor. Idioms are unions of language and landscape, so their meanings dissolve beyond their local contexts. Although their origins may remain opaque, idioms offer a unique taste of their respective cultures. Most Chinese idioms, for instance, are abstract and intense, while Spanish idioms evoke the whimsy of magical realism. Though some of these expressions don’t appear to be firmly rooted in specific places, many do reflect their home nations and cultures. Practically, they serve as vehicles for acclimating to a new language, and windows into the eccentricities of place.