English: The language in which you chop a tree down before you chop it up

https://i2.wp.com/www.idiomartandgifts.com/idiom_all/cash-cow.jpgIdioms are for idiots, a wag once said. I’m so grateful not to have to learn English as a second language, I have said—often—because idioms like “I chopped the tree down, then I chopped it up” would make my eyes cross. Ever consider that in English, fighting with someone equates to fighting against him?

Cartoonist Keith Knight occasionally devotes a Sunday strip of “The Knight Life” to ways in which his German-born wife mangles her adopted language. He thinks it’s cute. It is. But I can imagine how tough it must be to figure out “take a chill pill” (“take a freeze tablet”) and “it’s no biggie” (“it’s no Baggie”) when the “correct” terms don’t seem to make any more sense.

This is not a new concept. Way back during the Great Depression, when roads had even more potholes than they do now, the Works Progress Administration built Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, and thank Roosevelt it did. That was the first “parkway.” And while your driveway is mainly for parking—is there room for much else?—imagine if you lived at Downton Abbey. You’d be driving quite a way on it then.

While you’re imagining, picture yourself right off the boat, plane, or whatever it is that brought you from whatever foreign land you came from. You’ve taken a basic English class and think you can manage to reach relatives who will help you settle in. At least you can find food and a restroom (which you’ve been told isn’t just a room to rest in).

In the gift shop, you pick up a package of cocktail napkins. “Be alert! The world needs more lerts,” they read. Puzzled, you put the package back.

You walk outside to a maze of cars, taxis, buses, and traffic lanes. Attempting to cross several of them, you suddenly face a sign: “Do Not Pass.” You stop obediently. A car honks; a couple of people on foot yell at you. What? Now you can go?

You explain to a cabbie where you’re headed and who lives there. “Stop beating around the bush,” he says; “just give me the address.” Who said anything about shrubbery?

On the cab’s radio, people are yakking nonstop. “You really woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning,” someone says. Why would the speaker know that, and what difference would it make?

Finally you reach your destination. The clouds have darkened, and just as you open the door, the skies open. “Gonna rain cats and dogs all night, I hear,” the cabbie grumbles. What a bizarre thing to say! Though there are a couple of dogs on the sidewalk here … maybe he’s on to something?

Boy, is your brain fried!

So many immigrants from so many other countries have brought their languages here that America has evolved to have the most polyglot, mix-and-match language of them all. Our words betray origins the world over, not to mention our idioms. But we’re not the only ones with wacky sayings.

Keith Knight’s wife probably knows the phrase “nicht in jemandes Haut stecken wollen” (not wanting to be stuck in someone else’s skin). He might say instead that he wouldn’t want to be in someone else’s shoes.

Given a small tip, an optimistic Italian waiter might think “tutto fa brodo” (everything makes soup). Here, the translation would be “every little bit helps.”

In China, people speak of the horse that does harm to the herd. In America, they would refer to a bad apple that spoils the bunch.

A Brit once told me he was “keen as mustard” about some idea. Was that good or bad? Good, it turns out: He was quite enthusiastic.

In France, when you are down in the dumps, you have the cockroach. I can see that as a near-literal translation.

And in Japan, if you prefer dumplings to flowers, you want substance, not style. In other words, forget anyone who’s all hat and no cattle, all sizzle and no steak.

Aren’t you glad you learned (American) English first? Before I lose my train of thought, let me tell you the score about idioms. I’m not being tongue in cheek when I say that dealing with these things as a stranger can take its toll. It can really throw you for a loop. Because if you don’t know the idioms of the country you’re in, trust me: You will feel as dumb as a box of hair.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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