This lovely list of foreign idioms did the rounds in the office this week.
Every culture in the world has idioms, some of which translate almost literally into English.
In Swedish, if something has fallen through the cracks, they say det föll mellan stolarna (‘it fell between chairs’). And in German, someone lacking in subtlety is like ein Elefant in einem Porzellangeschäft (‘an elephant in a…’ you can probably guess the rest).
But as that list shows, an awful lot don’t.
In Russia, people don’t pull your leg, they hang noodles on your ears. In Thailand, if two people know each other’s secrets, the hen sees the snake’s feet and the snake sees the hen’s breasts. And if you take the fall for something in Portugal, you pay the duck.
(If you write for an audience who aren’t all native speakers, you might be told to steer clear of idioms for their sake – which is fair enough. But you risk losing a lot of personality when you strip them out. So make sure you think about how you can add that back in some other way.)
Aside from making trouble for foreigners, idioms also tell us something interesting about the way we use language.
The fact that they’re so common around the world suggests they’re crucial to how we communicate. (Our pal Steven Pinker says we know as many idioms as we do common words in his book The Stuff Of Thought.)
But isn’t that odd, when the definition of an idiom is ‘a phrase whose meaning isn’t clear from the words in it’? Why do we spend so much time using language deliberately designed to be illogical?
Because the way we communicate doesn’t rest just on logic. If you want to persuade, cajole, encourage or inspire someone, reason alone won’t cut it. We’re illogical beings. Idioms add flavour – they conjure images and evoke emotion, and connect with people in a way that plain speaking doesn’t.
If you want to convey someone’s depth of feeling, do you say they reacted angrily, or that they hit the roof?
Is it more evocative to say something’s early in the morning, or at the crack of dawn?
We use idioms all the time precisely because they’re rich in imagery, and we instinctively know they connect with people on an emotional level. And as we’ve said all along: if you don’t do that with your words, you’re combing the giraffe*.
*French for wasting your time.
To get serious for a moment, it’s Holocaust Memorial Day. The event has extra resonance this year. It’s 70 years since Soviet soldiers liberated Auschwitz. And there’s fresh alarm over anti-semitism in the wake of the Paris supermarket shootings.
One thing that anyone interested in the Holocaust soon runs into is the role of language. It paved the way to destruction, and oiled its machinery. The hate-filled, unsophisticated language of the Nazis’ propaganda. The bureaucratic language of laws that lent an orderliness to the prejudice (a strangely high number of senior Nazis were law graduates). The cynical, duplicitous language that helped strip Jews of their belongings, businesses and rights.
And finally, when it came to killing, the euphemistic language used by the people involved. First in quasi-clinical environments where they honed their methods on the mentally ill and disabled. Then in the logistical, scientific, industrial system they created to murder millions.
Removal, resettlement, evacuation, transport ‘to the east’, special treatment, disinfection. Words and phrases that meant something, yet obscured meaning. The people involved used them for various reasons. To lend their work a twisted propriety; to dress it up as duty and necessity. To shroud it in secrecy as well as to hoodwink the victims (though by the end of the war, no one was under any illusions). And to insulate themselves from the deed itself.
Why think about all this? Language is powerful. It can be liberating, positive, inspiring. And it can be the opposite. It just depends who’s using it.
I was on a crowded train last week. Opposite me was one of those inconsiderate people who won’t move their stuff to give everyone more room. ‘I bet you’re a banker, aren’t you?’ blurted a fellow passenger.
Oh dear. Can banks fix the fact they’re now a go-to metaphor for the worst of humankind?
We think so.
They’re always talking about ‘regaining the public’s trust’. Which is admirable. But trust is an abstract concept. We think all too often they’re missing something that’s right under their noses. So, it seems, do the regulators.
Only this week the financial services rulemakers ticked banks off for making simple information about savings accounts hard to make sense of (and hard to find). They said banks should help us check how our savings accounts measure up by giving us ‘clearer, more timely information’.
What kind of people do you trust? I know I’m more likely to trust a car mechanic or a plumber who explains things carefully, who helps me understand.
Banks could turn things around just by getting better at doing that.
They should. And they should do more to explain all their products and services clearly. If I really get what an offset mortgage is, I’ll feel better about choosing one. If I can read Ts and Cs without scratching my head, I’ll know where I stand. If there are clear choices, I’ll be more confident about my decisions.
We’ve seen clients really improve relationships with customers by making everything they write easy to understand. From letters and emails to brochures and websites. By being crystal clear even about the downsides.
We all know that trust is earned. Banks will be better at earning it by steadily and thoroughly making everything they say as clear and simple as possible.
Then maybe ‘banker’ will stop being a dirty word.
We’re sad to say our colleague Lisa Plumbridge died early in the New Year.
She was a project manager at The Writer in London, though she’d been off work with cancer for most of the last three years. She spent her last few days surrounded by a small army of family and friends.
A big gang of Writer people, past and present, went to her funeral earlier this week, and it was great to hear her closest friends describe her in exactly the same way that we would here: very funny; determined to the point of stubborn; really brave. And pouting in every picture, like the one above, where’s she’s holding her favourite word.
Our hearts go out to everyone who was close to her. And of course, we’ll miss her loads as both a colleague and a friend of ours. She was brilliant to have around; we’re just sorry it wasn’t for longer.
I was hanging out with some lawyers in Detroit a couple of weeks ago (I know, what will Glen Hoddle think I’ve done in a past life?).
I asked them what makes a good bit of legal writing. And somewhat surprisingly, they said all the things I’d want them to say: clear, concise, even warm.
They’re right, of course (there’s evidence that less formal English is even more likely to persuade judges). Yet it’s not what most of us see from most lawyers.
Lawyers are faced with an extreme version of a task that most of us face in our writing, which is getting people to do what we want. And in real life most of us know that takes not just the intelligence to construct a watertight clause, but the emotional intelligence to persuade someone you’re not trying to screw them over.
Our client Jos Sclater, general counsel at GKN, made the point beautifully:
‘I’m trying to get my legal team not to think of contracts as just legal documents. They’re not. They’re often the first expression of the sort of relationship you want with your supplier or customer. So if that document is complicated and defensive, it suggests that’s what your company’s like, too.’
That’s why in Blink, Malcolm Gladwell points out that doctors in the US with good bedside manners get sued less than their colder counterparts (even when they make mistakes!). We just can’t switch off that human bit of our brain.
(Oh, and if you deal in legal writing that needs a dash of human, come along to our Letters of the Law workshop.)