I only understand train station
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.
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.