Monday, March 26, 2007

On learning idioms

I’ve come across some very useful vocabulary in the past few weeks. Well, it should be useful; the only problem is that I can't find any use for some of it. I guess this is due to the fact that I do not really understand the meaning of, or the idea behind, certain phrases, words or idioms; otherwise I am sure I would be deliriously happy about the fact that I am enriching my vocabulary as well as my imagination.

It is not easy to speak a foreign language well. Every nation has shaped its language psyche according to their specific customs and distinct cultures, and sometimes, these customs were and still are extremely different from nation to nation. I guess that’s why, being a non-native speaker of English, I sometimes can’t find a logical explanation to English idioms.

I’ve always found it amusing to compare the idioms of different nations. In my language, which is Slovenian by the way, when someone is very healthy we say that they are healthy as a fish. In Spain they are healthy as bulls, in France as horses and in Germany they are not healthy as animals at all.

The first time someone told me I was pulling their leg, I thought that meant I was offending them and not that they thought I was fooling them. What does pulling a leg have to do with fooling someone? I thought that the way idioms were created was that there was some sort of an everyday thing exaggerated but that there is always at least a little bit of a literal meaning in it... Anyway, I thought they were pulling my leg when they told me what that idiom meant. What a silly idiom, I thought. But then it occurred to me that in my language we pull each other’s noses, which is even sillier!

And then there are those big differences in using nouns and prepositions in idioms. In my language I usually ‘remember things on mind’. Nobody would understand me in English if I tried to explain that they had to remember something utterly important ‘on mind’. They take things far more seriously than that. They remember things ‘by heart’, which is one of the central organs mythically, romantically and of course physically for human beings.

Some idioms can, luckily, be interpreted logically, for example, ‘to vent the spleen’. We have the verb ‘to vent’, which means ‘to release’, or ‘to give expression to’. Then we have the noun ‘spleen’, which is ‘anger’, ‘melancholy’, or ‘bad spirit’. So, basically, I do not have any spleen to vent now because this idiom is so easy to crack. It means to express the anger or bad spirits; or to get all that troubles you out of your system. Hey, that’s another idiom. This idiom business is actually duck soup for me. I am a genius. Now I am just tooting my own horn.

Anyway, there are some idioms that do not give away their meaning simply by a translation of the individual words. Rather, one has to grasp the idea behind them, for example, ‘to beat a dead horse’. We know what ‘to beat’ means, and we know what ‘a horse’ is. But why would someone beat a horse that is already dead? (Why would anyone beat any horse!?) Precisely in that question lies the answer. It is ridiculous to try to do something all over again when it is already done. Therefore, someone who is beating a dead horse is doing something, or saying something that has already been done or discussed and there is no need to say or do it again. There is no need to bore others by saying or doing it again.

However logical or easy some idioms are to interpret, there are more complex ones that are not so easy to crack. Sometimes they are impossible to understand, and in a lot of cases, one cannot find an alternative for them in one's own language or culture. One example is ‘to have an axe to grind’. On first glance you might think it means ’to sharpen the axe’. An axe is a tool which is used for chopping or cutting and is sharp. If we need to sharpen a tool, symbolically, this would mean that we need to be more decisive or sharp in our actions or decisions. But that is not what this idiom means at all. To be honest, I do not understand it. And I feel now as if my ‘idiomatic’ communication in English will never progress. I have surely reached the end of my tether.


  1. I really like reading your blog and the pictures.... they are amazing.

    It´s a nice idea to compare the idioms in different languages and cultures- very informative!!!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this blog (which I found in a totally random way!).
    By the way, I'm Italian and we also say "healthy as a fish" and we also say "remember things by memory" :o)