Finger in the nose

It’s interesting how certain phrases catch the popular imagination and almost overnight become clichés, appearing in all sorts of writing. The best of these phrases have the twin benefits that they are both memorable and also immediately communicate the point you are making. The first time you come across them, they may even seem brilliant. The thousandth time, rather less so. Do we really need to “rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic” any more, to imply that we are addressing minor tactical issues while the major strategic issues remain unaddressed? Or rather, we are “ignoring the elephant in the living room.”

I don’t recall exactly when “change” didn’t seem to imply big enough, well, change. So we had to have “sea change” which sounds bigger, even though I’m not sure exactly what a sea change is. It sounds very nautical, and, as the son of a naval officer, I ought to know what it means but I don’t and neither does my father. Wikipedia tells me that it comes from Shakespeare’s Tempest but that hardly explains the recent change in its popularity. Or should I say sea change in its popularity.

It was George Orwell, in Politics and the English Language, an essay that anyone who does any writing should read, who pointed out that most of these clichés are simply ways of avoiding thinking through exactly what we mean.

In Britain, there are a lot of American television shows, so people there get very accustomed to American ways of saying things. The oddest is the way that British people know a lot of American sports terminology used in an everyday sense, without knowing anything about the underlying sports feature that the phrase is meant to conjure up. Some phrases are obvious: “in the ballpark” for example. But British people may well know that something “out of left field” is a surprise, without really knowing where left field is and what might be coming out of it surprisingly. Or know that a “Hail Mary pass” is a last desperate attempt, without ever having seen such a pass on the football field (er, that would be American football to the British, since football is what Americans call soccer). British cricket terminology doesn’t do so well in the opposite direction. Few Americans know what “batting on a sticky wicket” means.

When you get into other countries where English is a foreign language, you need to be very wary of using such imagery. It may simply be unknown even to people who are bilingual, and without sometimes knowing anything about the underlying image being conjured up, not something easy to guess at. I mentioned recently that some Japanese wondered what “low hanging fruit” meant, and guessed at some sort of sexual metaphor. Much better are metaphors that work immediately in any language, like “herding cats.”

When I lived in France, we had great fun translating colloquial phrases word for word from French into English or vice-versa. For example, the French have a phrase “doigt dans le nez” used to imply that something is trivially easy. Literally translated it’s “finger in the nose”, the implication being that it is so easy you could do it with a finger in your nose. I suppose we might say we could do it with one hand behind our backs. Or more fun, we could say it is a “piece of cake” and translate that word for word as a “tranche de gateau.”

So write a blog entry on weird phrases. Finger in the nose!

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