Sunday, July 8, 2012

Noctuās Athēnās ferre

I enjoy the different ways that various cultures and languages say similar things in regards to idioms.
One of my favourites is the German “Mann muss mit den Wölfen heulen,” which literally means, “one must howl with the wolves,” but the equivalent idiom in English is “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

The Latin quotation above, literally means “To carry owls to Athens.”  Because Athens had lots of owls and the owl is also a bird sacred to the goddess Athena (for whom Athens is named), carrying owls to Athens would be as silly as carrying coals to Newcastle (which is the port from where coal was shipped to other parts of England).
In French “J’ai un chat a la gorge” (I have a cat in the throat) is equivalent the English “to I have a frog in my throat.” Neither of these idioms makes much rational sense, though apparently the latter comes from how croaky we can sound when we have a cold or obstruction in the throat.

My Dictionary of Idioms says, through the centuries idioms have nearly always been looked down on. In the eighteenth century, Addison warned against their use in poetry and in the seventeenth Dr. Johnson had laboured  in his dictionary to ‘refine our language to grammatical purity and to clear it from colloquial barbarisms, licentious idioms and irregular combinations.’ There is not much charity for the humble idiom there.
So who comes up with these things I wonder. Idioms can be as imaginative as poetry and yet become clichés when overused.  It seems that a lot of our English idioms originate in the Bible. For example, ‘salt of the earth’, and to ‘separate the sheep from the goats’. Others appear in Shakespeare, such as ‘in the mind`s eye’ and ‘the time is out of join’t; he may have made these up himself, and also used popular colloquial expressions of his day. Some idioms seem to spring up from daily life or work – ‘teaching your grandmother to suck eggs, having too many irons in the fire, trimming one`s sails’,  while others originate with people (‘keeping up with the Joneses’, from a comic strip of the same name) or events (‘to meet one`s Waterloo’, referring to Napoleon’s defeat there) . Although some idioms are quite different in other languages, others have come to us from other countries. For example, ‘to be in a pickle’ comes from a Dutch expression ‘to sit in the pickle’.

However idioms begin, in my opinion, they add to the colour and richness of the language.

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