Idiomatically Yours

Recently, I wrote and submitted to my writing group a short story that included the phrase “gift horse.” The paragraph in which I used the old cliche ended up looking like this:

This house was a gift horse. She needed to stop counting teeth.

After my group critiqued the story, I decided to call it “Counting Teeth.” I do think that that title applies thematically. But I also named the story after the idiom because that darn gift horse became a miniature obsession. My use of the phrase began as a mistake, became part of my English-language education, and then inspired a dilettante-ish exploration of foreign-language idioms.

It’s a little embarrassing to admit this, but I bet similar things have happened to other people: Before I looked up the cliche to verify its origins, I had a very different idea of what it meant, basically picturing a horse that would ride into town bearing gifts on its back, rather than a horse that was a gift. (Did you guys know the root of this expression? Was this a silly linguistic oversight on my part, or is the correct usage of the phrase maybe not quite common knowledge?) Anyway, originally, in the first draft of the story, I had the relevant paragraph as follows:

This house was a gift, Christian her gift horse.

I had a very clear idea in my head of what the idiom meant–as you can see, it was waaay wrong. As I was rereading my draft to submit, my brain tripped over this line. Seeing it written down, it didn’t make sense. If a “gift horse” was something that brought a gift to you, what exactly did looking it in the mouth have to do with getting the present? Was it some kind of indication of aggression? Are horses known for being aggressive? I realized through this crazy set of mental questions that there was a hole in my education.

Sometimes I find these holes and shrug them off. For example. For years, I didn’t quite understand how to use an apostrophe in a possessive where the owner’s name ended in an S (e.g. Jesus’s disciples). When those situations came up, I would just rewrite the sentence in a different way to avoid using that grammar pattern (e.g. the guys who followed Jesus around). Talk about intellectual laziness. In the end, this created a lot more work for me, and also made me constantly nervous. Who knew when I might be asked what the correct usage was?! Then my ignorance would be revealed, and I would be branded a Grammar Poser.

So for the short story submission, I looked up the cliche. After all, I also needed to know that it would be a cliche that a German might use (my characters were German). Otherwise I shouldn’t have it in my story at all. From, I learned that looking a gift horse in the mouth implied that the recipient was counting teeth, as one would do when buying or trading a horse to see a) how old the horse was, and b) how healthily it had been kept. So it actually applied to trying to ascertain the value of a gift, not blatantly eschewing a gift in an ill-advised fit of ungratefulness. The difference may be subtle, but for me, seeing the etymology of the
phrase made a big difference in nuance. Because, in fact, it seems to me that looking a gift horse in the mouth is not such a bad thing after all–why shouldn’t one know the full value of a gift? Doesn’t it help one gauge what the gift meant to the giver? Furthermore, a gift like a horse could actually prove to cost the recipient money and hardship if it wasn’t healthy (or, more generally speaking, a large gift might hurt its recipient if it were not of the value it seemed to be). We may be inclined to think of gifts as no strings attached, but in the case of a horse–or a house–that is hardly the case. For my character, it applied. It looked like she had been given a beautiful house, but the cost of keeping the house and her family together was very high. She was right to have counted teeth, to have tried to prepare for what would come. Wikipedia also informed me that the phrase (or its rough equivalent) is used in many languages, including German and Icelandic. So I was clear. Not to mention the fact that if I hadn’t looked it up I’d have used it totally incorrectly.

The interesting thing about idioms is how similar or even identical sentiments can pop up as echoing cliches all over the world–sometimes under the aegis of globalization, or sometimes, etymologists think, organically, like the way scientists now think noodles were such a great idea they co-evolved contemporarily in China AND Italy. Some cliches are just a really great idea.

For example, we have a very nice and very telling little expression in English: “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” When I was studying Japanese with a language exchange partner, I tried putting this one into Japanese a hundred different ways–no matter what I said, though, she couldn’t make heads or tails of the meaning (hmm, “heads or tails”–wonder where that expression comes from?). My friend Alexis, who also studies Japanese, suggested a Japanese alternative: Kaero no ko mo kaeru, or “the child of a frog is a frog.”(Isn’t that pure awesome? I wish I could use it in English.)

There’s also Juu nin to iro, “ten people, ten colors” (to each his own); Isseki nichoo, or “one stone, two birds”; Neko ni koban, or “gold coins to a cat” (pearls before swine–I’m particularly fond of this one because I also know the Chinese equivalent: dui niu tan qin, or “play lute to a cow”).

Sometimes, on the other hand, cliches may make use of the same content in two separate cultures, but take the lesson in wildly different directions. For example, in English we may accuse someone of making mountains out of molehills. In Japan, however, the same phrase turns cautionary: Chiri wo tsumoreba yama to naru means “if dust collects, it becomes a mountain.” When I offered my English idiom, my language exchange partner proffered hers as a match; it was only later that I realized it really wasn’t a match at all.

Similarly, deru kugi wa utareru, or “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” sounds an awful lot like “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” but in fact takes the opposite moral line. In English, we try to draw attention to ourselves for our own benefit; in Japanese, one does what one can not to stick out, lest one get smashed down.

And sometimes, idioms are totally alien to a culture. For example, in Japanese one might have a “cat tongue” (neko no shita)–one doesn’t like overly hot, cold, or spicy foods or drinks. When I first heard the expression, I knew the meaning instantly, although we have no English equivalent. (Don’t you just picture a cat sticking the tiniest tip of its tongue into your soup, deciding it’s not meant to be, and flouncing off?) One of my (non-Japanese-speaking) friends likes it so much she uses it all the time (in fact, she’s probably reading this now and will identify her cat-tongued self in the comments).

Similarly, I translated one idiom that is currently of great use to me: “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” Or at least, I did the best translation I could, which was more along the lines of, “If milk is free, no one wants to buy a cow” (Gyuunyuu wa tada dattara, dare mo ushi wo kawanai). My Japanese partner understood the gist of it immediately–she thought it was hilarious, although my great aunt does not find the concept hilarious at all. But after two weeks of ruminating, my Japanese partner confessed she could think of no Japanese match, or even something you could substitute. Maybe, though, she’ll go back to Japan and spread it around. Wouldn’t that be great?

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14 Responses to Idiomatically Yours

  1. Simon Hay says:

    “The child of a frog is a frog!” I’m using that from now on. When I’m on TED watch out for that baby. That’s gold!

  2. Ooooh, so many interesting expressions in this post! I agree, idioms are great. Like verbal and cultural Lego.

  3. Karen says:

    Errr, umm, wellllll. “Counting teeth” is only a smidgen correct. A horsewoman would generally use the shape and slanting of an adult horse’s teeth in order to guess its age. Most of the teeth that are easily visible (the ones just under the lips; as in, the teeth you see when Mr. Ed talks) grow in pretty early in life, and counting them would not tell you much about the horse’s age. And since the expression calls the animal a horse and not a foal/weanling/yearling/filly/colt, etc, the assumption is that it’s already an adult.

    If you’d been in 4H or Pony Club as a kid, you would have studied a diagram similar to this one:

    /horse nerdery

  4. Briony says:

    Ricky Gervais did a podcast with the producer of his old radio show in England (who wasn’t the shiniest coin in the fountain) and asked him to explain some idioms. For example, “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” became “People who live in a glass house have to answer the door”.

    My absolute favourite is “You don’t have to do it straight away, but just do it before it gets really bad.” That’s way better than “A stitch in time saves nine.”

  5. JES says:

    Laughing now at Briony’s “not the shiniest coin in the fountain.” Which sort of depends on one cultural context, possibly two, for its effect: It helps, first, to know that “not the ____est something in the something” construction is used a lot, so when you hear a new one — as Briony’s was to me — you sort of add a sense of delight (“I found something new!”) to the humor of the observation. The second, subtler context, may allude to the old, wistful pop song “Three Coins in the Fountain” — which would add a sort of melancholy cast to the comment about Gervais’s* producer. It’s possible to be too sensitive to this sort of nuance.

    I can’t remember the details, but I once read an essay (I think?) about a machine-translation experiment. It started with the phrase “One man’s meat is another man’s poison” and ran it through several translations into other languages, then translating the end result back into English. Incomprehensible, nothing. It was hideous, almost nausea-making.

    * Ha — note show-off possessive. 🙂

    • You’re quick with the apostrophe there, JES!

      Because of your comment, I found There was another really funny one that was specifically Japanese, although right now before work I can’t seem to find it. It just translated your phrase into Japanese, then back into English, then back in Japanese, etc–maybe 14 times or something. You often ended with something quite different than you started with.

  6. cindy says:

    great post. i had to ask about the gift horse
    idiom too. there are many american (or english?)
    ones that make no sense to me.

  7. Curt and I had to look up pearls before swine. We didn’t have it quite right.

    Getting back to the apple and the frog, it seems like those two phrases are actually a bit different. In our apple expression, the agency is with the apple/child and the phrase seems to criticize the child for willfully falling so close to/being like the tree/parent. But in the frog expression, the criticism seems to be with the parent/frog, ie if your parents are stupid, you’ll be stupid too. There’s no sense of choice with this version.

    Anyone else have an opinion on that?

  8. Tulsa says:

    Absolutely brilliant! I have been wanting to talk about Japanese idioms and how the meanings may change as time goes by…

    IF I ever get around to doing it I will refer to your blog again (if you don’t mind):-)

    BUT who am I kidding?! I have hardly been a good twitter and my blogging is getting worse! In times like this, I want to: anata no “tsume no aka wo senjite nomitai” (drink the dirt of your fingernails)

    FYI for those who are thinking “eeeeewwww”…it means to “follow in the footsteps of someone you admire/look up to”!

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