Saturday, December 10, 2011

Humour of Italian Idioms

There is no doubt that the proper use of idioms will render a conversation more colourful and interesting. As the saying goes : “A picture is worth a thousand words”. The picture above represents the sign of the horns (corna), a gesture quite popular among Italians. If you would like to try it you need to extend  the index and the little finger (also called pinky in American English) while keeping the middle and ring fingers, together with your thumb, down into your palm.  Here are the different meanings of “fare le corna” (to make horns):
1.      Superstition, when facing an unfortunate event a nd you like to avoid this fate you would make the sign of the horns, hoping to ward off bad luck.
2.      Infidelity, when the horns are pointed at a person who is being cheated by his wife., thus making him a”Cornuto” (Cuckold in English).
Let’s continue with these metaphorical phrases which add a seasoning of humour to a discourse:”Fortunato come un cane in chiesa”(lucky as a dog in church) which means exactly the opposite (unlucky) because dogs are not allowed in church. The corresponding English expression would be “As poor as a church-mouse”, as there is hardly any food in church.
Italians, with their gestures, jokes and with an alphabet of 21 letters “have created a language that caresses and whines and bellows like no other”, as described by Suzanne Brock. If Italians leave you with the impression that they talk too fast I believe it’s due to the overabundance of vowels which are usually stressed. In fact the Italian language is called “lingua vocalic”(language of vowels). Although some words have more than one meaning it’s really astonishing to find out that the word nipote has six  different meanings:
grandson,   granddaughter, brother’s son,  sister’s son,  brother’s daughter, sister’s daughter. Is that  an easy way to sort them all out?
There is no lack of eccentricities in the Italian language.
To say “It’s out of this world!”the Italians would say “È la fine del mondo!”(It’s the end of the world). An Italian Big Shot”is called “Un pezzo grosso”(a big piece). For us it’s good enough to say”Put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” while the Italians go a little deeper by saying “Mettersi nei panni degli altri”(to put yourself in someone’s clothes). Italians call each other “Testa di rapa,” (turnip head) when they use a polite phrase. To make a compliment to a short person they would say “La botte piccola fa buon vino,”(the small barrel makes good wine). If in a conversation you were to say something very obvious you will be told that “Hai scoperto l’America”, (you've discovered America) which is not too courteous. Italians call each other “Testa di rapa” (turnip head) for (blockhead). We say “Deep down”, an Italian would say “Sotto sotto”, (under under). “Essere come pane e formaggio” (to be like bread and cheese) is not an invitation to lunch as this is used for “To be  hand in glove.”

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

World of Italian Idioms

 Let me enter the world of Italian idioms often accompanied by a complex choreography of gestures such as hand and mouth movements, shrugging of  shoulders, pushes and shoves on your arm while they are talking to you, supposedly  designed to get your attention. The Italian eloquence and exuberance overwhelms me. Italian is a rich and colourful language, but the fact remains that Italians do as much speaking with their hands as they do with their mouths and they often tend to look to the funny side of things.
I don't know why to wish "Good luck" before an event or an exam they say "In bocca al lupo" (into the wolf's mouth), on the other hand we do say "Break a leg". I should mention that  "Crepi il lupo", (May the wolf die) is the usual response given. A ruder version used nowadays is "In culo alla balena"(in the whale's ass) to which they answer "Speriamo che non cachi"(let's hope that it doesn't defecate).
 "Dio li fa, poi li accoppia" (God makes them, then he mates them) said of any couple destined to be together by reason of sheer eccentricities."Sposa bagnata, sposa fortunata" (wet bride, lucky bride), but how would you console a bride when it rains on her wedding day ! No wonder in English we say "Happy the bride the sun shines on.  "Ogni morte di papa" (every death of a pope) is used to indicate rare events, much like the English "Once in a blue moon". The Italians have also another saying related to the deaths of popes "Morto un papa, se ne fa un altro" (one pope dies, they make another, "Life goes on".  Our "Venetian blinds" are called "Persiane" (Persian blinds). Our "Angel cake" in Italy is called "Pan di Spagna" (Spanish bread). While in Nord America we say that "There is honour among thieves", in Italy "Cane non mangia cane" (a dog doesn't eat a dog).                                                                                                                                                                                

Monday, October 24, 2011

Talk of Angels

Sorry for posting so late as I just got back from a European vacation. Here are more curious French phrases which might not sound as playful as one might imagine as in "Houp-là !"or "Oh là là !" which are supposed to compare to our "Whoops-a-daisy." However the French are more skilful in pulling petals off a daisy, as their version of "He loves me, he loves me not"is really filled with high drama "Il maime, un peu, beaucoup, passionnément, à la folie, pas du tout." The French people like angels but some of their phrases don't seem to give a pious impression as "Parler aux anges!"means to "Talk to your-self." "Etre aux anges!"(to be with the angels) is "To be in the seventh heaven" or "To be walking on air!"as you are so ecstatic that you feel as if you could float. There is also a heavenly way to refer to the sexual climax,"Voir les anges!"(to see angels). The French inform us that goats cannot be left in a cabbage patch when they say "Ménager la chèvre et le chou." (to save the goat and the cabbage) that corresponds to the English "To run with the hare and hunt with the hounds". While our English idiom "To pull the rug from under someone"is full of surprise the French expression "Couper l'herbe sous les pieds" (to cut the grass under your feet) lacks wit.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Linguistic Eccentricities

It's well known that the French are proud of their language
and seem to resent when foreigners speak it with an atrocious accent. Think of the French expression "To speak French like a Spanish cow", I suspect that the idea is to insult the Spaniard. I love the sounds of French words even
when their meaning isn't. They call the garbage poubelle
and the skunk mouffette. Some of their sayings are very colourful. The French idiom for "Let's get back to the point (subject) is "Revenons à nos moutons" (let's get back to our sheep), or a more colourful phrase "Accordesz vos violons" for " Get your act toghether."
The French seem to rhyme their sayings more than we do.
Think of À bon chat, bon rat (tit for tat), or Mieux vaut sagesse que richesse (wisdom is worth more than wealth) or Vouloir c'est pouvoir (to wish is to be able) "where there is a will there is a way."
I still can't get over this beautiful phrase Entre chien et loup (between dog and wolf) for the English "Twilight" or "at dusk". This indicates the time of the day when one can't distinguish  between a dog and a wolf.
When a French man feels he's been made "the goat" or "the laughing stock" he says"Etre le dindon de la farce"
( to be the turkey of the farce).  If a French person tells you that you have "un cœur d'artichaut"
 ( an artichoke heart) it means that you fall in love with every pretty face that passes  by, you lover boy!
 Perhaps this explains Mona Lise's  bemused smile. As if  she knew what was coming.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

More Idioms

If you understand every word in a phrase or text and fail to grasp its meaning, chances are that you are having trouble understanding idioms. Be aware that British English and Australian idioms are not part of American English idioms which we use in Canada. I‘m sure many of you realize that computers don’t understand humour or the double sense.

To have a frog in the throat / Avoir un chat dans la gorge / Avere la voce rauca (voix rauque) / Tener carraspera (hoarse voice)

To have other fish to fry / Avoir d’autres chats à fouetter. (to whip, to flog) / Avere altra gatta da pelare / Tener otras liebres (hare) que correr

It’s six of one and half dozen of the other / C’est bonnet blanc et blanc bonnet / (chou vert ou vert chou) / Se non è zuppa è pan bagnato / Olivo y aceituna todo es uno

Once in a blue moon (once in a while) / Tout le 36 du mois / Ogni morte di papa / A la muerte de un obispo

To be dressed to kill (dressed to the nines) / Être sur son trente-et-un (36 en Que)
Être tiré à quatre  épingles / Mettersi (essere) in ghingheri / Vestirse da mozzafiato / (estar) Vestido de veinticinco alfileres (pins) / Ponerse de punta en blanco
Go fly a kite (get lost) / Va te faire cuire un œuf / Vattene a quel paese / Va a freír espárragos

To smell a rat (something’s fishy) / Il y a anguille sous roches (avoir la puce à l’oreille)
Gatta ci cova (hide) (sentire l’odore di bruciato) / Aquí hay gato encerrado (closed in)

You can’t have your cake and eat too / Vouloir le beurre et l’argent du beurre

Non si può avere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca. No puede comer el pan y conservarlo

This is not my cup of tea / Ce n’est pas mon rayon (genre) / Non è pane per i miei denti / No es de mi gusto 

It’s all Greek / C’est de l’algèbre / Non capisco un’acca / Es Chino para mi

Although there is no cabbage harvest festival in France, the French have an obsession with the word chou:
To say “My darling” they say Mon chou;
Mama’s boy: Le chouchou de maman
Daddy’s girl : La chouchotte de papa
Teacher’s pet: Le chouchou du prof 
Brussel sprout: Le chou de Bruxelles 
They also seem to have a fixation for the number 36, as they say:
Voir 36 chandelles  when we  See stars for a strong pain.
We say  Once in a blue moon and they say
Tous le 36 du moisWe say To be dressed to kill or to the nines and they
Etre sur son 36, while in France they use Trent-un.

I like to encourage readers to express their remarks and observations in the comment space provided.
After a summer hiatus I’ll be posting again toward the end of august.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Most Used and Abused Idioms

These entries that you are about to read are quite entertaining and informative as they are the most used and abused expressions in the English language and that are not usually found in ordinary dictionaries. Once we learn the meaning of these metaphorical phrases we can use them for summing up a point or situation or adding a seasoning of humour to a discourse. As reported previously I’ll start with the English version, then the French, Italian and Spanish respectively.

To have a frog in the throat. (being unable to speak or losing the voice)  Avoir un chat dans la gorge / Avere la voce rauca (hoarse voice) / Tener carraspera  (hoarse voice)

To have other fish to fry (other important things to do) / Avoir d’autres chats à fouetter (to whip, to flog) Avere altra gatta da pelare / Tener otras liebres que correr

It’s six of one and half dozen of the other ( two ways of saying the same thing)
C’est bonnet blanc et blanc bonnet (chou vert ou vert chou) / Se non è zuppa è pan bagnato / Olivo y aceituna todo es uno

To go Dutch or Dutch treat or date (when each person pays his/her own expenses) / Faire à l’Anglaise / Fare alla romana / Hacer a la Americana

To take a French leave (to leave without announcing it) / Filer à l’anglaise / Fare all’inglese / Despedirse a la francesa

Go fly a kite or go jump in a lake (go away, leave me alone) / Va te faire cuire un œuf / Vattene a quel paese / Vete a freír espárragos

To smell a rat or Something’s fishy (to suspect that something is wrong) / Il y a anguille (eel) sous roches or Avoir la puce (flea) à l’oreille / Gatta ci cova (hide) or Sentire l’odore di bruciato/  Aquí hay gato encerrado

To kick the bucket (to die) / Casser sa pipe / Tirare la cuoia / Estirar la pata (to stretch  the leg)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Idioms, Idiomes, Idiomi, Idiomas

Idioms are expressions that don’t mean what they appear to mean. The ultimate goal of any language learner is to acquire a large number of the everyday idioms and phrasal verbs of spoken English. Personally I’m always on the lookout for books of idioms to supplement my knowledge.
I should add that my book, Proverbs, Sayings, Clichés…A Multilingual Anthology, is packed with idioms and sayings in English, French, Italian and Spanish. You will notice the similarities and the differences between idioms in these languages. Readers interested in getting a copy at discounted price can contact me at  re. subject  book .
In this article I carefully selected a sampling of widely used idioms.

Eng.  It rains cats and dogs.  
Fr.  Il pleut des hallebardes/ des cordes/ à seaux/ comme vache qui pisse.
        (It’s raining spears/ ropes/ buckets, like a pissing cow.)
It.   Piove a catinelle/ a dirotto.
       ( It’s raining buckets/ violent and unstoppable rain..)
Sp.  Llueve a càntaros.  ( It’s raining in jugfulls or pitchers.)

En.  Once in a blue moon(once in a while)  
Fr.Tout le 36 du mois. (On the 36th day of the month)
 It. Ogni morte di papa. (Whenever a pope dies).                              
Sp. Cada muerte de obispo. (Whenever a bishop dies).   

Eng.  To fly off the handle.  To blow one's top.
         To hit the ceiling.        To see red.
 Fr.   Sortir de ses gonds.  Se fâcher tout rouge. Grimper aux rideaux.
It.    Montare in bestia.  Perdere le staffe.    Andare su tutte le furie.
Sp.   Ponerse como una fiera. Poner el grito en el ciel. Perder los estribos

   Eng.  Get to nitty-gritty (to the point.)   Fr.   Aller droit au but.
   It.   Venire al dunque (sodo).          Sp.   Ir al grano.   Venir a pelo.
    Eng.  To get off scot-free.  To get away with it. 
    Fr.  S'en  tirer à bon  compte.  
    It.   Farla  franca.
    Sp.  Salir impune

     Eng.  To be dressed to kill (to the nines, to the teeth).
     Fr.  Être sur son  trente et un (trente six en Québec).
            Être tiré à quatre épingles.
     It.   Mettersi in ghingheri.
     Sp.  Estar (vestido) de venticinco alfileres.
              Estar (Ponerse) de punta en blanco

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Difficulty of Understanding Idioms

Idioms are expressions that have a meaning different from the literal one. They make the language richer and more colorful. The ability of understanding idioms is essential to comprehend the meaning of what is being communicated. An idiom may seem incomprehensible to someone who is not familiar with the language in which it is spoken. Despite the progress of computers N. Osler, a linguist whom I talked about in my previous article, recognizes the weakness of translation as it can never convey the meaning of idioms, puns and jokes. To prove his point he reports the misunderstanding that happened in 1990 among the delegates of the European Union. Those who read the report on a committee’s work in French judged it very satisfactory, while those who read the English translation believed the project had been a failure.
This difference of opinions was caused by the inadequate translation of the French word “insuffisant”which was translated as “inadequate” instead of “insufficient.”
I couldn’t agree with Osler more as idioms defy direct translation. Think of the expression
 “it rains cats and dogs”its literal translation in any other language would be laughable.
Having lived in Montreal, a vibrant multilingual society, I gradually developed an interest for idioms and sayings of the various languages spoken in the community at large, thus realizing that this frequent and extensive use of idioms is a natural way of speaking for a native speaker of a language. I find that idiomatic expressions are fascinating and their imagery intriguing. Who hasn’t heard these curious”expressions: “to be dressed to the nines”,”to bark up the wrong tree”,”to kick the bucket”, “go fly a kite”, “to be at sixes and sevens”,”to go scot free”,
“to fly off the handle.”
In my  next article I shall compare these idioms and others to French, Italian and Spanish.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Astonishing Prediction: English Will Disappear as a Lingua Franca.

At present English is the most successful language in the history of the world. It’s spoken in every continent, is learned as a second language by schoolchildren. Nicholas Ostler, an English scholar of the rise and fall of languages, makes a surprising prediction in his latest book:
The Last Lingua Franca ”, as English will eventually go the way of Persian, Greek and Latin and over hundreds of years will die out because is not expanding as a mother tongue.
For the last four centuries the dominant world power has been English speaking, but now the global balance of power is shifting. In many countries like Russia, China and Brazil English is not part of the national tradition and is not spoken as a first language. Moreover the increasing power and cheapness of computers, combined with the advances of computer translation and speech recognition, will overcome the incompatibility between languages. Thus, according to Ostler, we are moving toward a more multilingual and diverse future where no one language will replace English.
Other linguists, like David Crystal and Robert McCrum, don’t share this pessimistic view as they think that English will somehow still be used worldwide. Undoubtedly the historical circumstances that led to the decline of other lingua-francas are very different from those in which English finds itself today. Global capitalism, global politics, global media and instant communication will make the disappearance more difficult.
Rest assured that we won't be around if and when this change will come about.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Number of Languages Spoken in the World

Linguists and scholars from all over the world agree that there are 6909 known living languages in our planet. A language is considered living as along as there is at least one person that speaks it as a mother tongue.
However, 80% of the population uses only 83 languages. Here is a table of languages spoken in the world in different geographic areas:

Geo. areas   Spoken Lang.   No. of speakers
Africa                2110           726 453 403
America              993             50  496 321
Asia                   2322         3 622 771 264
Europe                 234        1 553 360 941
Pacific                1250               6 429 788
Total                  6909        5 959 511 717

I should add that half of the world's languages have fewer than 10 speakers. It is estimated that one language dies every two weeks, thus by the end of the 21st century over 50% of the languages spoken will disappear.
473 languages are nearly extinct as only a few elderly speakers are still living in:
Africa  46,  The Americas  182,  Asia  84,  Europe  9,  The Pacific  152.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

New Words Found in the 2010 Oxford English Dictionary

Like all living things the language is in constant flux. The Vietnam war brought us new words such as “defoliate, firefight, friendly fire, search and destroy.”  After Hiroshima and Nagasaki we started using“mushroom cloud, countdown, fireball, chain reaction, fallout, fission, fusion.”The new technology gave us “ATM, Pin number, e-mail.” and lately the progress of computer technology contributed to the creation of  new words. In fact we find a range of widely used  internet-related terms and particularly from social networking. However some language critics say that some neologisms were created as a marketing gimmick, others simply to compete for the title of  “Words of 2009 The Oxford English Dictionary is constantly updating, adding new words. Have you ever defriended or unfriended someone, or organized a tweetup (tweet+meet up),or blown a vuvuzela (musical instrument used at the World Cup in South Africa)? In fact the 2010 Oxford English Dictionary has  more than 2000 of these words, such as texting, sexting, netbook, globalshift,, ecotown, interweb (internet), choice-mom, (a person who chooses to be a single mother),chill pill (pill for relaxing), bromance (non sexual relation between 2 men), refudiate, (for which Sarah Palin was awarded the distinction of coining the 2010 word of the year and that she tried to justify the gaffe by saying:“I pressed an F instead of a P), staycation (a holiday spent in one’s home country), buzzkill (a person or thing that has a depressing effect), cheeseball (lacking taste or style). Let’s hope that in the future newly created words won’t create any controversy.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Countries limiting the use of English words

English vocabulary is expanding at the rate of 8500 words a year. Researchers from Harvard and Google, after scanning five million books, counted 1,022,000 words. Even though vocabulary evolves through exposure to other languages some countries are prohibiting the use of some English words, in order to keep the purity of their language, as they say. Lately Germany’s transport minister enforced a strict ban on the use of 150 words and phrases such as, laptop, ticket, meeting within his ministry.
China is also restricting the use of English words threatening to punish those who violate the decree. In fact TV stations have been told by the government to avoid English acronyms such as NBA, WTO, GDP or CPI  in their programs. Journalists and broadcasters have to provide explanations for unavoidable English abbreviations. Will China succeed where European nations have failed? Will this prohibition prove to be futile and counterproductive? Time will tell.
France, a nation known worldwide for its linguistic pride, has outlawed advertising in English and established a 40% quota of French songs on the radio, as reported by the Christian Science Monitor.