Books: More fun than a barrel of monkies
“I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears and other Intriguing Idioms from Around the World,” by Jag Bhalla. Drawings by Julia Suits. 2009. National Geographic Society. 266 pp. $12.95.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
As Jeff Goldblum says in “The Big Chill,” “I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations.”
I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three pithy idioms.
And the English language (both American and English English) hasn’t cornered the market on phrases that can appear to be absolute gibberish to the uninformed.
So, “I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears” really caught my eye. The book, I mean, not the noodles.
What does that phrase mean? That’s how the Russians say, “I’m not pulling your leg.” I like the noodle idea better.
Author Jag Bhalla, who calls himself an amateur idiomologist, triviologist, natural scientist and author, has nonetheless read a boat load of books about words, their origins, their usage. And he’s spent a month of Sundays or, in Yiddish, “a year and a Wednesday,” delving into obscure scholarly articles. So while he drops idioms like a dog sheds in summer (oops, simile), he can often explain how they came into use or even why other countries see and express things differently.
I will attempt to “seize the moon by the teeth” (French for try the impossible) and give a few examples of why a dip into this book is so refreshing.
He writes, “One way to think of some idioms is that they are fossilized metaphors.” Once upon a time, the words made sense. Letting the cat out of the bag refers to a a common 16th-century market fraud ó a cat in a bag, rather than a piglet, cats being more numerous and likely to be wandering through the marketplace.
Bhalla divides the book into chapters of loosely related material, such as “The Language of Love,” “Numbers,” “Colors” and “Time.”
You can stop off at any chapter and find something amusing, a big plus for a summertime book.
In “The Language of Love,” for example, Hindi produces quite a few expressive examples: “A pigeon fancier” is a lady’s man, while “having seven husbands” describes a loose woman. You might be more attracted to “a wild gourd,” a worthless but beautiful person.
Once you’ve tied the knot, you might find yourself with “fruit of heaven” (Hindi again), offspring. Just be careful not to fall in love with “seventh water on a starchy jelly,” in Russian, a kissing cousin. But it’s all right to be “on a short leg” with them ó Russian for “on friendly terms.”
OK, let’s move on to … colors!
We may see red, but the French have a blue fury.
And the colors we choose to describe off-color material change, too.
Our blue movie is a red movie in Italy. In Spanish, it’s green. If you’re feeling blue, you might want to fly to Spain and “make blue,” take the day off. Don’t take any “blue haze” in Germany (rubbish) or you might “grind the black” in France (be depressed).
And please, do not get caught whining in Japan, or you’ll be “vomiting the sound of weakness.” Now that paints a scary picture. Go back to Germany and you will “feel poodle-well,” on top of the world. I just can’t picture Leonardo DiCaprio shouting “I feel poodle-well” from the stern of that ship.
I believe I will start telling people to “stop climbing on my head,” annoying me, from Arabic or “don’t twist my head” (Yiddish) or not to “pierce my eye,” (Hindi). Ouch.
All of that might make “smoke belch from the seven openings on the head,” have me fuming, in Chinese.
If I feel the need to toss some insults, I can tell someone “onions should grow from your navel,” from Yiddish, or tell them to “go fry asparagus,” go fly a kite in Spanish.
Spanish is interesting, as speakers in different countries have customized the language.
In Puerto Rico, I wouldn’t invite a “big avocado” (party pooper) to my barbecue. If you crash my party you might “take your tomato,” get what you deserve, in Venezuela.
Bhalla can get a little bit scientific in his explanations of why we make up idioms and what part of our brains are working on it, but the casual reader can just enjoy the odd turns of phrase. The serious studier can look it all up using his bibliography.
Until then, I wish you “to be happy as castanets,” (Spanish); “to hang heaven full of violins,” (German), be ecstatic, and to have “a face full of spring air,” (Chinese), radiant with happiness.
Contact Deirdre Parker Smith at 704-797-4252 or email@example.com.