Archive for Idioms

Thoroughly earthy

Because I like the Chinese term tǔ 土 ("earth; soil; dirt; ground; earthy; rustic; colloquial") so much, I was going to add the substance of the remarks below as a comment to the "Fun bun pun" (4/9/17) post, in which we devoted a lot of attention to one of my favorite expressions, "tǔbāozi 土包子" ("earthy steamed stuffed bun", i.e., "country bumpkin, hick, rube, clodhopper, backwoodsman, boor, dolt, yokel").  But the ramifications grew to such large proportions that they merited their own post.

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You're a cow

From David Cragin:

I was exchanging WeChats with a friend and she called me a cow, i.e.,  “Nǐ niú de 你牛的.”  It immediately made me laugh because calling someone a cow isn’t a good way to engender warm feelings in English.  Hā 哈!, but I guessed that in Chinese it must be a compliment.

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Fecal Intensifiers

[This is a guest post by Brendan O'Kane, written on the evening of 3/24/17]

At a friend’s dissertation defense this morning, a certain distinguished Dutch professor emeritus, explaining the appeal of prosimetric vernacular literature to audiences in late imperial Shandong, noted that “people before about 1950 were mostly bored shitless.”

This cracked the room up, naturally, but it also seemed slightly off: in my own idiolect, I might be scared shitless, but not much else. On the other hand, something that scared the shit out of me might bore the shit out of a more jaded spectator, or cause an onlooker with a meaner sense of humor to shit themselves laughing.

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Chicken is down

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Meaning good

Corey Williams, "Donald Trump to visit Detroit Saturday", AP:

For Trump, courting black voters is a challenge. Most polls show his support among black voters is in the low single digits. Many blacks view some of his campaign rhetoric as insulting, and racist.

"Donald Trump does not mean any black people any good," said Crystal Jackson, who has owned the C-Spot barbershop in northwest Detroit for the past seven years.

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Furigana-like glossing in Mandarin

On Language Log, we have often touched upon the use of furigana ruby to gloss kanji (Chinese characters) for various purposes, most recently in the comments to "Roman-letter Mandarin pronoun of indeterminate gender " (8/9/16).

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The love organ of many names

British comedian Richard Herring is the author of a 2003 book entitled Talking Cock: A Celebration of Man and his Manhood, so he naturally seized upon the republicization opportunity provided by the recent story of the world's first successful penis transplant. He made it the topic of his weekly humor column in The Metro, the trashy free newspaper that I sometimes reluctantly peruse in my constant search for linguistic developments that might be of interest to Language Log readers.

In a bravura display of diversity of lexical choice, Herring contrived to use a different euphemism for the anatomical organ every time he could find an excuse for mentioning it, which, believe me, was a lot. And he left me pondering a serious lexicographical question: just how many euphemisms are there for the appendage in question?

[Unusually, this post is restricted to adult males. Please click "Read the rest of this entry" to confirm that you are male and over 18.]

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Moving house with military precision

I just moved house this week. (Had to. Lease unexpectedly terminated on the second day of classes in the new academic year. Gaaahh!) Colleagues and friends keep asking me how it went. I've decided that the right thing to say is: "It all went like a military operation."

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Josh Marshall, "Did Dave Brat Fib About Princeton?", TPM 6/11/2014:

The Post suggests that Brat was trying to give would-be supporters the sense he locked horns with the elites on an Ivy League campus. And if that was the plan or the impression. That's really not right. But picture, I don't think there's much to see here. As a gotcha, it's an extremely weak one.


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My country

Sima (long-term resident in China) from writes:

I've been a regular Sina Weibo [VHM:  PRC clone of Twitter] user for some time and enjoy default news updates on my phone. Each update usually has two stories and, of late, almost invariably, one is about the outing of a corrupt official (cash, apartments, mistresses) and the second is about the latest 'play' over those rocks in the sea near Taiwan.

My latest update says:


[VHM: wǒ hǎi jiān chuán zài rù Diàodǎo jùjué Rìběn kàngyì
literal rendering of each syllable or word:  I / We sea surveillance ship(s) again enter Fishing Island reject Japan protest]

Whilst I'm used to expressions like 我国 [VHM:  wǒguó {"my / our country"}], which I wilfully employ when talking about 'my England', much to some people's disgust, and 我校 [VHM:  wǒxiào {"my / our school"}], which I actually write in articles and official documents relating to the school cricket team [VHM:  in China] (which I may have bored you about at some time), I'm not accustomed to such flexible employment of 我.

Do you know whether this use of 我校, 我国, etc. has a long history (i.e., pre-1949, or pre-1919)? Can 我 be freely applied? Is there a name for this phenomenon?

It reminds me a little of Western attitudes to sports teams; 'we won the world cup', when obviously said cup was won by eleven or so over-paid men who kick balls for a living, and not (usually) by the speaker himself.

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"and/with/on its X"

In "Believed ham", I asked

When did French-language menus start using possessive pronouns, in constructions like et ses/son/sa X "and its/their X", to describe secondary or accompanying ingredients? When did English-language menus start copying this construction? And is it as awkward and odd in French as it is (restaurant tradition aside) in English?

The picture, from a restaurant-reviewing blog, illustrates an "Onglet de black Angus avec ses frites" ("Black Angus hanger steak with its fries"). The only connection that the fries have with the steak is that they're served together — so in what sense are they "its" fries?

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The "off the cuff" mystery

The other day, someone asked me about the origins of the phrase "off the cuff". I've always assumed that it had something to do with the old practice of writing informal notes on men's detachable (and disposable) cuffs. And the OED's entry agrees, glossing it as

off the cuff (as if from notes made on the shirt-cuff) orig. U.S., extempore, on the spur of the moment, unrehearsed

But as far as I know, the practice of wearing detachable (and sometimes disposable) cuffs ended by the time of the first world war or even before, while the OED's earliest citation for this idiom is from 1938:

1938 New York Panorama (Federal Writers' Project, N.Y.) vi. 157   Double talk is created by mixing plausible-sounding gibberish into ordinary conversation, the speaker keeping a straight face or dead pan and enumerating casually or off the cuff.
1941 Time (Air Exp. Ed.) 4 Aug. 1/1   Talking off the cuff to a group of civilian-defense volunteers he made them a little homily.
1944 Penguin New Writing XX. 130   In that scene, shot off the cuff in a shockingly bad light, there leapt out of the screen..something of the real human guts and dignity.
1948 Economist 3 July 17/2   Mr. Truman's off-the-cuff comment.

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Annals of "What!!??"

D.D., who previously contributed some observations on Caribbean "What!!??", sends more:

After a general staff meeting concluded this a.m. at work, I was sitting with a few co-workers and for some reason the conversation turned to 'strange critters' that people of different cultures eat. ('Koreans eat dogs'… 'Some Africans & Chinese eat insects'… etc etc.)

Our workplace is currently being painted/renovated by 3 Caribbean men who have been there for a week or so–one of whom I've had a couple of chats & shared a few jokes with in passing.  Hearing our conversation, that one man (from St. Vincent) stepped away from his painting on the other side of the conference room and addressed me, "Did you ever eat POSSUM?"

I laughed aloud, wondering if he was serious. He seemed to be, so I asked, "Uh… is it good?"  His loud reply, "WHAT!!??" (Read: 'OMG it is friggin' delicious!')

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