Of idioms and elephants

Posted: May 31, 2013 in writing
Tags: , , ,

Language can be a wonderful thing, as demonstrated for the gazillionth time in this article on the BBC news website. The article explores ten forms of endearment from around the world, from ‘fruit of my heart’ to ‘my flea’.

One of the wonderful things this highlights is the poetic role of idiom in language. I was recently watching an episode of Archer in which a character struggled again and again with translation because the speeches he was translating used American English idioms. Because idioms are culturally specific, their meaning rooted in their native culture and often lost in the depths of history, direct translation turns them into gibberish. But because of those cultural and historical roots, they are highly evocative in the native language.

They also reveal something about the culture they come from. The use of ‘gazelle’ as a term of endearment is rooted in Arabic history and taboos against direct depiction of certain subjects. The use of ‘little elephant’ in Thai connects to religion, history and even national pride. The Chinese ‘diving fish swooping geese’ evokes for me the precision and poetry of the land of Confucius, and is a reminder of the vast cultural differences between China and Europe.

Idioms speak powerfully of their native cultures. If as genre writers we can create idioms for our invented cultures then they can add depth through their poetry and all they imply about their origins, as long as the audience still understands our meaning. We need our idioms to translate.

And now, my little pirate robots, I’m off to write.

  1. This is one of the reasons I particularly enjoy discovering idioms while learning a foreign language. I have, for example, a wonderful little book of Japanese idioms which might amuse you.

  2. PS. Do you remember my favourite episode of “Star Trek” The Next Generation”, where Cpt. Picard conducts diplomatic negotiations with an alien culture whose language is beside entirely on idiom and metaphor?

    • I don’t remember that episode – while I watched a lot of TNG as a kid, individual episodes didn’t really stick in my mind. I think I’ll have to get hold of that one though – the combination of Patrick Stewart and poetic language is impossible to resist.

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