Monday, 8 November 2010

Careful with the Chandelier*

I’m only writing this as a delay tactic, so ignore me. When I have a teacher training session to prepare, I arse about interminably before getting down to it. The flat is never cleaner and the cupboards never more orderly. Today, the place gleams. Then again, I tend not to wear my glasses around the house and thus I miss detail. To the clear-sighted, the bathroom may look as if a horse has been stalled in it.

On the twentieth of the month I’m off back to Athens to do a few lesson observations and a couple of teacher training seminars. Last month out there I did a long session on teaching pronunciation. I am so far into my comfort zone with ‘How to Do Phonology’ that it was like teaching in jim-jams and slippers with a snoozing cat on my lap. I asked my friend out there who runs the show what subjects she’d like me to address this time round. ‘You could do something about metaphor and idiom,’ she suggested. I immediately agreed, not because I was bursting with ideas on the topic, but because November 21st seemed a long way off, and I can usually manage to cobble something together eventually, whatever the brief. Now I'm wishing I had iffed and butted a bit, because I am – temporarily, I hope – stumped. It’s not a lack of ideas that’s hobbling me now that I’ve done a bit of reading and thinking on the subject, but how I’m going to turn this into a deftly stage-managed five-hour session involving discussion, discovery and stacks of practical teaching ideas.

The course participants are a sharp and enthusiastic bunch, and their energy put me, who late am fallen to jadedness and grumpery, to shame. They love teaching, and they love finding out more about methodology and language. ‘This,’ said one lady fiercely, in reference to the stuff we did on intonation, ‘is really interesting.’ My initial reaction was something like ‘ ‘tis new to thee’, but then I felt suddenly as pleased and proud as if I were the inventor of English intonation patterns rather than merely the passer-on of stuff I’ve read and observed. Anyway, the Athens group gave me a good kick up the butt and a shot in the arm, and shored up my sagging ego with their feedback. Ευχαριστώ, παιδιά.

What the bloody hell are we going to do about metaphor and figurative language for five hours, then? Well, first off, we tend to think of metaphor as the concern only of writers and poets and them as is bookish, but everyday speech is chock-full of metaphors and figurative language. In the preceding paragraph, I waffled on about 'bursting' with ideas, 'cobbling ideas together', 'kicks up the butt' and 'shots in the arm', all of which might make intermediate learners of English wonder just what the hell we get up to when I sod off to Athens for the odd (probably very odd) week. Every-day metaphors, then, are ten a penny and can be classified. Take ‘argument is war’, for example:

Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked everything I said.
The criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his arguments.
He shot me down in flames.
She marshals her arguments well.

Almost any word that collocates with money will collocate with time, wherefore truly is it said that ‘time is money’:

You’re wasting your time / you’re wasting your money.
This gadget will save you hours / this gadget will save you pounds.
I spent a year in London / I spent a fortune in London.
'Hey, Big Spender, spend a little time with me...'

Then, ‘anger is a hot fluid held under pressure’:

She got all steamed up.
He just exploded!
I blew my top.
I flipped my lid.
She blew up at him.

Up is good and down is bad:

He’s in top condition.
He’s at the peak of his game.
He’s sinking fast.
She's on top of the world.
He’s down in the dumps.
'The only way is up, baby, for you and me now...'
'How can you laugh, when you know I'm down...'

I put it to you, then, ladies and gentlemen, that metaphor is not the icing on the cake of language, but one of the organising principles. You wouldn’t think so from much of the commercially available teaching material, so I am probably going to be chucking into my session another diatribe against the bland literalness of so much of the language presented in EFL course books. If so much of the choice of words in language is dictated by metaphors and imagery shared by members of a given culture, ignorance of those metaphors is going to exclude learners from a hell of a lot of what’s being said. That’s one strand of the session at least, and might take us all of twenty minutes to cover. I have to sort the implications of all this into a coherent five hours both profitable and entertaining. Suggestions welcome, especially from people whose first language uses different similes and metaphors from English. For instance, for English speakers, ‘love is insanity’, and you are crazy about someone, madly in love, delirious with passion, head over heels, absolutely nuts about somebody:

'Im feeling quite insane and young again / And all because I'm mad about the boy'

I have read that in Arabic, though, ‘love is thirst’. Can anyone confirm that or put me right?


I’ve been a collector of figurative and fruity language since I was a kid, and used to piss myself laughing at the way my grandparents talked. (No, no, of course I didn’t really piss myself, this is the bloody point I'm making.) Back in my grandparents’ childhoods in Yorkshire, if someone was especially defensive or sharp of tongue, people would mutter ‘by ‘eck, she’s more edge ner a dozen brokken piss pots, has yond.’ I tried this nice simile out on Spanish colleagues in France back in 1978 and it translated perfectly into Spanish, with no loss of meaning, rhythm or conciseness: ‘más borde que una docena de orinales rotos’ if I remember correctly, where ‘borde’ means literally ‘edge’ and figuratively ‘strop’. I don’t remember if we successfully translated the phrase my grandma always used about her wealthy but miserly allrightnik of a brother when she said that ‘he wun’t part wit reek off ‘is shite’ or the related ‘he wun’t give yert steam off ‘is piss’, but I do remember we tried. If my mum or aunts were sulky as kids, my grandma would accuse them of having ‘a face as long as t’ gas man’s Mac’, which I find much more apt than the more conventional comparison with a fiddle. (The gas man, for those born later into more prosperous circumstances, was the man from the gas board who used to come each week and empty the shillings and half crowns from your pay-as-you-go gas meter. The uniform consisted of a peaked cap and a calf-length macintosh, then a species of raincoat, not a computer.) We describe two good friends in English as ‘thick as thieves’ but for me, it’s not as knapp as the Greek simile that has two such as ‘κώλος και βρακί’ [kólos ke vrakí] ‘arse and knickers’. My grandma’s stock of phrases for characterising her brother also included ‘tight as a mackerel’s arse’, (i.e., water tight) which is quite nice, and I really sniggered over the Greek description of someone either very mean or forced into frugality: ‘κάνει το σκατό του παξιμάδι’ [káni to skató tou paximádi] ‘he makes his turds into rusks.’

The Greek supermarket chain Vassilopoulos has the slogan ‘…και του πουλιού το γάλα!’ [ke tou poulioú to gála] which translates somewhat enigmatically as ‘…and the milk of the bird!’ I discovered there’s a related idiom to do with ‘bird milk’ in Arabic, which I speculate may be the origin of the Greek idiom, slipped in via Turkish**. I leave you to decide what you think it means.


* The post title is a translation of 'σιγά το πολυέλαιο', [siga to polyelaio] a verbal shrug, meaning something like 'big deal'. My thanks to Theialina who put me right. I thought it was a deliberate non-sequitur in response to an apparently pointless remark, and I was basing this on an addled memory of a book of Greek idioms I had back in nineteen ninety-splunge. The real non-sequitur-in-response-to-a-pointless-remark is 'από την πόλη έρχομαι και στην κορυφή κανέλλα' [apo tin poli erchomai kai stin koryfi kanella] 'I'm coming from town with cinnamon on top'. Moral: with foreign languages the same holds as for your post office and the potency of your penis: use it or lose it.

** This sort of speculation gets you into deep dung in Greece, the source, after all, of every language, as many a Greek erroneously believes. The other day I got this comment an old post, Πας μη Έλλην βάρβαρος: ‘You just wish you were Greek. Apart from being a nationality, being Greek means much more than you think.’ No elucidation was forthcoming.


Anonymous said...

Well, "‘…και του πουλιού το γάλα!" reminds me a bit of "scarce as hens' teeth." But if it's going to work as a supermarket slogan, and given that it has that 'and' at the beginning, maybe it means that even things that are as scarce as hens' teeth can be bought there? Or, to put it in other metaphorical terms, they sell everything but the kitchen sink, and also the kitchen sink?

On a totally unrelated note, my first thought on seeing the photo of the chandelier was Hey, I think I know that guy! Meaning the artist who made it, of course. I recently saw a skull-and-crossbones chandelier of his that's hanging in the Escher museum in Den Haag.

Vilges Suola said...

Q, welcome back. I want to see if anyone else gets the meaning before I confirm / reject the suggestions. I'll have to go back to the page where I found the chandelier and see who created it - I just googled 'chandelier' and saw that and, my dear, I just HAD to have it.

Nic kJaworski said...

After staying at me blankly for about 2 minutes(she tends to think very literally), my Turkish wife finally came up with the idiom "Only the bird's milk is missing on this dinner table." which refers to extremely rich people having everything imaginable. In this sense, "they've got everything but the kitchen sink...and the kitchen sink" would be correct. So, it does exist in Turkish although it contains no Arabic loan words, so I can't confirm where the idiom comes from.

Uncutplus said...

Dexter or sinister -- that is did you mean right or left? Maybe you might get an idea or two from my post:

Playing with words, at least in the English languarge, is so much fun! Just tell us what you mean! Well, I mean to tell you. Yes, you are mean.

Have fun with your discussions in Athens.

Michael said...

Just wanted to let you know I'm reading again after an estival break. This post made me chuckle, and made you sound like you have a massive knowledge base, might I add. I enjoyed very much spotting all the examples of metaphorical language interweaving with the content.

And I did a quick Google-search, and found this on Wikipedia: "Crop milk, also known as pigeon's milk or pigeon milk, is a secretion from the lining of the crop of pigeons and doves with which the parents feed their young by regurgitation."

Nature is bizarre.

Vilges Suola said...

Hi Michael, welcome back to the UK. Bet you missed the lashing wind, driving rain and bland food.

I'm almost disappointed to discover that there really is such a thing as bird milk. I just hope that the originators of the Arabic / Greek idioms didn't know that. In Greek. to have 'even the milk of the bird' means to have absolutely everything, be short of nothing, hence its use as a supermarket slogan. In Arabic, or at least in Algeria, if someone offers you a deal that you don't trust, and you say you'll agree to it if the other promises to give you 'the milk of the bird', it means you won't agree under any circumstances.

Sarah said...

I've always liked the example Michael Lewis gives about figures of speech which we all know and seldom use (when did you last hear someone talk about 'raining cats and dogs'?) but which we are able to play around with. His example was Robin Cook as Foreign Secretary talking about intervention in (I think) Bosnia, when an interviewer objected that in opposition he'd been against it. Cook replied 'There's been a lot of blood under the bridge since then.' Now unless you knew about water under the bridge as a metaphor for time passing you wouldn't get it.

Vilges Suola said...

Sarah, good example - thanks! Will use it. Reminded me of how Simon Raven played with the same metaphor in an interview when he described his past relationships as 'all spermatozoa under the bridge now'.

Re 'cats and dogs' - never met an intermediate + learner who dodn't know the expression and never met a native speaker who uses it.

Mediterranean kiwi said...

it's always a risk relating greek customs, language, food etc to turkey, but that's what politics have done to the greek spirit - we have become a very suspicious race...

Vilges Suola said...

Become? I would have said suspicion was a defining characteristic! It drives me nuts when Greek friends insist that Greece has to be the ORIGIN of everything, as though to be influenced were somehow degrading. I once pointed out to a Greek friend how similar names of fish, herbs and vegetables often are in Turkish, Modern Greek and Albanian. This suggested a Turkish origin because of the Ottoman occupation of both countries, but she was having none of that. 'We were eating banquets when they were chewing bones!' All very tedious, if you ask me.


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