Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

I’m a big fan of the Quote Database at (Not safe for work, may contain strong language and subject matter). The site is a pasteboard for funny quotes taken from online chats on IRC and other instant message chat services. Although some of them are just wonderful in their own right (here, here and here), many of them have to do with language and language related issues.

One example of a quote about language is this one, reproduced here in its entirely:

< %kiwibonga> Je ne donne pas un merde - I don’t give a shit
< %kiwibonga> THAT MAKES NO SENSE
< %kiwibonga> you cannot give a shit to someone
< %kiwibonga> in french
< %kiwibonga> that sounds like “I’m taking a shit in my hands and I’m keeping it for myself”

(For those unfamiliar with the source here, the above quote is referring to the English idiom “I don’t give a shit”, which means, roughly, “I really don’t care” or “I couldn’t care less”.)

This is a wonderful (and humorous) example of the fact that one cannot literally translate some idioms into another language and expect them to retain their meaning.

In many ways, an idiom is a phrase which has cultural meaning independent of the words that make it up. If I say “that’s the way a cookie crumbles” to a politician who just lost an election, I’m not implying that his campaign sat out too long, got stale, and then broke into small pieces when touched. Instead, I expect him to know that I’m saying that such things happen in life, and that I sympathize. There’s nothing in the words per se that carries the meaning, but instead, it’s based in a certain cultural knowledge shared by the two people.

When you start translating these idioms, you end up copying over the words, but the meaning is lost because there’s no shared cultural background. Once that’s lost, one has to read the literal meaning of the words, and thus, “I’m taking a shit in my hands and keeping it for myself”.

This principle isn’t necessarily universal. If I said “A bird in hand is worth one hundred flying” (from Spanish), most people could understand it to mean the same thing as the idiom “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”. “That’s flour from a different sack” (also Spanish), in context, would likely be understood to mean “That’s a whole different story”.

However, in most cases, the meaning of an idiom comes not from the words themselves, but from the originating culture. The moral of this story: When you translate idioms word-for-word, if the snake bites you, there’s no remedy in the pharmacy.

(That, or you’re playing with fire. Either way.)

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