I was in a meeting where we were discussing a proposal to request additional funds from a current donor. We discussed the merits of the proposal and one colleague said, “it’s like shooting monkeys in a barrel.” I immediately formed a mental picture and it was not pretty. I understood that he was not meaning this literally, but did he think it was a good idea or not? On the one hand, if you were intending to shoot monkeys, having them in a barrel would make it easier and it would contain the carnage. On the other hand, putting monkeys in a barrel so that you can shoot them shows that you are lack creativity and courage to carry out what you intend to do. Does he mean we should move forward or not?If English is not your first language you may relate to my story. Even though the majority of my education has been in English, I hold degrees from two American universities, and have been living here since the mid-70s, I feel I am not done learning the intricacies and nuances of American spoken English. Not a week goes by that I don’t think to myself, “Hey, there’s something I’ve not heard before.”
I remember my first English lessons. They were taught by my mom, who knew just enough English to get around. Vocabulary was a matter of memorizing the words that for the things I already knew in Spanish. Grammar involved lots of practice until I could repeat the verb conjugations in my sleep. But, to truly understand and navigate in English, I had to learn the idiomatic expressions that make communications so unique. That takes a long time because there is a seemingly endless list of what I call code.
Each subculture has its own code – a set of idioms that adds another layer of language that we English learners must tackle. The workplace, for example, has its own unique code. One of my favorite episodes of The Office is one where Jim’s boss has asked him to prepare a run-down of his work and present it at a later meeting. Jim does not understand what his boss means by run-down and spends a lot of time trying to get his boss to say what he really wants, without Jim having to ask. My husband and I laughed so hard! We could relate. This comic situation depicted some of the frustration many English learners can experience when we are not familiar with the code. Additionally, we may be reluctant to let the other person know that we don’t understand his or her code for fear of appearing less knowledgeable.
Fortunately, I am not shy about asking people to explain what an expression means. Actually, I rather enjoy it. I realized that a lot of spoken English language requires an inside scoop into the American experience. For this reason some of our newest English learners are missing an essential part of the conversation. And, if we as English learners are not constantly immersed in the culture, we will be chronically behind. For me, the best way to learn is to ask for the meaning. Asking has lead to many interesting conversations about the origins of the idioms, and most people are pleased to explain and amazed to realize that something so logical to them, may not be understood by those around them. This is especially true as diversity improves in the playground, workplace and neighborhood.
I don’t mean to pick on English speakers for the use of idioms. In fact, if I were parachuted into a Latin American country right now, though I speak Spanish fluently, I would not understand many of the idioms and expressions in the Spanish-speaking world. The few I remember are the dichos my mom said to make a point or teach us about morals and values as we were growing up. Dichos are like proverbs and are passed down from generation to generation. I remember my mom used to say: “Ojos que no ven, corazon que no siente,” (Closest English expression: Out of sight, out of mind), “En boca cerrada no entran moscas” (flies don’t enter a shut mouth, or lose lips sink ships) or the most often-used “Dime con quien andas y te dire quien eres” (tell me who your friends are an I’ll tell you who you are). Spanish learners may experience the same frustrations as they try to learn the code.
I encourage you to tune into a conversation on the train or to a news story on television. Pay attention to the number of times the person uses an idiom to make a point. Now pretend that you are an English learner. Though you may understand that it is not a literal meaning, you must take into account context and perhaps know more about the culture, the region or the history to understand. Then, the next time you are with an English learner, explain the meaning of an expression you’re using. They will greatly appreciate it.
Learning English idioms, and their origins, are a casual hobby of mine. Some expressions are quite funny. Others are perplexing.
Here are some of my favorites:
Pink Slip – the first time I heard someone got one of these, I had no idea if it was a good thing or not.
Face the music –It means to admit that there is a problem. What is the connection?
Throw out the baby with the bath water – a common catchphrase in Germany. First used in America to encourage people to end slavery (Wikipedia). Every time someone uses this phrase I picture a happy baby in a tin bath.
To boil the ocean – one of my newest favorites. What a great way to say, this is much bigger and complicated than we can handle.
Drank the Kool-Aid – if you were not around when the Jim Jones mass killings happened, you may not get this reference to brainwashing or being on board with everyone else.
A Watershed moment – it’s amazing how many we have in America.
To be taken behind the woodshed – I had to ask because I had no idea what happened behind a woodshed or why you would go there in the first place, except maybe to smoke a cigarette when you were 10. It’s very similar to having a Coming to Jesus talk – you’re getting a stern talk about something you did or didn’t do.
If you have a favorite idiom or expression, in English or Spanish, please post.