MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
Here at NPR, we like to tell it like it is. We try not to skirt the issues. We know we'll get an earful if we let you listeners down. If you're scratching your head trying to figure out where I'm going with this, here's the bottom line - I've laid my hands on a new book of idioms compiled by Jag Bhalla, and he's here with me in the studio. Welcome to the program.
Mr. JAG BHALLA (Author, "I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears"): Oh, thanks, Melissa. It's my great pleasure. In fact, I'm a little bit excited about it, and as the Chinese might say, I have dancing eyebrows.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BLOCK: You have dancing eyebrows. Okay. Well, we should explain, as you might have gotten a hint there, that these are idioms from other languages presented in English. And the title of your book comes from an idiom from Russia. Here it is in Russian.
Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking Russian)
BLOCK: Which means?
Mr. BHALLA: It means, I'm not hanging noodles on your ears, which means I'm not pulling your leg.
BLOCK: I'm not hanging noodles on your ears, which is such a great expression. Do you know where that comes from?
Mr. BHALLA: I actually don't know the etymological roots of that. I had a decision early on in the book as whether or not to go into a lot of detail on etymology, and it turns out etymology is quite contentious.
BLOCK: It is. The title of your book, weren't you curious? Didn't you want to ask some Russians, why do you say that?
Mr. BHALLA: Actually, and this is a very interesting point about idioms, is that often Russian speakers don't know why. And some of the roots of our expressions, idioms of this sort are buried deep in cultural history.
I do mention one example: to let the cat out of the bag is from a 16th-century practice of substituting instead of a pig, which is what most people were going to market to buy, substituting a cat literally in a bag. And if you didn't open the bag before you left the market, it would be too late to complain later. So, however, most modern English speakers have no idea that that's why we let the cat out of the bag.
BLOCK: Yeah. Where does the word idiom come from?
Mr. BHALLA: Actually, it has the same root as the word idiosyncratic. It's Greek, idios, and what it means is private or of one's own. And an idiom is an expression which has a meaning that is to some degree private. The technical definition of an idiom is a group of words always used together, where the meaning of the expression is not clear from the words in it.
A wonderful example from English would be, you know, he kicked the bucket. Unless you're an English speaker and you know that that means that somebody died, there's no way you could figure that out.
BLOCK: Let's talk for a moment about salt, which pops up throughout some of these idioms. In English we have the expression, we take it with a grain of salt, meaning we don't necessarily believe it. In Russian, to welcome someone warmly, there's the idiom, to meet with bread and salt.
Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking Russian)
BLOCK: And in Spanish, if you are salted…
Unidentified Woman: (Speaking Spanish)
BLOCK: It means to be unlucky.
Mr. BHALLA: Salt does pop up everywhere, and it is kind of essential to a lot of different things about the way we live. In Arabic, you can actually accept a dinner invitation by saying, yes, I will take salt with you.
BLOCK: You know, we should say here that when we asked some of our colleagues to record these idioms in their native languages, a lot of them looked at these and said, I've never heard that before.
Mr. BHALLA: Sure. I've encountered that a lot now in talking to people about the book. You know, I've relied on dictionaries as sources of these idioms, and in dictionaries, you will find all sorts of older and regional expressions, so all of the idioms in the book have a reference, a published reference.
BLOCK: It's fun to see where different cultures arrive at the same general idea, but using a different metaphor. In English we would talk about a pot calling the kettle black, and here it is in Arabic.
Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking Arabic)
BLOCK: A camel can't see its own hump.
Mr. BHALLA: It's a wonderful expression, and is shows you how much languages can be a great indicator of what's important to a culture. One of my favorite German ones, for example, attests to their great obsession with meat. To live the life of Riley in German — to live a wonderful life, to live in luxury — is to live like a maggot in bacon.
BLOCK: Oh, I saw that, yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BLOCK: There were a lot of countries that seemed to have the equivalent of what we would say in English as a bad workman, a poor workman blames his tools. In Hindi here it is.
Unidentified Man #3: (Speaking Hindi)
Mr. BHALLA: Yeah, and that means that for a bad dancer, the courtyard is uneven.
BLOCK: Don't blame the feet, blame the floor.
Mr. BHALLA: Absolutely wonderful.
BLOCK: Well, Jag Bhalla, thanks for coming in.
Mr. BHALLA: Thank you.
BLOCK: Jag Bhalla is the author of the book "I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms from Around the World." Now, I have to say, my conversation with Jag Bhalla only made me more curious about those hanging noodles. I remember the phrase, don't hang noodles on my ears, I think, from a long-ago Russian class. But as for where the idiom came from, no idea. We called on several Russian linguists for help, including the author of a Russian-English dictionary of idioms. She was stumped. An instructor of Russian humor and speech suggested that the Russian word for noodle, lapsha, sounds like a word that means to deceive, which might make sense, since the idiom essentially means don't deceive me.
Well, if any of you are able to puzzle it out, please write to us. Go to npr.org, click on contact us at the top of the page, and put idiom in the subject line. And while you're there, you can check out a gallery of cartoon drawings of the idioms from Jag Bhalla's book.
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