I take guilty pride in my ability to mangle three languages. Figures of speech (Idioms, for those of you who did not sleep through English class) are particularly vexing. All languages have idioms that make varying degrees of sense, but the ones in English seem to make the least, when you think about them. They can also be fun to try getting past non-native speakers. Call me mean, if you like, but I get a kick out of screwing with my family. I slip in the occasional “Thanks God” or a stray article into my spoken English as if I was foreign-born to see if anyone notices.
For example, “I’m going to visit my friend in the Florida.”
My mother is a habitual offender in these crimes against the English language. She absolutely butchers English on a regular basis, and I am at a loss as to why. I realize that when it comes to learning a new language the teenage years are not exactly the prime time to absorb the nuances of the lingua franca, but Jesus tap-dancing Christ, the woman has had over half a century to pick up the lingo. I swear that her English skills grow worse every year.
In another decade or so, I suspect she and I will not be able to communicate in English.
I once teased my mother for sounding like a foreigner. This is the verbatim exchange.
Me: “Mom, you sound like such a F.O.B. sometimes.”
Mom: “What is this ‘F.O.B.’ thing? It sounds like the laundry detergent.”
Me: “It’s an acronym.”
Mom: “A what?”
Me: “Um acrônimo.”
Mom: “Oh, gotcha. What’s it mean?”
Me: “Fresh Off the Boat.”
Mom: “No, no, no, no. I am not a F.O.B. I am a F.O.A.P.”
Me: “What’s a F.O.A.P.?”
Some of my favorite FOAP-isms:
- It’s hot. Turn on the air refrigerator machine.
- You’re pulling my arm.
- I went to the plastic surgeon for a little snip/tug.
- Take off your muddy sneaky shoes.
- Came flying like a bat out of the cave.
- Don’t blow sunshine on my Cheerios.
- Are you serious? You had better not be shitting on me.
- That bird is called a Yellow-Bellied Cocksucker.
- Let’s fuck this popsicle stand.
- Even a blind dog finds his nuts some days.
Most of the above FOAP-isms are simply malapropisms from lack of facility with a foreign language, but some are examples of thinking words mean the same thing in two languages. False cognates are a bitch. My grandmother warned her daughters not to say the words for “table knife” or “corner” around Americans (“faca” and “canto,” respectively) because they sound like dirty words in English.
Of course, my experience has always been that dirty words are the first and easiest to learn in another language.
Immigrants aren’t the only ones to have trouble with idioms. My dad had several expressions, all of which I’ve learned are currency of the realm in English, but baffled me growing up.
Calling children “kids” – The appropriateness of this appellation never occurred to me until I began dabbling in animal husbandry as an adult. One day when you have time, take a trip to somewhere that has a group of about two dozen or so baby goats. Then on the way home (assuming the restraining order against you has expired) stop by a kindergarten class at recess. Clarity of concept will come quickly.
“Cold as a well digger’s ass” – Unlike “cold as a pimp’s heart” (Which makes some sense) or “cold as a witch’s tit” (Which makes absolutely no sense, as I do not believe I have ever met a real, honest to goodness witch), this simile masquerading as an idiom is easily understood if you have ever dug a trench for a sewer line in January. Oddly enough, even in warm climates the ground a couple feet down becomes quite chilly.
“Playing Grab-Ass” – I always thought this was a non-specific term for unproductive horseplay (Another term I still fail to grasp having little experience around horses). However, having spent much of my professional life in remote, all male locations with little to do besides work, this game can be played at near professional levels. It is right up there with other homo-erotic classics such as “Turkey Tap” (aka, “Nut Shot”), “I think I Smell Smoke,” “Damn, I Got Gum on my Flight Suit,” “Do You Have the Time?” and “Old Goat.”
For some vaguely understood reason, an all-male crew plus a remote location plus any amount of free time always equals tricking your buddies into looking at your genitals. As they say in the Navy, “It’s not gay underway.”
“Farting around” – I believe this is a two-fer; both an expression of dissatisfaction with unproductive shenanigans and an attempt to curb the use of profanity by supplanting “fuck” with a more mild word that maintains the alliterative quality. Either way, I was never clear as a child exactly what constituted “farting around” since it seemed to encompass any activity that annoyed my dad. As father of enough children to make up a reinforced fire-team, I have a keen eye for “farting around.” I can spot it around corners and at great distances when the weather is clear.
To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s interpretation of the Roth Test regarding pornography, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.“
“Get all your shit in one sock” – The first time I had this gem whipped at me, all I could think about for days was why in the world would anyone store fecal material in hosiery. Is a sock really an appropriate vessel for this application? Wouldn’t a Ziploc bag be a better choice?
Even though I use this one myself and understand that it means to put things in order (or sometimes to regain composure), the connection between the contents and the container eludes me.
“Sick as a Dog” – Why would a dog be sick? I’ve seen dogs eat their own poop and be perfectly fine. Haven’t you ever heard of “a shit-eating grin“? That’s where if comes from. And why are dogs the measuring standard for sickness while horses and oxen are the hallmarks for health?
A few years ago, my wife left a double batch of chocolate-chocolate chip cookie dough on the kitchen counter while she moved a load of laundry from the washer to the dryer. My Black Lab Toby (who was christened such because my youngest was unable to pronounce “Barack“) put his front paws on the counter, dragged the bowl to the edge of the counter, and gobbled every bit of the dough before my wife caught him licking the bowl clean. I came home to a furious wife and Toby exiled to the backyard.
“Do you know what that sonofabitch did?” my beautiful, sweet natured princess seethed, as I looked into the backyard at Toby hunched up and convulsing as he simultaneously shot vomit and diarrhea out of opposite ends of his body.
The sheer spectacle of it all was mesmerizing. The distance and hang time this animal displayed with his fecal fountain was Olympic quality. If dog shows had a category for projectile pooping, I would clean up. Well, at least be a huge splash.
Three days later, my wife’s anger at Toby had abated sufficiently to allow him back in the house, but we had our reservations when he sneezed and sharted into a potted plant on the patio. I volunteered an old pair of underwear for him to wear as a diaper with his tail poked through the pecker port.
Maybe we need a new idiom; “The dog’s shame” for embarrassing consequences for doing something stupid.