any scholars of the English language propose that English has the most words—but that’s largely unprovable. Hungarian almost certainly has more, with an estimated 30% untranslatable to any other tongue.
But no matter, my point is that anyone trying to learn English, with perhaps a million different words, faces an exceedingly tough test. And that becomes even more daunting when you throw in our treasure of insane idioms—phrases that make absolutely no sense when translated to non-English speakers.
These idioms make sense to us, because we’ve heard them all our lives. But do we know their derivations--why they made sense in the first place?
Hey—let’s take a test! Let’s choose “sick and dying” for 100…
Phrase #1: “Under the weather”
Derivation certainty: Medium
Explanation: In the days of sailing ships, captains kept a careful log. Events of importance were listed in columns on a page. In the first column the names of all sick sailors were written—but in times of communicable illness and disease, often the number would more than fill that column. So, captains carried the extra names over to the second column, one for recording weather, where not too much information was required. Hence, sick sailors came to be known as “under the weather.”
Phrase #2: “His number was up”
Derivation certainty: High
Explanation: This one’s pretty easy. Imagine walking into a bakery and grabbing a ticket which identifies who’s next in line. Now imagine the bakery’s run by the grim reaper. You get the picture.
Phrase #3: “Bought the farm”
Derivation certainty: Medium/high
Explanation: This one sprang to life (I know, terrible idiom in this context) during WWII, probably on the joint RAF/USAF bases in England. Pilots left there on perilous bombing runs and dogfights over the continent. Many ended their lives in crash landings, and many of those victims came from rural American families. (If you saw Saving Private Ryan, you probably remember the mother crumpling on her Iowa farmhouse porch as the military vehicle came up the dusty road…bringing the news she feared most.) In any case, because GI’s carried $10,000 life insurance policies…that was most often enough to pay off the family mortgage—hence, the deceased had “bought the farm.”
Phrase #4: “Kick the bucket”
Derivation certainty: Medium
Explanation: It hasn’t got anything to do with standing on a pail with a noose around your neck. (You can imagine the rest.) Instead, in olden times, “bucket” was also a synonym for a yoke…a wooden crossmember or beam with hooks or spikes near the ends…to which slaughtered animals were hung upside down. When they spasmed, the yoke was jostled—thus, they were “kicking the bucket.”
Well, I see now that something I intended to be fascinating has instead turned disturbingly morbid.
Consequently, you may assume this feature has gone belly up.
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