Thursday, 21 April 2011

Break a Leg!

Two young track-and-field athletes, Jim and Frank, are having a talk before the run of Jim’s: “You know, I wish you all the best today, Jim! Break a leg!” “Thank you, Frank! I’ll do my best.”

This conversation seems rather confusing, doesn’t it? But it’s not what some of you might think it is. Frank’s Break a leg! is far from being a wicked remark made out of envy of Jim’s possible success, as well as his skills. What’s more, Frank IS frank enough in wishing all the best to his friend. It sounds queer, yet Break a leg! is not said to mock the athlete, but to REALLY support him and wish him good luck.

It’s interesting to know that the phrase has a theatrical origin. I don’t mean to say it is originally used as an intent to get people’s attention. I mean it is related to theater performances. Why, the theatre is notoriously superstitious. Therefore it is believed that wishing “good luck” to your colleagues is deemed bad luck, a taboo to say. So “break a leg” used to be actually utteredd as an euphemism and is still employed to wish good luck to somebody, especially before some important event or performance, in precise.

I simply adore English for being such an ironic language at times, especially in the variety of puzzling idioms and catchphrases it has. It is always much fun to translate such phrases into Russian.

Imagine a situation in which an interpreter translates some idioms wrong. It can be either funny or causing some trouble. To avoid mistakes we should be aware of the existence of such false friends of interpreters and translators, and never be too selfassure to ignore checking words up in a dictionary or two.

Another funny example I like is a phrase “to have nothing upstairs”. Not quite sure if it is commonly used by English speakers, yet I saw it yesterday in my Idioms Dictionary and fell in love at first sight. Let’s see if you understand the meaning of it within the following context I’ve just made up:

“Did you hear Mary yesterday at the conference? She’s got a brain of a pigeon! She seems to have nothing upstairs!”

So, as you can see, English idioms are very funny and challenging indeed for a non-English-speaker to understand. I will be posting sometimes about my favorite ones to share my enthusiasm about them with you.

And you? Are there any funny idiomatic phrases YOU can recall of? Have you ever come across a problem of translating idioms? Do you think they may cause misunderstanding in comunication?

Please, share! .)


  1. yesterday I came across so-called "Colour idioms". Honestly, I could understand onle one third of them :-). We all know the phrase in Russian "to look through pink glasses" (in English “Look at smth through rose-coloured glasses”)that means in our mentality "naive perception of objective reality" (in Britain it has a little bit different meaning, I'll write it in another post:-) ). People in Britain also "look through blue glasses". Will you get the meaning of this idiom?

    Eg. She is always looking at everything through blue glasses if she faces some problems!

  2. Wow, interesting. Never met anything of the sort. Where've you found this "blue glasses" idiom? Is it some book you're reading?
    Hmmm, the meaning.. As far as I understand it might mean she gets stuck in case she has a problem, just doesn't know what o do, or gets upset in advance, before even trying tocope with the problem. Anything like that? Or am I too fsr from the truth? =)
    You know, Yana, I love reading books in English,. When I do, I always keep a pencil at hand to make notes and write out some words, phrases or even sentences I find worth remembering. That is a good way to learn so many amazing things about the language!
    Thanks for your examples! Hurrying to read your post!
    BTW, have you understood the situation with "having nothing upstairs"?

  3. you are quite right =)the idiom means to be pessimistic about the things, to view things distorted by prejudice
    Moreover, I've just found another color-glasses idiom)))that is "to look through green glasses"
    that means to be jealous!
    as for "to have nothing upstairs" I think it is smth in the way of being not intelligent))

  4. Wow, how interesting it is about the "green glasses". It might probably be originated from the saying "The neighbour's grass is always greener" said to convay some sort of jealousy. So, maybe that's why green colour is assossiated with jealousy, ah?
    Yes, to have nothing upstairs means to lack intelligence, be ignorant.)

  5. I also enjoy English for being such an idiomatic language.

  6. Olga, I'm more than sure that Russian has a huge variety of idioms as well, the only problem is that being native speakers we seldom pay attention to the beauty of our own language. It's nether bad nor good.
    Frankly speaking,every single language is interesting, esp. when it comes to understanding idiomatic structures that we manage to comprehend. I reckon we might face some difficulties. Yet the more we learn, the easier it becomes. As soon as you start understanding idioms andsmiling to the sligtest touch of humour in oral speech or book and articles you read, you may well consider yourselves great learners, I guess, and therefore fully enjoy the beauty of both your mother tongue and any other language you start. )

  7. Oh, this is so cool:) That`s why I like to learn language: for a controversial issues, issues of culture, because often they are the most interesting in the learning of language) Last year we met with idioms with Ekaterina Nikolaevna Kushnir, when we were studying the topic "Weather ". Here are the most interesting, which I remember to this day =)
    It never rains but it pours (when things go wrong, they go very badly wrong).
    Be under a cloud (not be trusted or popular, because people think you have done thomething wrong).
    Whether the storm (deal successfully with a difficult problem).
    I was so wondered to know them:) All this so interesting! For example why they have acquired such meaning, when, who first began to use them...
    P.S. To explore it at leisure =)
    P.P.S. If it would be a time for this leisure ...

    1. I also like phrases that are euphemisms. For instance, "to be six feet under (the ground)" = to be dead and burried; to push daisies = be dead.
      There's SUCH a great variety of exciting meaning of all these words of theirs! I am so glad you feel this interest in getting to know them pleasure of finding their meanings out!
      P.S. There's always time fo leisure, Kate! Try to find it! Don't turn into me! Busy busy busy bee!.)

  8. So I agree with Kate;) Of course it is very interesting to use some idioms, it gives to our speech mysteriousness and singularity=) When we use such phrases our interlocutor can be very interested by you and he will know that you the interesting person=) Recently I have found some idioms:
    have a sweet tooth (to have a desire to eat sweet foods);
    eagle eye (a very careful watchful eye (like the eye of an eagle);
    have a heart of stone (to be cold and unfriendly).
    Use idioms and be mysterious=)

    1. I've learnt the "have a sweet tooth" phrase when I was in Edinburgh. That's what I was claimed to be by a friend of mine. He watched me eating .. sugar cubes after dipping them in tea, but not throwing them inside .))) He also named a "sugar rush" for that, hehe!
      Languages are so much fun!

  9. idioms give a special color as in the English language and in the Russian language. I think that a lot of them, but mostly we use only those that we know of or that we have at the hearing. And all of them convey a particular meaning. For example : Bear a grudge (against someone) (to have a grudge against someone), use in speech: How long can a person hold a grudge? Let’s be friends. In the Russian language there is a similar idiom " sharpen a tooth for someone Аnother idiom: Beat around the bush , beat about the bush (spread brains on the subject, speak in vain). Use in speech: Stop beating around the bush and answer my question. And the last idiom: Beat the air (to water it down). Use in speech: Don't beat the air, you can't help him.
    I think that sometimes difficulties may arise in the translation into Russian language.

    1. Yes, I quite agree with you, Karina! Idioms are colouring both the English and the Russian languages!

      Wow... very intersting example! Looks like I never came across any of your examls! Good job!
      Ithink I going to use "spread brains on sth" very often! )))Beat around the bush.. ool! Lovely phrase! Thank you!

      Oh yes, indeed! I'm glad you have touched the subject of translation!

      Girls, and WHAT would YOUdo translate such phrases? What do you think shoud be the strategy for translating them adequately enough?

  10. By the way, girls, there are several more articles to do with the idioms andcatchphrases! All you need to do is press one of the above (see after the text in light blue colour) "Labels: Catchphrases, False Friends of Interpreters, Idioms". On doing this you will be linked to other posts on the topic!