Once you get far enough studying a foreign language, you’ll run into expressions that just don’t translate. Sometimes they’re a part of the original culture that just doesn’t switch into another language; sometimes it’s just a matter of trying to come up with a similar modern image in one language when you’re translating an expression from an older version of the other language.
I’ve run into some funny examples between English and French. Here are some of my favorites:
Willy-nilly in English originated from “will you, nil you” — if you don’t believe me, check Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.” It’s a way of saying “whether you want to or not” if you take it literally. Using my French-English and all-French Larousse dictionaries, I found it defined as at random in English — but n’importe comment (it doesn’t matter how) in French.
Then there’s the evocative to pull the wool over somebody’s eyes. That’s evocative enough in Britain and the U.S., where we’re more likely to have some experience with either sheep or textiles. But in French, the equivalent expression is rouler quelqu’un dans la farine — to roll someone in the flour. I suppose the effect on one’s opponent’s vision is the same!
But sometimes a change in pronunciation isn’t all that’s between our languages. Petty in English is obviously connected to the French petit, but they mean different kinds of small. “Petty” is negative, as in “How could you be so petty?” Petit, on the other hand, is just like small in English. Maybe the insulting tone of “petty” in English needed a little boost in style, so that it wasn’t “How could you be so small?”
(Sounds like a dieting question — next!)
For more fun with words, stop by the Margaret Serious page on Facebook.
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