Friday, March 26, 2010
The Last Suck on a Mango
Among the many idioms listed in Jag Bhalla’s I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears (National Geographic, 2009), this Czech idiom for poorly dressed leaped to my attention: “look like the Mona Lisa after a spanking” (85). I checked google books for a source on this and wasn’t able to find anything, though I can’t claim to have looked very hard. As with many of the idioms listed in the book, which is subtitled “And Other Intriguing Idioms from around The World,” I can’t even begin to recreate the context for this. I wonder, and perhaps any Czech speakers might be able to enlighten me, if “Mona Lisa” is the referent in the original; and, if so, from when does it date? Is is a Cold War-era phrase? (It couldn’t be, could it?)
Bhalla is good about recognizing the larger consequences of idioms for the study of language, especially that their origins quickly become lost without this affecting the frequency of their use. (He cites at the end an essay by Pinker and Jackendoff that uses, in Bhalla’s summary, the prevalence of idiom as an argument against the non-selectability of language proposed by Chomsky, Fitch, and Hauser in “The Evolution of the Language Faculty: Clarifications and Implications” (Cognition 97 : 179-210). It seems clear at various points that Bhalla has been influenced by certain evolutionary psychological notions, and he seems more sympathetic, though without making a big deal of it, to Pinker and Jackendoff, in the aforementioned example.
I’m not, myself, but this didn’t bother me much. The point of the book is to provide a long list of intriguing idioms. And who can argue with “to eat owl’s flesh” (to act foolishly, Hindi) or “ink pisser” (office drudge, German*) ? Bhalla makes a case, if somewhat unconvincingly, for the non-inclusion of the original language in the idioms; but I found this to be disappointing. But the wit shown by describing MRI scans as “phrenological,” for example, without stopping to explain it, mostly makes up for it. Though he admits that he himself hasn’t read Adam Smith, he provides an interesting interlude in the work idioms section about the disconnect between what Smith actually wrote and believed and how his name is often invoked, and furthermore does it by citing books by P. J. O’Rourke and a former Financial Times correspondent about him.
One turn that I would have liked to have seen in the book, and which I understand is an idiosyncratic preference, would have been invented idioms in literature. Not the “truth is stranger than fiction” type, but the imagined idioms of a non-existent language (human, or otherwise. I seem to recall that Vance did this in some place or another, but I admit that nothing is coming readily to mind. Examples are welcome.) Another, somewhat related topic is when a plot turns on misused idiom, either as Freudian parapraxis or the more conventional murder/espionage type. But this is not a serious criticism of Bhalla’s book, which I enjoyed and am glad that he asked if I wanted a review copy.
*I should have heard this before, I think.
I haven’t written much for the Valve over the last year or so, but I have written some book reviews for my own personal site that you possibly may find of interest. Cosma Shalizi recommended a fantasy trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. I didn’t like it that much, and the author noticed my review and seemed to find my use of Zizek there at the end to be objectionable. That’s hard to dispute, in retrospect. I requested a review copy of an ensqualmation-noir; here’s the result. I talked about some transhumanist currents in Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City and found the usual things you would look for in DeLillo’s Point Omega. I enjoyed both Banville’s The Infinities and Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. For a pot-boiler serialized in Playboy, you can’t fault Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move. And I wrote about two Gene Wolfe books, one of which I liked more than the other.
As for idioms of a fictional culture/language, what immediately springs to mind is the Zemblan saying, “the lost glove is happy.”
Pale Fire, of course
Yes! That’s one of my favorites, both for the estrangement and insight into the character it provides.
My Slovak friend, a linguist, says that the Czech proverb is somewhat familiar, but he suspects that it’s more like a one-off comment or wisecrack from a book or movie.
From recent times, then, as I had guessed. But what was the context?
He might come by.
I would hope so.