26 June 2014

Opaque Idioms

While watching the World Cup, I am always struck by how many opaque idioms the commentators use:

they're under the cosh (they're under pressure)
that's right on the money (the ball is just where he wanted it)
it's kitchen sink time now (the team is throwing everything forward)
he's got his foot to the floor (he's going as fast as he can)

and so on. I pity foreign language learners who are trying to make any sense of this kind of commentary.

Of course, opaque idioms are all around us, and we rarely stop to think about them. My wife recently heard that someone who had been in hospital for a while had 'turned the corner', and she thought that must be bad, as you don't know what's around the corner. But, in fact, 'turn the corner' is used to indicate that things have started to improve, and the person in hospital was now getting better.

Another idiom with an unexpected connotation is 'over the hill'. Logically, climbing a hill is hard work, and once you get to the top and can start going downhill, that should be good news. But in fact we use 'over the hill' to refer to someone who is past it and is no longer able to contribute much.

And one more: I always think that 'purple patch' ought to be something bad, as I associate purple with bruises and things like that. But, in fact, a purple patch is a period of notable success, especially for a writer or a musician. Apparently, it derives from Roman times, when purple was an exquisite colour that only the rich could afford to wear.

Of course, Malay is just the same. I came across ringan tulang (lit. 'light bone'), and I thought that must be bad. In fact it means 'hardworking'.

And in today's Media Permata I saw this: perkara pokok (lit 'tree matter'). Now, what could that mean? There seemed to be nothing about trees in the article! In fact, perkara pokok means 'the crux of the matter'.

Well, perhaps this last one is because pokok ('tree') has a secondary meaning, for it can also mean 'basic', as in gaji pokok ('basic salary'). Nevertheless, it reminds us how opaque idioms can be.

24 June 2014

Singular 'their'

I just wrote a reference for one of my students to study at York University, and the message that came back was:

Thank you for taking the time to upload a reference for Ms Xxx Xxx in connection with their application for the MSc in Forensic Speech Science.

(where I have blanked out the name to maintain anonymity).

It is interesting to see that the University uses 'their', even though the gender of the applicant is known to be female (note the use of 'Ms').

I find it encouraging that 'they' and 'their' are becoming increasingly acceptable for singular referents. It makes things so much easier than having to write 'his or her' or something clumsy like that.

17 June 2014


One of the biggest problems for learners of a foreign language is when their first language has a superordinate word and the foreign language has two (or more) hyponyms. For example, even after speaking Chinese for 40 years, I still get caught out by the distinction between 穿 chuān and 戴 dài, both of which are 'wear' in English. In Chinese, you use 穿 for clothes and 戴 for peripheral things like hats or seat-belts; but in English we say 'wear a shirt', 'wear socks', 'wear a hat' and 'wear a seatbelt'.

In speaking Malay, the same problems might occur for padi, beras and nasi, all of which are 'rice' in English. However, I find it easier to to keep those apart, as they are nouns, and it is easier to remember that padi is growing in the fields, beras is for sale in a shop, and nasi is already cooked.

What about the other way round? Chinese speakers of English often confuse 'he' and 'she' in English, because although they are differentiated in writing as 他 and 她, both are pronounced the same: .

For Malay learners of English, I would expect that the distinction between 'pain' and 'sickness' would be problematic, as both are sakit in Malay.

14 June 2014


I was just watching Chile against Australia in the World Cup, and the commentator (who seemed to be from Britain) constantly referred to the Chilean team as /tʃɪˈleɪən/. I have never heard that before, and for me it would be /ˈtʃɪlɪən/.

I then checked the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (3rd edn), and indeed /ˈtʃɪlɪən/ is the only possibility listed for British pronunciation. However, for American pronunciation, /tʃɪˈliːən/ is given as the most common, followed by /tʃɪˈleɪən/, so the commentator was using the second pronunciation found in the USA.

I wonder if a sound change is taking place in how we are expected to say the word. When I was young, Caribbean was pronounced /ˌkærɪˈbiːən/ (with the main stress on the third syllable). But nowadays, it seems to be /kəˈrɪbɪən/ (with the stress on the second syllable). Perhaps the pronunciation of Chilean is also undergoing change.

08 June 2014


This picture (sent to me by Ishamina Athirah) is presumably advertising for a tailor, i.e. someone who cuts and sews.

The trouble is that 'sewer' has two different meanings in English: when pronounced /su:ə/, it is a drain; and when pronounced /səʊə/, it is someone who sews. However, the first meaning is much more common than the second, and in reality we never use the second meaning. Instead, we say 'tailor' or 'seamstress' or something like that.

My guess is that this use of 'sewer' is a direct translation of penjahit ('someone who sews'). In Malay pemotong dan penjahit ('someone who cuts and someone who sews') would make perfect sense.