Words are ubiquitous, and yet somehow fly under the radar like sun burns on a windy day. We use them every day, all the time, and yet rarely think about them. Really, how much do you think about words?
Have you ever thought about words?
Our ability to communicate and connect relies on the words we use and understand. But really, how often do you think about words? When was the last time you thought about where a word came from or why we say one thing instead of another? Why are there so many different ways to say one thing? Why do some languages have a phrase or word that others cannot translate? How can we learn other languages? The list of questions about words is endless (at least for me!).
If you’re a polyglot (re: person who speaks more than one language), you probably think about words more often than a monolingual (re: person who speaks only one language). Even then, I might argue that polyglots might not pay a lot of attention to words. It’s a bit like looking at a picture but not taking in the details. You see the photo but you’ve missed noticing the photo bomber.
Learning Other Languages
In French class (for Canadian readers out there) you learn the word for rain jacket (imperméable), which you memorize, regurgitate, and quickly move on to doing the same for earmuffs (cache-oreilles). But when are we told, or do we take a moment on our own, to actually look at this new word, to pay attention to its parts, and to ask questions about it?
If I’ve lost you, hop back on the train with me for a moment.
When you think of a rain jacket, what are the first words that come to mind? Maybe they include: rain, yellow, plastic, not wet, etc… Maybe the word “impenetrable” pops up, which happens to be a synonym for “impermeable”. Rain jackets do not permit water to penetrate the material. Suddenly the French term for “rain jacket” is no longer a jumble of sounds you garble through or spelling that you fumble with. Imperméable makes perfect sense. (Bonus: When we make connections, or when something “makes sense” to us through “meaning making“, it is easier to remember!)
Okay, well what about earmuffs? If you ever learned “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes” in French, you’ll know that “oreilles” is the term for ears. Sounds like we’re off to a swimming start. But what about “cache”? After consulting a bilingual dictionary (NOT Google Translate, for the love of all things!), you find out that “cacher” means “to hide”. Hold up, “hide-ears”? That’s freaking brilliant! Does any English speaker born after 1950 even know what a muff is? I doubt it. But if I show you a picture of earmuffs being worn and the literal translation for “cache-oreilles”, fireworks will skyrocket around your brain.
English Idioms for the Monolingual
Okay, let’s say you’re not a polyglot and you’re rocking a monogamous language relationship. You might ask, “why would I think about languages when I just want to use them?”.
To that I’d respond, “for fun!”. Take these (North American English) idioms for example:
- To butter someone up
- To be really kind or friendly to someone so they’ll do what you want them to do
- To wear your heart on your sleeve
- To openly show your feelings and emotions
- To put on your face
- To put on make-up
- To take out your eyes
- To take out your contacts
- It’s a breeze
- It’s really easy
- To be out of this world
- To be super fantastically amazing
- To have a bun in the oven
- To be pregnant
- Raining cats and dogs
- Raining really hard
Have you ever thought about language and the words that you use or the funny things that we say to each other? Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear about them!