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Verbal energy: 'Making a difference' this spring

A turn of phrase we use all the time raises a question it doesn't quite answer.

By Ruth Walker / April 11, 2008



Spring is fighting its way back into Boston again, never mind the patch of ice on my stoop the other morning.

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And at least as reliable as the crocuses and the forsythia are the spring fundraisers for the various institutions that enrich our lives. My public radio codependency continues unabated, the Museum of Fine Arts has big plans, ditto the YMCA, and I expect to hear from my alma mater again sometime before its fiscal year ends. What's it like where you are?

One of the frequent refrains through all these campaigns is that they provide us an opportunity to "make a difference."

It's an idiom we rely on in English to do a lot of heavy lifting. But note how elliptical it is. It raises but doesn't answer the question, "the difference between what and what?"

Not that this stops us from using it, and not only when we're asking for money.

My Berlin friends were in town for a visit the other week, and so I had a chance to practice my German.

I find that when I shift gears into German, it can take a while to shift back. And during this time, some funny mangled turns of phrase pop up in my internal monologue.

Trying to translate an English idiom word for word is a great way to fall flat on your face in a foreign language. It is something I've done many times. But it's also a good way to confirm that the English expression is indeed an idiom, one of those more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts expressions that go beyond literal meaning. (This comes under the heading of "We study other languages to learn our own better.")

For instance, in English, we frequently use the word something, on its own, to mean "something remarkable/wonderful/awful." The adjective is implied, not stated. Not so in German. You have to plug in the "remarkable" or whatever.

So the first time I tried to render "that makes a difference" as "Das macht einen Unterschied," even I could hear it clunk.

Maybe we all have a George Bailey complex.

You remember George. He's the hero of Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," in which a man is kept from taking his life by an angel-in-training who shows him what his town would be like without him. The angel showed how he was "making a difference."

That idiom speaks to the human desire to feel we've accomplished something, that we've nudged the course of the river of time one way or another, if only just slightly.

What other idioms can we reach for to communicate this idea?

At the level of mechanical function, there's the expression "to do the trick." ("I sprayed some WD-40 on it, and that did the trick.) "To do the job" suggests something similar, but without the same connotation of magic. ("I found an extension cord down in the basement, and that did the job.")

To matter, as a verb, gets at the idea of substance and significance, albeit vaguely defined: "I want to focus on what matters in my life."

Contribution is a useful concept here, but it suggests an add-on, whereas the difference idiom suggests that one's actions have been decisive or determinative.

We can describe people as "effective," as in Peter Drucker's formulation of "The Effective Executive." From the self-improvement workshops, we hear "impactful."

But bear with me for a moment while I get in touch with my inner grammarian long enough to note this: However vaguely defined the "difference" is, the formula of doer plus transitive verb plus direct object does in itself convey a forceful message. "He made a difference" is on the same grammatical model as "She won the election" or "He knocked the ball out of the park."

It is a wonderful life.

And if we don't really have a particularly wonderful idiom for it, well, does that make any difference?

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