Noodle-hanging idioms and other inscrutables

The buzz around a new book has the Monitor's language columnist noodling on some intriguing turns of phrase in use around the world.

There are two kinds of idioms: Those that make sense and those that do not.

So I've concluded after tuning in to the discussion around Jag Bhalla's new book, "I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms From Around the World."

You've got to love a title like that: It comes with a built-in plot summary and a sound bite. But what's this with noodles? Mr. Bhalla alleges that it's a Russian idiom that means "I'm not kidding" or "I'm not pulling your leg."

Both noodle-hanging and leg-pulling fall into the category of idioms that don't make sense.

In a National Public Radio interview, Bhalla, who worked mostly from published sources, did not offer an explanation of the Russian idiom. Nor, so far as I can tell, have any listeners chimed in to explain it.

But then, the background for "pulling someone's leg" isn't exactly clear as day either. By idioms that make sense, I mean those rooted in an observable phenomenon. "He's barking up the wrong tree." In other words, he's looking in the wrong place for what he wants. The phrase is rooted in the observable (or at least imaginable) phenomenon of a dog confused about where that pesky cat or squirrel escaped to.

Presumably all idioms start out this way, but some have become disconnected. An idiom, or idiomatic expression, cannot be puzzled out by breaking it down into parts and defining them individually. An idiom works as a whole: to kick the bucket meaning "to die," for instance.

"Idiom" comes from the Greek word idios, meaning "one's own." An idiomatic expression is one that "we understand among ourselves," even if it baffles foreigners, such as Miguel, a student of translation in Spain, who a few months ago posted a query online, "[W]hat is in the bucket and why would anyone kick a bucket in the first place[?]"

The idios root shows up in idiosyncrasy (extra spelling-bee points for remembering the final consonant is "s," not "c"), and, of course, idiot. Someone to whom this term was applied was seen as one who keeps to himself, is a private person, not quite ready for prime time or the public square.

Some idioms start out with a clear referent but then get used in a way that doesn't quite work.

My Exhibit A: going to bat.

The baseball-playing peoples of the world use this to refer to the champion who steps forth to defend someone else. "I heard that when the summer intern got into trouble for skateboarding into the conference room, the office manager really went to bat for him with the H.R. people."

This usage makes going to bat sound like an extraordinary action. But in baseball it's a regular part of the game. That David Ortiz is at bat just now, with the bases loaded, is a big deal. But going to bat for the Red Sox is his job.

In a foreign language, people whose apt idioms you can figure out are likely to come across as wittier than they really are. I first met one of my favorite German idioms when I was interviewing a woman running a job-training program. She found that many of those sent her way lacked some surprisingly basic skills. "With these people, you have to begin with Adam and Eve."

I understood immediately what she meant. What took longer was figuring out that this is a standard expression, not just her own cleverness.

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