Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Paper or Plastic

He wasn't merely a PhD. That guy had enough letters behind his name to start a new name. A very erudite chap, he was speaking on nuclear proliferation. A lot of very large words were used. When you really listened though, it boiled down to "your guess is good as mine."

Then he got to the topic of Iran and said, "Well the cat's out of the bag there." I immediately felt sympathy, not only for Iran's neighbors but also those just learning english. Those learning a new language have to string together the literal meanings of words and sort out context.

So right when the guy said that, something like this happened somewhere.

"Borees! TV man talk of Iran secret cat bomb! Come queek dahlink!"

I wonder if Natasha is related to Eva Gabor; they sure do talk alike.

Inconvenient as it is to foreigners, I don't think any english speaker can totally excise phrases like, "cat out of the bag" from his speech. These idioms are the linguistic equivalent of a favorite pair of jeans, after a long day of wearing dress clothes. One slips into them unconsciously.

People with lots of letters behind their names will occasionally say, "All experience is localized." This means, try though you might, you can never really know another man's life and culture as he does. Or it could mean, "Your guess is good as mine." I'll have to research that.

So as an American, I'm tempted to presume only english contains phrases that literally make no sense, yet we all know the meaning. Tempting, but common sense argues otherwise. People who live overseas also require these linguistic equivalents of blue jeans. Moreso, since all jeans are made over there now. Therefore, in China right now somebody is likely saying, "I don't mean to let the Panda out of the crate" or something like that.

I can't help wonder about the origins of these things though. How precisely did "cat out of the bag" come to mean the element of surprise is lost. Hmmm. Were cats in bags once a popular birthday gift? It's not just cats either. "Pig in a poke" well a poke is a sack.

What is all this? Lingering echo of the caveman percursor to our modern sack lunch? I never saw that on "The Flinstones." Or could it have been the fashion in Medieval times to walk around with critters in bags? I guess we'll never know for sure. Which means, your guess is good as mine.

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