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Idiom Icebreaker
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 05/09/2016

Icebreaker-a
The following is an installment in "The Bouchard 101", a series featuring "Ice Breaker's" designed to promote training awareness and capabilities in the corrections industry.

Idioms are phrases that are colorful. They enliven the language, making reading and conversation more interesting. The phrase “babble like a brook” is a colorful way to express the notion of a person who is enthusiastic yet somewhat incoherent.

Unfortunately, figures of speech, idioms, clichés, and even “normal” phrases will not always translate clearly from one language to another. For example, a literal translation of the Spanish “todo el mundo” means “all the world.” However, it really means “everybody.” There is a difference between “I have met the whole world” and “I have met everybody.” When translation is done well, it is more than just moving each word from one language to another. It really involves a translation of ideas.

Is it any wonder why we cannot always get our points across? Can you imagine how difficult English can be to those for whom it is not a primary language? Let’s take some time to put this to practice. Below is a list of clichés.

Question one for each cliché is: What does this really mean?
Question two for each cliché is: What could this mean of translated literally or word for word?

Work together to identify each figure of speech and what each could mean in a very literal sense. Note that there could be many different versions of the literal translation.
  1. Cliché: Baker’s dozen

    What does it really mean?
    A little extra, specifically 13. (This comes from an act of Parliament form 1266 regarding a standard of the weight of bread. To make sure standards were being met, bakers generally gave 13 loaves to vendors for every 12 that they purchased to sell to consumers.)

    What could this mean if translated literally or word for word?
    Any thing that a baker made in the amount of 12. Someone named Baker has 12 of one item.

  2. Cliché: A penny for your thoughts

    What does it really mean?
    What is on your mind?

    What could this mean if translated literally or word for word?
    I will give you one cent if you tell me what you are thinking. I will purchase your thought (copyright) for the price of a penny.

  3. Cliché: I wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole.

    What does it really mean?
    It is dangerous and I will avoid it.

    What could this mean if translated literally or word for word?
    With a ten foot pole in my hand, I refuse to make contact with it.

  4. Cliché: Keep your shirt on!

    What does it really mean?
    Stay calm! Don’t over react.

    What could this mean of translated literally or word for word?
    Don’t take off your shirt!

  5. Cliché: How now, brown cow?

    What does it really mean?
    What’s up?

    What could this mean of translated literally or word for word?
    You are addressing a cow that happens to be brown with the phrase, “How now.” This makes no sense.

  6. Cliché: He cooked his goose.

    What does it really mean?
    He spoiled his plans.

    What could this mean if translated literally or word for word?
    In the past, a person took his goose and prepared it over a fire, in an oven, boiled it, or prepared it in the kitchen for consumption.

  7. Cliché: Blood is thicker than water.

    What does it really mean?
    Relatives stick together.

    What could this mean if translated literally or word for word?
    If you compare the thickness of water and blood, you will find that the water is thinner than the blood.

  8. Cliché: Like a bat out of hell

    What does it really mean?
    Quickly.

    What could this mean if translated literally or word for word?
    A small flying rodent flew out of the area generally known as the bad part of the afterlife.

  9. Cliché: Albatross around her neck

    What does it really mean?
    A burden

    What could this mean if translated literally or word for word?
    She has a large sea bird encircling her neck

  10. Cliché: Swallow your pride.

    What does it really mean?
    Accept what is happening, even though it is humiliating.

    What could this mean if translated literally or word for word?
    Place something that you are proud of in your mouth and swallow it.

  11. Cliché: Eating out of my hand.

    What does it really mean?
    Being very cooperative.

    What could this mean if translated literally or word for word?
    Someone places his or her mouth to your palm and consumes whatever food stuff is on the palm. In a more gruesome paradigm, someone opens your hand and eats whatever is inside of the hand.

  12. Cliché: Rotten to the core

    What does it really mean?
    This person is thoroughly untrustworthy or corrupt.

    What could this mean if translated literally or word for word?
    A person’s trunk is filled with decay. This assumes that the decay is limited to the trunk and does not extend to the extremities.

  13. Cliché: Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

    What does it really mean?
    Take what is given to you without too much scrutiny

    What could this mean if translated literally or word for word?
    If someone gives you a horse as a present, don’t look inside of the mouth of the beast.

  14. Cliché: There is a fly in the ointment

    What does it really mean?
    There’s an obstacle, a hitch in one’s plans.

    What could this mean if translated literally or word for word?
    I directly observed the presence of a fly in the ointment.

  15. Cliché: A little bird told me.

    What does it really mean?
    I received information, but I will not divulge the source.

    What could this mean if translated literally or word for word?
    A small flying creature relayed information directly to me. A listener could assume that the person understood the bird’s original language or that the bird used English well enough to be understood.
(Cliches and explanations come from The Dictionary of Clichés by James Rogers Ballentine Books, New York: 1985)

Joe Bouchard is a Librarian employed with the Michigan Department of Corrections and a collaborator with The International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP). He is also the author of “IACTP’s Corrections Icebreakers: The Bouchard 101, 2014”. The installments in this series include his opinions. The agency for which he works is not in any way responsible for the content or accuracy of this material, and the views are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of the agency. While some material is influenced by other works, all of the icebreakers have been developed by Joe Bouchard.

Visit the Joe Bouchard page

Other articles by Bouchard:


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