Tag Archives: idioms

lying through your pants

The first time I lived overseas I was only there for two months. I wasn’t speaking or learning the local language. Still, I recognized that my English skills had declined in this span of time.

When I moved to Japan, I actively pursued learning the language. But at the same time, I didn’t want to lose my other languages. While the majority of my study revolves around Japanese of some sort, I’ve given a few minutes each day to reviewing German vocabulary and to reading a bit of Spanish. I’ve also set up some English flashcards. The English I’ve been studying is SAT caliber. It isn’t vocab I’d usually pepper into daily speech. Still, it’s been helping. Maybe it’s just been keeping my brain folds wrinkly, but I feel like I’ve forgotten a lot less.

That doesn’t mean some aspects of my speech haven’t taken a nose dive. Idioms and jargon is what seems to be hit the hardest.

And it isn’t just me.

A week ago during a meeting, Coworker A told a sarcastic joke. His deadpan nature meant we couldn’t quite tell if he was serious or not. When it became clear he was pulling our legs, Coworker B accused him:

“You’re lying through your pants.”

A couple of us sat there silently for a few seconds. We had a feeling the expression wasn’t quite right, but we couldn’t remember what the correct one was. The closest I came up with was, “Liar, liar, pants on fire.” Coworker C finally figured it out.

“Oh,” he said, “the expression is ‘You’re lying through your teeth.’ And, ‘Flying by the seat of your pants.;” He wasn’t saying that to correct Coworker B. In fact, I don’t think Coworker B even heard him, as she was still talking to Coworker A. It was more of an awareness on Coworker C’s part, one that extended to a few of us nearby, of trying to remember what in the world that expression was.

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The Humor of Idioms

Idioms can cause a host of trouble when it comes to learning another language. For a good movie with a lot of this humor, check out Short Circuit and Short Circuit 2. The Indian character makes a lot of linguistic mistakes, mostly when it comes to his idioms, and it illustrates how ridiculous our language is. 

For the real world examples, here are a few:

1. On Wednesday I taught at a local elementary school. One kid was missing from the fifth grade, and I overheard the teachers discussing it. I had a total language win when I caught them saying the word for chicken pox. I chimed in, proud that I knew what that was. But explaining the English version was less than intuitive. At first they messed it up with goose bumps. Then they wanted to know what a goose was. Unfortunately, that isn’t a word I know in Japanese. We all know that neither ailment has anything to do with birds, but explaining where the name comes from is rather tricky. 

2. Today the teacher I work with wanted me to call upon a student to answer the grammar question. “Please pick up a student” he asked. I smiled at the image, especially when I caught sight of a kid who weighs as much as I do, but I didn’t correct the teacher, out of a wish to avoid embarrassment for him, and called out a kid’s name. It is possible I heard incorrectly, so I listened intently the next time. Nope, he didn’t ask me to pick OUT a student, he was still asking me to pick UP a student. I swallowed a smile and did so. It happened a third time too. Among my coworkers we often have debates about whether or not to correct such situations. Of all mistakes it isn’t that severe, and there isn’t a lot of freedom to correct superiors, no matter what country one is in. 

3. Another teacher at a different school with whom I have worked consistently ends class with, “So much for today.” This fatalistic, discouraged view of the situation is in direct opposition to her sunny nature, leading the several of us who work with her to believe that what she means is, “That’s all for today.” But her mistake is so cute that I ordered my coworkers not to tell her. 

4. Years ago, before I came to Japan, I worked at a coffee shop in the States. One of my coworkers was a German woman and one day she said something she regretted to a customer. “Oh,” she asked, “What is it called when you say something you don’t want to say?” “It’s called, ‘Putting your foot in your mouth.'” “In Germany we say, ‘I put my foot in a bucket of mustard.'” To this day I think of that. I don’t know why the Germans keep buckets of mustard handy, or who would put their foot in one, but it’s quite the imagery. 

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