Journeying onwards in IdiomLand, here’s a neat Chinese phrase I recently learned from my parents.
CN | 死马当活马医 | sǐ mǎ dāng huó mǎ yī
Literal translation: to treat (cure) a dead horse like it’s a live one
Actual meaning: to try your best at something even though it’s basically impossible/hopeless — real life example: “Yeah, you should just send that follow-up email to the hiring manager, 死马当活马医” (i.e. even if it’s looking unlikely you’ll get the job, just followup with the employer anyway.)
As soon as I started thinking about what this Chinese idiom could be in other languages, I thought of a very familiar phrase in English: beating a dead horse, which means something like “to keep attempting something even though the outcome has been decided.”
I think it’s so interesting that the essence of these two phrases are the same, but their specific angle and how they’re commonly used in conversation are quite different.
The Chinese version, 死马当活马医, seems encouraging — you should treat a dead horse as if it’s alive, just give it a try. The English one, beating a dead horse, feels merely discouraging. Whenever I hear it, it’s always used to communicate something like “hey, stop it, you’re beating a dead horse, it’s a lost cause, there’s no point.”
When I said the same “essence” earlier, I’m talking about the notion of using the horse to describe our attitude and effort towards accomplishing something. I also wondered, why the horse? But recognizing the vital role horses played in so many facets of society…transportation, warfare, leisure/entertainment…the choice seems rather obvious. Pigs, dogs, oxen are just less universal, less significant in terms of their contact with humanity.
I haven’t been able to find anything relevant in Korean or French, so drop a note if you know of any!
[BONUS: Oh hey, Oxford Dictionaries did a whole blog entry on horses and language! “Horseplay: horses in idioms and proverbs”]