I was speaking to my mom on the phone today when I heard and then dwelled on a phrase I know but, as it turns out, don’t really understand.
I’m talking about…
三下五除二 | sān xià wǔ chú èr
I’ve always heard this while I was growing up, and based on context clues, have gathered that it means to do something quickly, decisively, effectively…and that’s essentially what it means. But more interesting is its literal origins, which I only found out after doing some googling today.
As you might be able to tell, there are a lot of numbers in there: 三 (three) 五 (five) 二 (two), so it shouldn’t be too surprising that this idiom comes from a calculation formula for the abacus, which I totally don’t remember how to use…And I’m not sure how that formula works either (3 = 5-2?), but I guess the main point is that doing calculations on an abacus is much faster than using fingers or physical objects…Fun!
Today’s language-learning inspiration comes from Mr. Mark Zuckerberg, who just wow-ed the world with another mesmerizing video of him speaking entirely in Chinese. This time, it’s a Lunar New Year greeting, of course.
Also fascinating: this deep dive over on Quartz on what exactly is this year’s Chinese Zodiac animal sign. Is it a sheep? Goat? Ram? Does it matter? Apparently, some people in China are laughing at Western media for getting hung up on this, which is pretty amusing in itself. Linguistic mischief!
The Atlantic recently published something that’s right up my alley: a foreign idiom quiz! Featuring examples from Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Russian, Arabic, and many more.
Before the quiz, there was this quote from Jay Bhalla, author of an idiom book called I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears, which I liked and was just like, you can say that again (idiom!? haha):
“It’s just fascinating that every culture has them,” Bhalla told me, notwithstanding the fact that idioms are “often the least logical way to communicate a thought.”
No Korean in the mix, but here are the Chinese and French questions:
↑ This took me a while to process, but then it came to me. Horse horse tiger tiger = 马马虎虎 (Mǎmǎhǔhǔ). This is one of those things that I know in speech and listening, but not in writing…definitely did not realize there was horse and tiger involved.
…from the last several weeks. (So these vocabulary installments may contain more and more English words, since my real job involves writing…in English…which really means thesaurus.com all day and new tab > “define: xx” — youknowwhatimean?) Anyway:
frowzy | EN | scruffy and neglected in appearance; unkempt, messy, disheveled, etc. — Forgot where I saw this, but I love it because it’s one of those words that sound/feel exactly like what they mean.
funambulism | EN | the art of tightrope walking (walking along a thin wire or rope, usually at a great height); see Nik Wallenda’s recent record-setting stunts in Chicago—who knew there was a dedicated word for this!?
pied-à-terre | EN via FR | a temporary or second home; literally foot to the ground in French—got familiarized with this term after reading a bunchofarticles on rich people scooping up (a lot of) (prime) NYC real estate.
山寨, shān zhài | CN | a term (Wikipedia entry here) that essentially meansimitation, and particularly refers to the pervasive knock-off industry in China, i.e. “that’s a 山寨/shānzhài cell phone”; literally “mountain fortress” (something to do with the sense that fake goods are getting built/stockpiled in factories in villages far away from official control)—my dad mentioned this word in a conversation recently…he defined it as “Made in China”, which sounds pretty sad. But I’ve also read quite a fewarguments for how shān zhài is highly efficient and also innovative (!).
양다리, yang dari | KR | literally “both legs”, typically used to mean two-timing/dating two people at the same time; 양다리를 걸치다 means “to try to have it both ways”.
réalisateur | FR | film director—I just love it. Conveys so much more than “director”. The réalisateur turns a vision into reality!
milquetoast | EN | a timid, meek, or unassertive person—Do not remember where I saw this. Just knew I didn’t know it. Apparently origin is “Caspar Milquetoast, a diffident character in H. T. Webster’s comic strip The Timid Soul.”
sacrebleu | FR | an ancient, stereotypical French curse used to express anger or surprise—apparently no one in France uses this anymore; more common are Oh la vache! (holy cow!), merde! (sh*t!), and putain! (f*ck!)…not to be confused with Putin 😉 Much more on this here.
bête noire | EN via FR | a person or thing that someone really dislikes; pet peeve—it literally means “black beast.”
麻辣鸡, málà jī | CN | NICKI. FREAKIN’. MINAJ.—ok, what I think is happening is…the Chinese media dubbed Nicki Minaj 麻辣鸡 (málà jī) which literally means numb/spicy chicken…Maybe they couldn’t help it because Minaj is kiiiiiinda like málà jī and Nicki is just a “spicy hot badass chick”!? I don’t know…but I am very fascinated…Google search results for 麻辣鸡.
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!