5 Intriguing Words

Don't know how long this lil' guy's 양다리 game will last, but adorable moment! (Photo: Furman S. Baldwin's "The Kiss")
Don’t know how long this lil’ guy’s 양다리 game will last, but adorable moment! (Photo: Furman S. Baldwin’s “The Kiss“)

…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 bunch of articles on rich people scooping up (a lot of) (prime) NYC real estate. 
  • 山寨, shān zhài | CN | a term (Wikipedia entry here) that essentially means imitation, 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 few arguments 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”.

5 Intriguing Words


…from the last several weeks.

  • 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 辣鸡


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The times they are a-changin’ | in my front yard

I can’t remember when exactly I heard “Autumn Leaves” for the first time, but there’s a good chance it was in an assembly during middle school. I think our student jazz band performed it, and then I bugged my jazz band friend about what the song was, eager to hear it over and over again after that. The song, all about loss and longing, transpiring parallel to the natural, inevitable progression of the seasons…makes feeling wistful feel so damn good.

So I return to it every fall. Only this time—for the sake of this blog—I discover that it was actually originally a French song! (Pardon my cultural ignorance…) The French version, titled “Les feuilles Mortes” (literally “dead leaves”) gives me all the same wonderful chills. Sadly, I can’t seem to find any covers in Chinese or Korean, but I did find it in Japanese, Spanish, and Italian.

Here now, a few lovely renditions, in English and French.

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Match That Idiom 02 – All About Horses

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

It's me and a very-much-alive horse.
It’s me and a very-much-alive horse. | aug. 2014

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”]

Vocab: Iced Coffee

I picked up an iced coffee on the way home today and immediately fell in love with the beverage’s intermingling colors and textures. Obviously, the rational next step is Instagramming a close-up. But now it’s a quick vocab study, too! CN | 冰咖啡 | bīng kāfēi KR | 아이스 커피 | aiseu keopi FR | café glacé When I […]

Match That Idiom 01 -“雪上加霜”

I’ve always been fascinated by how different languages go about communicating the same idea. So in this series of posts, I’ll be looking at how idiomatic expressions translate across English, Chinese, French, and Korean.

First up is a Chinese idiom that I recently fell in love with…it just appeals so much to the senses.

CN | 雪上加霜 | xuě shàng jiā shuāng

Snow/frost feels too pure and harmless to mean something negative…but then there’s hypothermia. (image via Cano Vääri/Flickr)

Literal translation: to add frost on top of snow
Actual meaning: to make matters worse, to make a relationship with another person even worse by offending him as well as actually harming him

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