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!
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.
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!
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
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