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10 Long-Forgotten Expressions To Drop Into Conversation

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When someone says that they “ate humble pie,” they mean that they had to admit to a mistake or else to something humiliating or degrading. But what they literally mean is that they ate “numbles pie”—that is, a pie made from the umbles or numbles, or internal organs, of an animal. Because pies like this were once considered low-quality food fit only the poorest of people, an association with being humble was quick to follow.

But humble pie isn’t alone among the peculiar, weird-sounding expressions we use in the English language. Whether you’re sailing three sheets to the wind or flying by the seat of your pants, English allows you to drop what are (at face value at least) some pretty peculiar idioms and expressions into your everyday conversation.

1. IT’S TOO LATE TO WHET THE SWORD WHEN THE TRUMPET BLOWS

From taking time by the forelock to seizing the day, plenty of proverbs and expressions warn against procrastination or ill-preparedness—to which you can add this one. Whet here means “to sharpen,” and the trumpet that’s being blown is a military one signaling the start of a battle. Put another way, you should always be prepared: It’s too late to start sharpening your sword when the battle has already begun.

2. “THE CASE IS ALTERED,” QUOTH PLOWDEN

Edmund Plowden was a renowned English lawyer of the Elizabethan period, while The Case Is Altered was the title of an early 17th century play by Ben Jonson. It’s possible that no real life event should have led to the two being connected in this expression, but plenty of anecdotes have arisen that purport to explain it. According to one, Plowden was involved in the case of some hogs that had escaped and ran amok on the plaintiff’s land, and was about to push the court to rule that the hog’s owner pay for the damage, when it was pointed out that they were his. “Nay then,” Plowden apparently replied, “then the case is altered.” Regardless of whether this anecdote (or any of the others that purport to explain this phrase) is true or not, the case is altered, quoth Plowden has been used proverbially in English since the mid-1600s at least to point out that new evidence or facts have come to light. It's also used in a less flattering way to mean when a lawyer switches sides for nefarious reasons, such as larger fees.

3. A LAZY SHEEP THINKS ITS WOOL IS HEAVY

An 18th century expression alluding to someone who consistently finds fault in even good things. It would also come to mean someone who is so lazy that they can’t take care of the basics.

4. TO RUN BEFORE YOUR HORSE TO MARKET

A warning from the 15th century, that Shakespeare used in Richard III: If you run before your horse to market, then you anticipate success before it’s guaranteed. Essentially, it’s an alternative to not counting your chickens before they’re hatched.

5. LITTLE BIRDS MAY PECK A DEAD LION

Dating from the late 19th century and thought to originate in Spanish, little birds may peck a dead lion implies that only once a strong opponent is weakened or out of the game do weaker players or participants start to act.

6. A KING’S CHEESE GOES HALF AWAY IN PARINGS

A paring is a thin sliver of waste material cut or scraped off something larger. The old adage that a king’s cheese goes half away in parings might allude to the fact that to ensure his majesty is only ever served the very best food, every time the king wanted to eat some cheese his servants would have to trim away the dry outer edge of the block, leaving only the freshest cheese on his plate. Another possibility is that there are so many people wanting to take tiny slivers of the king’s cheese that these bits add up to half the block. Either way, a lot of the king’s cheese ends up wasted. This saying was first recorded in 1735 in Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack as the longer “The King’s cheese is half wasted in parings: But no matter, ’tis made of the peoples milk.”

7. TO END IN A WHEW, LIKE CAWTHORNE WAKES

A whew is a whimper or a soft blow, like that used to blow out a candle. Cawthorne is a village in South Yorkshire, England, while a wakes is a local village festival, traditionally one held on the feast day of the patron saint of the local parish church. If something ends in a whew, like Cawthorne wakes, then it ends in a disappointment or an anti-climax: Apparently, the festival at Cawthorne would typically end with the parish authorities unceremoniously blowing out the festival’s candles or lanterns.

8. “THAT’S EXTER,” SAID THE OLD WOMAN WHEN SHE SAW KERTON

Exter is Exeter, a city in the southwest of England, and Kerton is Crediton, a small town lying to its northwest. This old dialect expression is attributed to a (probably apocryphal) “old woman” traveling on foot to Exeter for the first time. Suddenly seeing the impressive spire of the Church of the Holy Cross in Crediton emerge on the horizon, she presumed she was at long last approaching Exeter Cathedral and that her long, tiresome journey was nearing its end; in fact, she would still have roughly another eight miles to walk before she got to Exeter. Whether true or not, this anecdote inspired this bizarre expression referring to someone who thinks their work is finished, only to find there’s just that little bit more to get done.

9. TO LEAP OVER THE HEDGE BEFORE YOU COME TO THE STILE

Anyone familiar with walking in the countryside will know that a stile is a wooden step or rung used for climbing over a fence or wall. To make things unnecessarily difficult for yourself by acting prematurely or too quickly, ultimately, is to leap the hedge before you come to the stile.

10. “FIRE,” QUOTH THE FOX, WHEN HE PISSED ON THE ICE

As proverbs and sayings go, you can’t get much stranger than a urinating fox. Apparently, the origin of this expression refers to the fact that the fox’s actions would make the ice steam, fooling the fox into thinking he could produce fire. As a result, this old adage—which dates back to the 1600s, at least—refers to someone who unrealistically expects too much from a plan or undertaking that is liable not to succeed.

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8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words
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Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.

1. BREF

Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.

2. SANTIGUADORA

Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”

3. HELLHÖRIG

The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.

4. VORSTELLUNG

Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.

7. TERTULIA

Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.

8. PAN/PANI

Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to Culture.pl, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.

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What Is Foreign Accent Syndrome?
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One night in 2016, Michelle Myers—an Arizona mom with a history of migraines—went to sleep with a splitting headache. When she awoke, her speech was marked with what sounded like an British accent, despite having never left the U.S. Myers is one of about 100 people worldwide who have been diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a condition in which people spontaneously speak with a non-native accent.

In most cases, FAS occurs following a head injury or stroke that damages parts of the brain associated with speech. A number of recent incidences of FAS have been well documented: A Tasmanian woman named Leanne Rowe began speaking with a French-sounding accent after recovering from a serious car accident, while Kath Lockett, a British woman, underwent treatment for a brain tumor and ended up speaking with an accent that sounds somewhere between French and Italian.

The first case of the then-unnamed syndrome was reported in 1907 when a Paris-born-and-raised man who suffered a brain hemorrhage woke up speaking with an Alsatian accent. During World War II, neurologist Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn compiled the first comprehensive case study of the syndrome in a Norwegian woman named Astrid L., who had been hit on the head with shrapnel and subsequently spoke with a pronounced German-sounding accent. Monrad-Krohn called her speech disorder dysprosody: her choice of words and sentence construction, and even her singing ability, were all normal, but her intonation, pronunciation, and stress on syllables (known as prosody) had changed.

In a 1982 paper, neurolinguist Harry Whitaker coined the term "foreign accent syndrome" for acquired accent deviation after a brain injury. Based on Monrad-Kohn's and other case studies, Whitaker suggested four criteria for diagnosing FAS [PDF]:

"The accent is considered by the patient, by acquaintances, and by the investigator to sound foreign.
It is unlike the patient’s native dialect before the cerebral insult.
It is clearly related to central nervous system damage (as opposed to a hysteric reaction, if such exist).
There is no evidence in the patient’s background of being a speaker of a foreign language (i.e., this is not like cases of polyglot aphasia)."

Not every person with FAS meets all four criteria. In the last decade, researchers have also found patients with psychogenic FAS, which likely stems from psychological conditions such as schizophrenia rather than a physical brain injury. This form comprises fewer than 10 percent of known FAS cases and is usually temporary, whereas neurogenic FAS is typically permanent.

WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING?

While scientists are not sure why certain brain injuries or psychiatric problems give rise to FAS, they believe that people with FAS are not actually speaking in a foreign accent. Instead, their neurological damage impairs their ability to make subtle muscle movements in the jaw, tongue, lips, and larynx, which results in pronunciation that mimics the sound of a recognizable accent.

"Vowels are particularly susceptible: Which vowel you say depends on where your tongue is in your mouth," Lyndsey Nickels, a professor of cognitive science at Australia's Macquarie University, wrote in The Conversation. "There may be too much or too little muscle tension and therefore they may 'undershoot' or 'overshoot' their target. This leads to the vowels sounding different, and sometimes they may sound like a different accent."

In Foreign Accent Syndromes: The Stories People Have to Tell, authors Nick Miller and Jack Ryalls suggest that FAS could be one stage in a multi-phase recovery from a more severe speech disorder, such as aphasia—an inability to speak or understand speech that results from brain damage.

People with FAS also show wide variability in their ability to pronounce sounds, choose words, or stress the right syllables. The accent can be strong or mild. Different listeners may hear different accents from the speaker with FAS (Lockett has said people have asked her if she's Polish, Russian, or French).

According to Miller and Ryalls, few studies have been published about speech therapy for treating FAS, and there's no real evidence that speech therapy makes a difference for people with the syndrome. More research is needed to determine if advanced techniques like electromagnetic articulography—visual feedback showing tiny movements of the tongue—could help those with FAS regain their original speaking manner.

Today, one of the pressing questions for neurologists is understanding how the brain recovers after injury. For that purpose, Miller and Ryalls write that "FAS offers a fascinating and potentially fruitful forum for gaining greater insights into understanding the human brain and the speech processes that define our species."

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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