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What does our language say about us?

I’ve always found it interesting that in South American Spanish, the word for heaven – ‘cielo’– is also used for sky. This seems to me to reflect the deeply religious nature of society there – any mention of what’s above us automatically includes the sense of us being watched over by a higher being – a comforting thought for many. Similarly, for me the fact that the word for handcuffs – ‘esposas’ – is directly based on the word for wife (‘esposa’) reflects the long tradition of machismo in the region. I’m sure this only struck me because I’m a non-native speaker though. Which leads me to wonder: what English words do non-native speakers find particularly telling about English-speaking culture (whether it be British English, American English or any other variety)?

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Sharon Creese


  • There is a Penguin/Ladybird poster in our toilet, depicting a nice ‘horse chestnut tree.’ Whenever I visit the loo I wonder about the origin of the phrase. Does it have anything to do with a horse chest? Or does it refer to the fact that the conkers might be the favourite food of horses? I wonder. I know that pigs like these conkers, but not the horses. Now I understand that the phrase is a pure translation of the Latin name of the tree: Hippocastanaceae. Were the ‘Latin’ horses fond of it?

  • A couple of days ago I was reminded in another blog that one of the participants might ‘pulling my leg.’ Pulling what? How come? Then, this participant has admitted that he in fact was trying to make a joke out of my comment. In Hungarian, we would say ‘cross moustache’ if you are entagled in a row with somebody. We also say ‘pull finger with sy’ if you dare to provoke your protagonist. But NOT his legs!

  • Actually, the Germanic, Romance and Slavonic languages (and Finnish, too!) generally use the same word for ‘sky’ and ‘heaven’. English is exceptional in differentiating them. But does that mean that speakers of those languages are necessarily aware of the ‘heaven’ meaning whenever they mention the sky? I think probably not.

    (‘Sky’ is of Scandinavian origin, and is also used in the modern Scandinavian languages, though with the primary meaning ‘cloud’.)

  • @Jonathan – I would have said it was more a case of them seeing the two as so inextricably linked that there was no need for differentiation, rather than them choosing one meaning over the other, but that’s very much just my personal interpretation.

  • i remember i wondered about some words when i was learning english, but i can’t put my finger in any one word now. i used to think, though, that the existence of the expression “look out for number 1” was very telling. however, later on i figured that we have a similar expression in my mother tongue (brazilian portuguese), but it’s a full-fledged proverb: “farinha pouca, meu pirão primeiro.” don’t ask me to translate that, cause i don’t think you eat farinha (flour) or pirão (fried flour mixed w/ vegetable or fish soup = delicious dish). literally it means that if we are almost out of flour, my pirão comes first.

  • Good point Natalia!
    Apparently the word ‘deadline’ comes from an actual line that used to be drawn around a prison – any prisoner crossing it was automatically shot. As you say, though, it’s a bit extreme for getting a piece of work in late…

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