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    #1

    Idiom formation via transliteration

    My approach to the analysis of idioms is essentially based on determining the etymology of the idiom. It is no better or more accurate than the determination of the etymology of any other word or phrase. However, the phonetic aspect is often easier because most idioms have more syllables than most single words.

    To use an idiom competently/properly does not require any knowledge of its etymology. However, this knowledge may help an L2 student remember an idiom and how/when to use it.

    When I was a young kid, all of my friends and I knew the meaning of "escape by the skin of my teeth" and not a single one of us knew it was the translation of B'3or SHinai, a Hebrew pun on the word B'QoSHi (which means barely, hardly, with difficulty) in the biblical book of Job 19:20.

    The majority of idioms are transliterated (not translated) from a foreign language directly into words that look/sound/feel like the target language. For English idioms, there are not a lot of foreign languages involved: Germanic, Latin, Aramaic (during the 600 years it was a lingua franca), French (1066), Hebrew & Greek (biblical translation), Arabic (7 Crusades, Spanish Armada 1588 => Black Irish), Yiddish (in England prior to the Expulsion in 1290; 1840s from Germany, early 1900s from Eastern Europe), etc.

    A minority of idioms are translation of foreign idioms. These are more difficult to analyze because one needs to know the language of the source and the foreign language into which a transliteration (sic) was made, which may or may not be the same. In some cases, there may have been intermediate translations, but this should not affect the result if they were "faithful". A cute translation idiom is "count sheep !" to go to sleep. This is probably the translation of a Hebrew pun S'PoR TSo@N on the Latin phrase sopor (as in soporific) sond (as in soundly / deeply). This English idiom has been retranslated back into Israeli Hebrew as LiSPoR KeVeS = to count sheep.

    In a few cases, the "original" was a euphemism and not "plain text". I suspect this is the case with "kick the bucket". It seems to be the direct trans-literation of a Semitic euphemism for dying: to make love in Paradise. Using 3 for aiyin with its ancient G/K-sound: 3aGaV = make physical love + B'3aiDeN = in Eden. 3G => Kick, vB3Dn => BucKeT.

    In other words, this type of idiom formation represents the target languag-ification of a foreign word or phrase. It can be most easily illustrated with a foreign phrase that did *not* become an idiom: Latin e pluribus unum = out of many, one. This is a motto of the USA. If it had become an idiom, it might have become "a flower bush you name" but would retain its original Latin meaning. It would probably acquire a folk etymology, such as: we could give a flower bush many names, but we usually give it only one.

    Transliteration idioms are most easily formed at a time when most target-language speakers do not read and write. They hear a foreign word / phrase, understand its meaning in context, and convert its sounds into target-language words they do know.

    For example: a pirate flag. "Flag of evil" = Hebrew DeGeLei Ra3a = Arabic DeJeLei RaJa => English The Jolly Roger.

    For a rare modern example, "face the music" is attested in the United States from the 1840s. This "music" is probably from Yiddish MoSKoNeh = inference, deduction, hence, consequences, from Hebrew MaSKaNah with the same meaning.

    Etymology is not an exact science. The 3 etymologies that a non-linguist is most likely to "know" are all false. Muscle is not from Latin musculus = a small mouse. Sabotage is not from French sabot = an old shoe. And cabal is from Hebrew het-bet-lamed = to plot, scheme, not from Hebrew Kabbalah = esoteric knowledge, literally, received (tradition). Porcelain has nothing to do with a porcine vulva, and gossamer is from Latin Gossypium = cotton, not from goose + summer . But that is another story.

    For more examples of idiom etymologies, do a Google search for < idioms Hebrew "izzy cohen" >

    Dosh kham,
    Israel "izzy" Cohen
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    #2

    Re: Idiom formation via transliteration

    Very interesting approach.!!! To kick the bucket could be given a more simple explanation : The gallows pole.. a hungman standing on a bucket which is kicked ....
    Furthermore,there might be an old correlation between sabot et sabotage. Sabot is also the name given to a bad tool or a device meant to stop a movement.
    I'd like to have your opinion on two flowery idioms:
    the English to push up the daisies and its French equivalent Manger les pissenlits par la racine.
    Compter les moutons to count sheep is still heard in the midnight hour.
    To take the French leave - filer l'anglaise...


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    #3

    Re: Idiom formation via transliteration

    > To kick the bucket could be given a more simple explanation :
    > The gallows pole.. a hungman standing on a bucket which is kicked ....

    This is a typical folk etymology with no evidence that hangings were actually performed in this manner.

    > ... there might be an old correlation between sabot et sabotage.
    > Sabot is also ... a bad tool or a device meant to stop a movement.

    Sabot is also a device used on railway tracks. Removing it can cause a train to be derailed. However, the original meaning of "sabotage" was to go on strike, that is, to stop working. I believe it is derived from Hebrew shin-bet-tof with the sense of treating a workday as if it were the Sabbath.

    > ... the English to push up the daisies and its French equivalent
    > Manger les pissenlits par la racine.

    This English expression is "metaphorical". The meaning of this phrase can be derived by analysis of its component parts. My assertion that idioms are fromed via transliteration applies only to expressions that cannot be understood via component analysis.

    > Compter les moutons to count sheep is still heard in the midnight hour.

    This expression has been translated into many languages. I do not know whether the French or English version occurred first, whether one was translated from the other, or whether both were translated from some other source.

    > To take the French leave - filer l'anglaise...

    This is a somewhat pejorative expression in English, somewhat like "Dutch treat" (where you pay you own expenses) or the "Spanish disease". In this sense, it is also understandable by component analysis.

    Best regards,
    Israel "izzy" Cohen

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    #4

    Re: Idiom formation via transliteration

    1. Transliteration vs. translation: Do you mean literal transaltion. Please explain. Idioms are often formed on target models. But finding the ultimate origin is not an easy task because neither time nor place of such borrowings can be determined. In addition, folk etymology is often at work.
    2. Arabic DeJeLei RaJa is not clear to me. What root is this word.
    3. Dogs bark but the caravan goes on. It is said to have been coined on a Turkish model.
    Last edited by Dr. Jamshid Ibrahim; 04-Jan-2008 at 15:39.

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    #5

    Re: Idiom formation via transliteration

    Quote Originally Posted by cohen.izzy View Post
    However, the original meaning of "sabotage" was to go on strike, that is, to stop working. I believe it is derived from Hebrew shin-bet-tof with the sense of treating a workday as if it were the Sabbath.
    No Hebrew connection here. It comes from the French: a "sabot" was a wooden shoe worn by peasants, and "sabotage" the clattering noise made by walking in these shoes. It then came to mean any awful noise, a cacophany, and was commonly applied to badly-played music; that gave it the meaning of "to bungle".

    It then came to be applied to labour disputes, although it's not exactly clear how. The oft-repeated story that strikers threw their sabots into the machinery to disable it appears to be untrue: probably, they either intentionally bungled their work, or stood on the picket-line making a cacophanous noise, so that no work could be done.

    By the way, you can't do language research simply by looking at similar words in different languages and assuming they must be related. You have to go through all the literary works you can find and trace the meaning of the word backwards in time. Unless you can show a definite evolution through time from "shin-bet-tof" to "sabotage", you won't be able to prove anything. In this case, you'd have to show exactly when and how the vowels "a" and "o" were inserted into the consonant template you provide, and to produce documentary evidence that the word was in use with the meaning you claim some time before about the 13th century, when "sabot" first appeared in French.

    However, there is evidence that "sabot" might be derived from an Arabic word for something like "old shoe". If so, that seems to be the only Semitic connection here.

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    #6

    Re: Idiom formation via transliteration

    Quote Originally Posted by rewboss View Post
    By the way, you can't do language research simply by looking at similar words in different languages and assuming they must be related. You have to go through all the literary works you can find and trace the meaning of the word backwards in time. Unless you can show a definite evolution through time from "shin-bet-tof" to "sabotage", you won't be able to prove anything. In this case, you'd have to show exactly when and how the vowels "a" and "o" were inserted into the consonant template you provide, and to produce documentary evidence that the word was in use with the meaning you claim some time before about the 13th century, when "sabot" first appeared in French.

    However, there is evidence that "sabot" might be derived from an Arabic word for something like "old shoe". If so, that seems to be the only Semitic connection here.
    I do agree with you Rewboss. You have simply to be careful particularly when dealing with etymologies. BTW there is an old Arabic word Sbt which refers to sandals without hair (sbt: meaning tanned or hair removed). Another old Arabic word is sabT (t is emphatic) it has nothing to do with shoes because it means lank or extended....). Thus the Arabic origin is not convincing to me. It sounds far-fetched.


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    #7

    Re: Idiom formation via transliteration

    Sadly this is one of those traps that people interested in etymology fall into. An interesting idea which will not in the end stand intense scrutiny.

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    #8

    Re: Idiom formation via transliteration

    Quote Originally Posted by Dr. Jamshid Ibrahim View Post
    I do agree with you Rewboss. You have simply to be careful particularly when dealing with etymologies. BTW there is an old Arabic word Sbt which refers to sandals without hair (sbt: meaning tanned or hair removed). Another old Arabic word is sabT (t is emphatic) it has nothing to do with shoes because it means lank or extended....). Thus the Arabic origin is not convincing to me. It sounds far-fetched.
    It's not convincing to many linguists, which is why etymological dictionaries are usually careful to point out that it could be from Arabic, but that hasn't been proved. The possible link is the root "s-b-t" you mention to mean something like "tanned leather sandals" or -- who knows -- "sandals that are so old that all the hair has gone from them", which may have to come to French as "savote" via Turkish. On the other hand, it could simply be a coincidence, as you say.

    Part of the problem is that we only really have the written record to go by, and written language tends to lag about half a generation behind spoken language. When we see a word for the first time in the written record, it may have been used in speech for many years, or even decades, before then: its first appearance in the written record just marks the point at which it became "respectable" enough to be used in writing.

    For example, people have been saying "gonna" and "wanna" for decades already, but those forms are still considered inappropriate for formal written English.

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    #9

    Re: Idiom formation via transliteration

    True Ron. It is a very important point you mention here. When words, ideas and concepts are borrowed they often stay in the periphery (spoken only) before being adopted (in writing) and become part and parcel of a language.

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