Last week I was teaching a lesson to my English classes, during which I introduced a lot of new vocabulary. My students were studying a drawing of a scene at a park and trying to name all the English words they could.
They all wanted to know what the things floating in the pond were called.
“Oh, those are “ducks,”” I said.
“Hmmm,” said Rosi, “Hay veces que el pato toma mucha agua, y veces que ni agua bebe.”
I looked at her. “There are times when the duck drinks a lot of water, and times when it doesn’t drink at all?”
She nodded a little doubtfully, then repeated the phrase.
“What the hell does that mean?” I asked.
She started laughing, along with my other students. “I don’t know,” she said, “it’s a dicho [a saying].”
Alfonso piped up: “I’ve never heard that one before.”
“Yeah,” Rosi said, “me neither, but my friend said it once like it was famous.”
"Your friend," he said, "she is Mexican?"
"Funny," he said, "I never heard it in Mexico."
“Well, is that even true?” I asked. “I don’t even think that’s true. I mean, I don’t know that much about ducks. But even if it is true, is that different from any other living thing? Why ducks?”
I likened it to “feast of famine,” or “all or nothing,” and figured it was one of those things that just don’t translate.
But translation problems aside, I’ve never been good at adages, or clichés. Sometimes it’s a comprehension problem, like with “A penny saved is a penny earned.” What is that supposed to mean? Does it suggest that if you were able to save the penny, then you must have deserved it? Or does it have to do with interest, as in, your penny will become two pennies--one saved and one earned--with time? I never gleaned much from that one.
But most of the time, it’s a simple inability to get it right, and I think that has to do with hanging out with Kelsi for 12 years or so. My gal Kelsi, you see, is rather creative in the cliché department (paradoxical as that may seem).
It’s not that she’s trying to be different, but the real ones just don’t stick with her.
One time, she was talking about how she was excited about something she didn’t want to be that excited about, in case it didn’t pan out in the end. “Yeah,” she said, “I would like for it to happen, of course, but I’m just not gonna put all my chickens over there.”
Our friend Nicole and I looked at each other quizzically. “All your chickens over there?” we asked.
What she meant, clearly, was that she wasn’t going to put all her eggs in one basket.
That one, I could deal with. You know, maybe she didn’t want to put all her chickens in one chicken-retainer-area because what if that one burned down and all the chickens went with it? Makes sense.
On another occasion, she advised a friend of ours to just “let dead dogs die.”
Well, yeah. I’d agree with that one.
We’ve both had problems with those two damned birds. Should you not hide your light under two birds in a bushel? Or you can kill 2, but they're worth more if they're alive, in your hand?
Why is it “Can’t see the forest for the trees?” Why not “through the trees”?
Can anyone really take him or herself seriously when throwing around phrases like this?
The worst, though…the one that always gets me…
The other night I was playfully reprimanding a coworker who was being mean to his boss, who’d just sprung for his dinner. “Hey,” I said, “don’t bite a gift horse in the face!”
Or was that “look at the hand of the horse that feeds you”? “Kick a gift horse in the knee?”
I say we erase all those silly clichés from our minds. The reason they don’t stick is that they bear little relevance to our experiences today. Who even knows what a gift horse is? Would you recognize one if you met one? What is that--a horse somebody gave you, right?
How many people are out there killing birds (my landlord aside)? And when’s the last time you were loading dozens of eggs into one basket (indeed, ALL the eggs you had!), then thought better of it?
Kelsi had an interesting point: she said she can’t remember the clichés because she’s too creative; her mind won’t let her recycle the same hackneyed phrase over and over. And I think there’s something to it. I also feel lucky to be privy to her word incarnations. They make me stop and think.
Hmm, maybe an apple a day is worth a pound of cure.
Maybe I should nip it at the heels.
Maybe I shouldn’t give an inch…they’ll take all my chickens.