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Según cálculos del Instituto Cervantes, existen alrededor de 560 millones de hispanoparlantes en el mundo; con todo, hablar un mismo idioma no equivale a emplear las mismas palabras, lo que origina interesantísimas variantes léxicas entre los países que componen esta comunidad lingüística. Sirva como ejemplo de ello las dos expresiones siguientes: “Amárrate las agujetas (cordones de zapatos) o te vas a dar un ranazo (trompicón)” – México. “No tengo ni para cotufas (palomitas): estoy en la lona (sin blanca)” – Venezuela.

Este tipo de diversidad léxica y semántica, como cabría esperar, abunda de igual modo en los países angloparlantes, singularidad que nace de una identidad cultural propia y concreta, y que supone un signo diferenciador en las sociedades que comparten un mismo idioma.

El siguiente contenido gramatical, en línea con entradas anteriores, continuará adentrándonos en estas peculiaridades lingüísticas distintivas de los países anglófonos.

‘All you need to do is study hard and Bob’s your uncle! You’ll pass your exam, for sure.’

What on earth does ‘Bob’s your uncle’ mean? And where does this idiom come from?

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It’s another example of a strange expression that has seeped into English language usage, despite its obscure origins (see also: ‘Devon Loch’). It means ‘there you go’, in the sense of ‘and so it is’. For example, if you are telling someone how to prepare a certain dish, you would give them the instructions and then – when you are about to finish – you would say ‘Bob’s your uncle!’ as though to say ‘that’s that – done!’.

There are several theories about where the phrase came from, but perhaps the two most compelling involve a music hall performance and an old song. In 1924, Scottish newspaper The Angus Evening Telegraph published the bill for a musical revue in Dundee, Scotland, called ‘Bob’s Your Uncle’; it was also the name of a song written by John P Long, published in 1931, which was called ‘Follow Your Uncle Bob’, and included the following lyrics:

Bob’s your uncle
Follow your uncle Bob
He knows what to do
He’ll look after you

Either of these explanations could potentially describe the origin of this phrase.

Let’s move on. English is a famously flexible language, taking in influences from many other languages, from German (schadenfreude) to Maori (boomerang,) to Inuit (anorak, kayak). So what could we mean by ‘Pardon my French’?

This expression is used when people use profanity in their speech. So if, for example, somebody could say “Excuse my French, but this film is sh*t!” It often goes before the swear word, i.e. the speaker knows they are aboutn to say something offensive and want to warn the listener beforehand.

This expression dates from the 19th century, when it became fashionable for highbrow English speakers to use French words in their speech. They would often apologise for any confusion on the listener’s part, since many people could not speak French: hence the idiom, “Excuse my French” (‘excuse’ and ‘pardon’ meaning the same thing in this context).

When people engage in conversation – often relaxed, social chat – we might say they are ‘chewing the fat’, e.g. “I’m looking forward to seeing my friend tonight. We’ll chew the fat over a few beers.” This idiom refers to the tradition of sailors relaxing and conversing whilst chewing on salt-hardened fat. (This is known as ‘chewing the rag’ in American English.)

Anyone who has read Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s story, Alice in Wonderland, will know of the Mad Hatter – a strange, possibly unbalanced individual. However the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ pre-dates Carroll’s classic. It refers to the unfortunate tendency for hat makers in 17th century France to succumb to mercury poisoning (they used mercury for the felt in the hats). Symptoms of this malaise included shyness, tremors and irritability. Hence a person who is perceived to be skittish and odd is said to be ‘as mad as a hatter’.

One more idiom that might confound foreign speakers is ‘pigs might fly’ (or, more commonly in the USA, ‘when pigs fly’). This expression is used to indicate that an occurrence is extremely unlikely. For example, we could say: ‘You think she’ll agree to marry him? Pigs might fly.’ (In other words, there’s no way she will marry him.)

According to phrases.co.uk, Thomas Fuller, in Gnomologia, 1732, was the first to explicitly single out the pig as a terrible aeronaut:

That is as likely as to see an Hog fly.

Another way to express the improbability of a situation arising is to say ‘when hell freezes over’, e.g. ‘Hell will freeze over before he goes back to that awful hotel!’ These last two expressions – about pigs flying and hell freezing over – are called adynata: ‘a figure of speech in the form of hyperbole taken to such extreme lengths as to insinuate a complete impossibility’ (from Wikipedia).

Check out our blog to see how you handle these idioms.

 

A. Porter

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