As chance would have it, I was holidaying in Spain just when I had to read the galley proofs of the Spanish edition of Lingo, so I spent part of the time hearing and speaking one of my favourite languages and another part reading and writing it. It was while reading that I came across a translation that made me pause. The original says that Basque and the Indo-European languages are ‘worlds apart’. The translator, José C. Vales, rendered this as mundos independientes, ‘independent worlds’. Perfectly fine, I think: Basque is one world, Indo-European another, and they’re independent, separate – apart.
But his translation also made me realise that this was not how I had visualised the idiom up till then. In my mind’s eye, things that are ‘worlds apart’ are not two worlds positioned a certain distance apart, but two things separated by a distance of several worlds. The meaning is the same, of course, but the mental image isn’t. ‘Worlds apart’, for me, is not similar to ‘poles apart’: with poles, it’s obvious that there can’t be several of them between two things, always assuming we’re talking north and south poles or magnetic poles, not fence poles or flagpoles. Rather, I consider ‘worlds apart’ to be analogous to ‘miles apart’, ‘years apart’ or ‘a few houses apart’. I’m not at all claiming I’m right; indeed, I’m more likely to be wrong. But I find it interesting that I should have such a specific image of this idiom in the first place.
My scholarly friend Jenny Audring has since told me that in linguistics, there is a jargon term for this phenomenon, as of course there would be: imageability. Some idioms are imageable, say ‘Don’t spare the horses’: even now that we do not use horses much anymore, it’s still pretty obvious why we should say this to prod someone to hurry. Others are unimageable (except to those equipped with etymological knowledge), usually because the words have assumed a new meaning or because the wording itself has changed over time. In Dutch, for instance, if you know a person van haver tot gort (literally ‘from oats to groats’ – free bonus rhyme in English!), you know them ‘through and through’. Centuries ago, the idiom ran van aver tot aver (‘from ancestor to ancestor’ – Old English had eafora for ‘ancestor’), which is not just imageable, but straightforward bordering on the mundane. An example in English would be the equally mysterious (to me anyway) ‘push the envelope‘.
Between these extremes, there are the idioms and expressions of limited or ambiguous imageability. ‘Kicking the bucket’ is one: I’ve always imagined somebody with their head in a noose, ending it all by kicking away the bucket they’re standing on. But the Oxford English Dictionary tells us it’s more likely that the ‘bucket’ refers to a beam from which a pig is hung to be slaughtered; the kicking occurs in the animal’s dead throes. ‘Worlds apart’, belongs into this category, in my personal lexicon anyway. And not only in mine: when I discussed it on Twitter, opinion was somewhat divided, with the majority (well – three people) choosing the interpretation along the lines of ‘poles apart’, not the ‘miles apart’ one.
Okay, this seems to have become a bit of a rambling blogpost, so I might as well add that imaging idioms is not just the habit of an overly language-oriented mind such as my own. Here’s what researchers have found: people ‘demonstrate tacit knowledge of the metaphorical basis for many (…) idioms. When asked to form a mental image for a phrase (…), people can do so without difficulty and can answer a variety of questions about that image’ – and their answers tend to be similar. So there, I’m normal.
Lingo will be published in Spanish this spring, by Editorial Turner of Madrid.