Idioms and images


Some idioms are puzzling

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.


11 thoughts on “Idioms and images

  1. If I had seen the Dutch ‘van aver tot aver’ and known it was old Dutch, I would have assumed modern Dutch was ‘van oever tot oever’ and visualized it as the distance between riverbanks. Just goes to show that a little etymological knowledge is a dangerous thing. However, I agree with your visualization of worlds apart. Countries can be independent worlds yet right next door to each other, but worlds apart implies far greater distance, though this may not be geographical either. Even attitudes between two politicians could be worlds apart, but indeed the image is of planets in outer space.


  2. As a Spanish speaker I would translate “worlds apart” the same as “no tienen nada que ver”. “Mundos independiente” sounds very English in Spanish to me “mundos independientes”.I don´t agree completely anyway. The Basque grammar is completely different from the Spanish grammar, but Basque has a lot of latin loanwords, as we could expected. “Real ” Basque (Basque usually spoken, not the Standard Basque, has plenty of Spanish words due to the historical influence. Spanish itself has a numer of Basque loanwords. But it´s true. It´s amazing how the language has survived. In the Middle Ages the language was spoken probably even in Burgos province, the craddle of Spanish. To many Spanish than speak more than one native language of the country (I speak also Galician) Basque sounds very Castilian


    • Thanks! I suppose you’ve only read this blogpost, not the original chapter, right? In the context of that chapter, I hope it’s clear enough that the ‘worlds apart’/’mundos independientes’/’nada que ver’ claim is only about grammar, not vocabulary. I am keenly aware that many Basque words have Romance roots, and at the end of the chapter some Spanish words of Basque origin are mentioned, the most famous one probably being izquierdo.


  3. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the Spanish translator read “worlds apart” as if “apart” were an adjective, since adjectives in Spanish follow their nouns. He understood “apart worlds” as if that were an expression that meant “separate worlds” or “independent worlds” in English. But “apart” is not an adjective here.
    You could think of it in terms of degrees of comparison:
    They are far apart.
    They are miles apart.
    They are worlds apart.
    They are light years apart.
    So the meaning of “X and Y are worlds apart” is “la distancia entre X e Y es enorme”. Perhaps there is an idiom in Spanish that means that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. It seems your visualisation of ‘world apart’ and mine are the same, and Spanish grammar may indeed have influenced the translator’s interpretation – I have observed he’s not above that. Strangely, however, I’ve just seen that mundos aparte (not apartes, aparte in Spanish too being an adverb, not an adjective) seems to be a common Spanish expression. That makes his choice all the more mysterious.
      Getting back to the imageability issue, I guess you’ll agree that ‘poles apart’ is a different bag of flour (Spanish for ‘kettle of fish’). And that being so, how do we know that ‘worlds apart’ isn’t a case like it? After all, while ‘far’, ‘miles’ and ‘lightyears’ are common enough indications of distance, ‘worlds’ isn’t. I find it hard to make a natural-sounding sentence in which ‘worlds’ indicates a distance.


      • Me sorprende la expresión “mundos aparte” porque no la recogen los diccionarios bilingües. Por ejemplo, si buscas “worlds apart” en el diccionario de Oxford, encontrarás estas traducciones:
        we are worlds apart = no tenemos nada que ver, somos como el día y la noche
        their views are worlds apart = sus opiniones son
        diametralmente opuestas.
        El diccionario de Collins pone estos ejemplos:
        they’re worlds apart “son totalmente opuestos or diferentes”, “no tiene nada que ver el uno con el otro”
        they’re worlds apart politically = “políticamente los separa un abismo”, “mantienen posiciones políticas totalmente diferentes”
        their views are worlds apart = “sus opiniones son totalmente distintas”
        there’s a world of difference between … “hay un mundo / un abismo entre …”
        Pero bueno, a lo mejor la expresión “mundos aparte” es tan nueva que todovía no la recogen los diccionarios.


      • Hola Tom, ¡un gusto saber de tí!
        Puede ser que la expresión ‘mundos aparte’ sea un anglicismo reciente, una traducción muy literal de ‘worlds apart’. Me imagino que entre hispanohablantes estadounidenses, entre portorriqueños y tal vez entre mexicanos la influencia del inglés debe ser fuerte. De ahí, una expresión podría generalizarse.


  4. I believe that the way you visualized the idiom is correct. Another way of saying “worlds apart” is “light years apart”. Worlds is a measurement here. I don’t know how to say it in Spanish but the idea is “very far apart from each other” not “mundos independientes.”


  5. Mundos independientes klinkt toch wat raar. Hier zeg je als iemand of iets echt heel anders is es otro mundo. En dan, als je in Spanje bent, kom je niet eens even een bakkie halen?


    • Hm, ik wil graag geloven dat de man dit goed vertaald heeft – hij heeft elders nogal wat steken laten vallen. Overigens, ik was op Gran Canaria – niet jouw regio, naar ik meen. Wel erg mooi (ondanks de afschuwelijke associaties).


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