September 21, 2006

The dirt under your fingernails

There's nothing like a good idiomatic expression to make a language utterly confusing. Try literally explaining the meaning of "I've got a bone to pick with you," or "the whole nine yards." Not even lexicographers are sure where the latter came from.

On the other hand, because idiomatic expression tend to be largely "transparent" to native speakers, encountering them in a second language can reveal the totality of their often grotesque beauty.

One such expression is 爪の垢を煎じて飲む (tsume no aka o senjite nomu). It is commonly translated as "to follow in someone's footsteps." It literally means "to boil (or brew, as in tea) the dirt under someone's fingernails and drink it." Okay, altogether now: Ewwwww.