Goats and Cabbages

ménager la chèvre et le chou

If you’re not sure about something, or don’t want to commit yourself to something, you’re said to be sitting on the fence.

In French you’re said to be ménager la chèvre et le chou (“to look after the goat and the cabbage”). Another translation of this phrase, according to Wiktionary, is to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. Has anyone heard this expression?

Are there other ways to refer to fence-sitting?

A related word is: chèvrechoutisme (“goat-cabbage-ism”), which is apparently an expression used in Belgium to mean “A policy of attempting to please everybody or reconcile conflicting options.” [source]. A person who persues such a policy is known as a chèvrechoutiste (“goat-cabbage-ist”) [source].

The word ménager means to handle carefully, to treat considerately, to use sparingly, to take care of, to look after, to arrange, to put in or to make. The reflexive version of the verb, se ménager, means “not to push oneself too hard”. As an adjective ménager means household, domestic, housewife or canteen, and ménage means housework or (married) couple, as in ménage à trois [source]

Cats and Porridge

att gå som katten kring het gröt

What connection is there between cats and porridge?

Well in Swedish, att gå som katten kring het gröt (“to walk like the cat around hot porridge”) means that you are not getting to the point, beating around the bush, stalling, avoiding talking directly about something sensitive or unpleasant, approaching something indirectly and cautiously, walking on egg shells, pussyfooting around, or wasting time.

Some examples of how this phrase is used:

  • Låt oss inte gå som katten kring het gröt
    Let us not beat around the bush
  • Vi går som katten kring het gröt, både politiskt och diplomatiskt sett.
    We tread on eggshells, both politically and diplomatically.
  • Vi har tassat likt katten kring het gröt i den frågan alltför länge.
    We have pussyfooted on that issue for far too long.
  • Vi här har varit rädda och gått som katten kring het gröt.
    We here have been fearful and have beaten around the bush.

Source: bab.la

Similar idioms involving cats and porridge are found in a number of other languages:

  • Czech: chodit kolem horké kaše = to walk around hot porridge
  • German: wie die Katze um den heißen Brei herumschleichen = as the cat sneaks around the hot porridge
  • Finnish: kiertää kuin kissa kuumaa puuroa = to pace around hot porridge like a cat
  • Norwegian: å gå som katta rundt den varme grauten = to walk like a cat around hot porridge

These are all equivalents of to beat around the bush.

The English idiom to beat around the bush was first used in writing in 1572, and referred to the practise of beating bushes in order to flush out game animals [source].

Some other cat-related idioms

  • It’s rain cats and dogs = It’s raining heavily
  • To let the cat out of the bag = to reveal a secret
  • Curiosity killed the cat
  • When the cat’s away the mice will play
  • French: Avoir d’autres chats à fouetter = To have other cats to whip = To have other fish to fry / other things to do.
  • French: Avoir un chat dans la gorge = To have a cat in the throat = To have a frog in one’s throat
  • French: appeler un chat un chat = to call a cat a cat = to call a spade a spade = say it like it is
  • French: Chat échaudé craint l’eau froide = Scalded cat fears cold water = Once bitten, twice shy
  • Spanish: El gato escaldado del agua fria huye = The cat that has been scalded runs away from cold water = Once bitten, twice shy
  • German: meine Arbeit war für die Katz = my work was for the cat = my work was a waste of time
  • German: das hat die Katze gefressen = the cat ate it = the fairies took it
  • German: wenn die Katze aus dem Haus ist, tanzen die Mäuse (auf dem Tisch) = when the cat is out of the house, the mice dance (on the table) = when the cat’s away the mice will play

Sources: Idioms of the world, Reverso

Do you know other cat- or porridge-related idioms?

Language Learning Update

Just finished the Spanish course on Duolingo

This week I finally completed the Spanish course on Duolingo. I’ve been using it to improve and refresh my Spanish, as I have studied the language with various courses before. I can now understand, read, write and speak a lot more Spanish than before, though need to practise speaking and writing it more.

I first took a placement test on Duolingo to see how much Spanish I already knew, and didn’t start from the beginning. Then I skipped through each level using the tests, rather than working through each lesson individually. Had I done that, it would take a lot longer. For now, I’m not studying Spanish actively anymore, but will use it whenever I get the chance.

Over the past two and a half years or so, I’ve studied languages every day with Duolingo (current streak = 767 days). I’ve completed courses in Spanish, Russian, Swedish, Danish and Esperanto. I also completed the Romanian course, then they added lots of extra levels, and I haven’t gone back to work on those. At the moment I’m focussing on Czech, and will continue to do so, working through every lesson, so it’s going to take quite a while. I don’t plan to start any other languages until I’ve finished the Czech course.

In the meantime, I’ve also been studying Czech, and Russian, on Mondly – Czech for 226 days and Russian for 153 days. I really like their courses and am learning a lot from them.

On Memrise I’m studying Russian, Danish and Swedish. When I started using Memrise nearly two years ago, I already knew some Russian and Swedish. and started Swedish from level 2. I started Danish last year from scratch, although my knowledge of Swedish, and German and English, certainly helps. I’m currently doing level 6 courses in Swedish and Danish, and level 5 in Russian.

By the way, if you sign up to Memrise by 16th September, you will get a 50% discount, and I’ll get a small commission.

I find these apps with the streak counters really encourage me to study every day. It has become a habit to do so, and one I plan to continue for as long as possible.

Apart from these studies, I keep my French and Welsh ticking over by speaking them regularly, and other languages by using them occasionally.

How are your language studies going?

Do you prefer to focus on one language at a time, or to learn two or more simultaneously?

What courses, apps and other resources do you use?

Dog-eared and Badgered

Another dog-related idiom that came up this week was dog-eared which is often used to refer to books with pages that are bent, somewhat ragged and or with the corners turned down.

The equivalent in French is écorné which means dented, dog-eared, tatty or thumbed. It comes from the verb écorner, which means to remove the horns of; dehorn, to chip or dent, to dog-ear, or to turn down the corner of [source].

As a bibliophile it pains me to see un livre écorné (a dog-eared book), and I never turn down the corners of pages, or write notes in the margins, crack the spines, or overwise harm books. It just feels wrong. Some of my books have become a bit dog-eared, however, due to being read many times.

When I was trying to think of a way to describe a particularly dog-eared French dictionary, the first phrase that came to mind was that it was a bit badgered. I thought I’d read about things being badgered in this way somewhere, possibly in one of Terry Pratchett’s books*, but the person I was talking to had never heard it.

Then I came up with foxed, which means “of paper, having yellowish-brown stains”, according to Wiktionary. This wasn’t quite the expression I was looking for either. Then we settled on dog-eared.

The verb to badger, meaning to annoy persistently or persuade through constant efforts, does exist [source], so people might be badgered, but does anybody use badgered to describe a book or something else that looks like it’s been attacked by badgers?

Badgers

*The book is Guards! Guards! and the quote is “The Summoning of Dragons. Single copy, first edition, slightly foxed and extremely dragoned.” – so not badgered after all.

Dog Weather

When it’s raining heavily and the weather is particularly unpleasant, it is known as hondenweer [ˈɦɔn.də(n)ˌʋeːr] (“dog weather”) in Dutch, as you would only go out in it if you had to walk your dog.

Walking in the Rain

This is a phrase I learnt last week from a Dutch friend. According to Wiktionary it means “particularly bad or rough weather, the kind of weather when it is raining cats and dogs”.

The equivalent in French is temps de chien [tɑ̃ də ʃjɛ̃] (“dog weather”), which refers to filthy, dreadful or awful weather [source].

If the weather is even worse, you might say that it’s weer om geen hond door te sturen (“weather through which not to send any dog”) [source]. There is an equivalent in English: I wouldn’t send a dog out in this.

Are there any interesting dog-related expressions in other languages?

Gaelic Song / Òrain Gàidhlig

My course at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig finished today, and I’ll be leaving tomorrow. I’ll stay at my Mum’s for a few days on the way home, and should be back in Bangor next Monday.

The course has been a lot of fun, and Joy Dunlop is a really good teacher. She’s strict about getting the pronunciation right, which is important, and uses interesting ways to describe the particular sounds of Scottish Gaelic. If we all knew phonetics and the IPA, it would be much easier.

We learnt 16 songs altogether in 5 days, which is plenty – in previous years here we’ve learnt over 30 songs in a week, which was maybe slightly too many. I like all the songs we did this time, and plan to continue singing at least some of them.

There were 16 of us in the class, although not everyone was there every day. I already knew some of the people from other courses I’ve done here, and it was nice to see them again, and to meet new people. Most were from Scotland, and other parts of the UK, plus two from Ireland, one from France and one from the Netherlands. We got on well together, and I think singing together is a great way to bond.

The class was taught mainly in English, with some bits of Scottish Gaelic now and then, and only a few of us speak much Gaelic. Outside the class I got to speak quite a bit of Gaelic with people who were studying and working here. I also spoke some French, Irish and Dutch.

Here are a few photos and videos from this year and previous years at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig:

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig

Slán abhaile

My week in Gleann Cholm Cille comes to an end today and I’m off to Limerick. I’ll stay there tonight, then travel back to Bangor tomorrow via train and boat.

It’s been a very enjoyable week. I learnt some new songs, met some interesting people and caught up with old friends, and got to practise various languages, especially Irish, French and Swedish.

The weather has been very variable, as it usually is here, with blue skies and sunshine one minute, and heavy rain the next.

Last night there was a great concert with John Spillane, a singer-song writer from Cork. He sang songs that most of us know, and we all joined in. He also told some very interesting and funny stories about the songs – he calls himself a song detective, or bleachtaire amhrán in Irish.

After that I went to a singing circle / coircal amhránaíochta in Carrick / An Charraig, the nearest town, with some friends.

On Thursday we were treated to an evening of sean-nós, which involved music, singing, dancing and story telling. The sean-nós class took part, as did the set dancing class, and it was great fun.

You can see photos from this year and previous years in Gleann Cholm Cille on Flickr.

I haven’t managed to do much work on Omniglot while I’ve been here, but normal service will be resumed next week.

By the way, Omniglot now lives on a new, faster and more powerful server, so hopefully there won’t be any more problems like there have been over the past few weeks.

In case you’re wondering about the title of this post, slán abhaile means “safe home” in Irish. It’s what you say to people who are leaving a place.

Gleann Cholm Cille

I arrived safely in Glencolmbcille (Gleann Cholm Cille) on Saturday night. As we went further west the skies got darker, and when we arrived in Donegal the heavens opened, and it rained almost non-stop until this morning. I don’t come here for the fine weather, but this was a bit extreme, even for this part of the world. Today the sky cleared for a while, and the sun even put in a welcome appearance.

Irish language classes started yesterday afternoon, and the cultural workshops started this afternoon. I’m doing the sean-nós singing, as usual, and am enjoying it, and the Irish classes very much.

There are plenty of people here who I know from previous visits, and quite a few new faces as well. So far I spoken a lot of Irish, and bits of French, Breton, Swedish, German and Czech – people come here from all over the world, so it’s a great place to practise languages.

Last night we were treated to some excellent music and poetry from Bríd Harper and Diarmuid Johnson. Here they are playing some Welsh tunes. Tonight there is some more poetry, this time from Áine Ni Ghlinn.

Scrupulous Scruples

Scruple

A scruple can be a doubt, hesitation or unwillingness to do something due to uncertainity about what is right, or to show reluctance on grounds of conscience [source].

When scruple first appeared in English in the 14th century [source], it referred to a unit equal to ¹/₂₄ of an apothecaries ounce, ⅟288 of a pound, twenty grains, one third of a dram or 1.3 grams. As a liquid measure it was ¹/₂₄ of a fluid ounce, ⅓ of a fluid dram, 20 minims, ¼ of a teaspoon, or 1.23mm [source]. It could also refer to a minute part or quantity of something.

The symbol for a scruple is ℈ (see top right), which was used by alchemists and apothecaries. Related symbols include ℥ = apothecary ounce and ℨ = dram or drachm [source]. More alchemical symbols.

By the 15th century a scruple was “an ethical consideration or principle that inhibits action” or a “mental reservation” [source]

Scruple comes from the Old French scruple (scruple, compunction, qualm), from the Latin scrūpulus (a small sharp or pointed stone; ¹/₂₄ of an ounce; uneasiness of mind, anxiety, doubt, trouble; scruple), a diminutive of scrūpus (a rough or sharp stone; anxiety, uneasiness).

Out of a clear blue left field

When something comes out of left field, it is comes from an unexpected place or direction, or is surprising or unexpected, and something that is left field is uncommon, unpopular or strange [source].

This phrase comes from baseball and refers to the left side of a baseball field, although why something coming from this part of the field is unexpected or surprising is uncertain, according to Know Your Phrase.

More about the possible origins of this phrase.

Lightening out of a blue sky

Another way to say that something is unexpected is that it came out of the blue, which apparently comes from the phrase a bolt out of / from the blue. This refers to the unlikelyhood of lightening coming out of a clear blue sky (another version of the idiom).

A bolt out of the blue was first used in writing in The Standard in 1863, and out of the blue first appeared in The Spectator in 1879 [source].

In French an equivalent of like a bolt out of the blue is comme un cheveu sur la soupe (like a hair on the soup) [source], although I don’t know why. A hair in your soup is more likely than lightening from a clear blue sky, I would think.

Are there interesting equivalents of these phrases in other languages?