Imagine that you are in an international business meeting - a form of torture that we discussed in detail last time - and none of the participants has English as their mother tongue. Before the official part of the meeting starts, you overhear one colleague, Peter, talking to another, Luisa. This is what Peter says:
"Luisa, this organization is really going to the birds. My department does the tiger's share of the work but the production department always takes the credit. Yesterday, they really took the cake: the big sausage at production presented my best idea as if it were her own. I think she does this because she lacks self-confidence. I'm sure that's where the dog lies buried. Anyway, I was as sick as an elephant. And to round off my miserable day, when I was walking home it started raining dogs and cats and I got soaked to the skin. The day really was for the cat."
OK, OK, I know: nobody would really talk like this (at least, I hope they wouldn't). But play along with my little game for a moment. How would you answer these three questions about the comments that you overheard?
- Is Peter happy with the situation in his company?
- Was the weather good in the evening?
- In general, how well did you understand what he said?
My guess is that you answered "no" to the first two questions, which is correct. I would also guess that you understood reasonably well what Peter wanted to say, even if you were unsure about one or two words or phrases.
There are two interesting things about Peter's comments. First, they contain a lot of idiomatic language, by which we mean groups of words that cannot be easily understood by knowing the meanings of the individual words. Second, much of Peter's idiomatic language is used "wrongly", when judged by the standards of, well, standard English. Yet, we basically understand what he's saying.
Don't be excessive with idioms
So what is going on here? It seems that it doesn't really matter internationally whether we use English "correctly". Well, yes and no. (Unfortunately, English doesn't have the single words "yo" or "nes" to express the German concept of jein.)
The name of this column, "Nobody's Perfect", is meant to encourage you to use your English without fear of making mistakes. You don't have to sound like a native speaker of English to be an effective international communicator. On the other hand, idiomatic language can be dangerous for two reasons:
1) Although native speakers do use a lot of idiomatic language, Peter's excessive use of idioms sounds very strange indeed. In fact, it is probably the result of trying too hard to sound like a native speaker.
2) It is easy to make small but significant mistakes when using idioms. In many cases the result is merely slightly comical, or even charming. But, at worst, these mistakes can make it difficult for others to really understand what you are saying.
So let's look more closely at what Peter said and the various mistakes he made:
- In a number of cases, Peter mixes up his animals. (As in German, there are many English idioms that involve animals, though not always the same ones.) He should have said that his organization is going to the dogs (vor die Hunde gehen); he should have talked about the lion's share (Löwenanteil, so this is a mistake German-speakers are unlikely to make); and he should have said that he was as sick as a dog (North American) or sick as a parrot (UK) (kotzübel).
- In one case, Peter got the animals right but got them in the wrong order. As I'm sure you know, the correct expression is raining cats and dogs (es regnet in Strömen). In fact, many expressions have a fixed word order (bread and butter, knife and fork, profit and loss, etc.) and sound strange if the order is changed. Also, the phrase "raining cats and dogs" is hardly ever used by native speakers, but it is a favourite of English learners (and some teachers).
- Peter got a few other words wrong, too. The expression in English is to take the biscuit (den Vogel abschießen), not to take the cake. And the boss - in this case, of the production department - is the big cheese, not the big sausage. Although, if you want to stay with animal idioms, you could also call her the top dog.
- In two cases, Peter made the mistake of translating idioms directly from German. Sometimes, such direct translations work, but often they don't. The German expression da liegt der Hund begraben translates as that's the real reason or that's the crux of the matter. Also, the expression es war für die Katz translates as it was all for nothing or it was a (complete) waste of time or even it was for the birds. In other idiomatic cases, different body parts are used in German and English. For example, in English you are fed up to the back teeth (die Schnauze voll haben) and keep your fingers crossed (jemandem die Daumen drücken). Peter does use one body part idiom correctly, which is similar in English and German: soaked to the skin (bis auf die Haut nass).
- Peter also uses some other, less colourful, idiomatic language correctly: take the credit (die Lorbeeren für etwas ernten), and round off (abrunden).
As we can see, idiomatic language is a minefield, to use an idiom that is the same in English and German. For this reason, the current fashion in English teaching is to move away from teaching such colourful expressions, some of which are also culturally loaded, such as ballpark figure (grobe Schätzung) or to come out of left field (aus dem heiteren Himmel kommen), which both come from baseball.
On the other hand, language learners love idioms, and idiomatic language is very common in business, for example in expressions such as the bottom line, which can mean both "the profit of a company" (literally the bottom line in the accounts) and "the most important point" (das Entscheidende).
Idiomatic language, as Business Spotlight author Almut Köster has discovered in her academic research, is also often used when trying to find solutions to problems at work. Here's an example: "So what we'll do is, let's you and me sit down together, and try and wrack our brains ". Here, sit down together simply means "have a meeting", and wrack our brains means "think hard" (sich den Kopf zerbrechen).
So, here's my three-point plan for how to deal with idiomatic language in English (or any other foreign language):
- When you listen to or read English, make a note of any idiomatic expressions you hear or see. Then look them up to make sure you have understood the correct form and meaning. I often failed to do this in German and for years thought there was an expression Ende der Veranstaltung instead of Ende der Fahnenstange. A very useful website to see how this and other expressions are translated in context is Linguee.de.
- If you are in meetings, and hear idiomatic expressions that you don't understand, ask for an explanation: "When you say movers and shakers, what do you mean exactly?" (die wichstigsten Leute). And remember also that even native speakers often use idiomatic language in non-standard ways.
- Don't use idiomatic expressions, particularly the more colourful ones, until you feel sure that you know how and when to use them - and also, that you are sure that your business partners will understand them. The aim in business is to communicate effectively, not to sound like a clever clogs (der Schlauberger).
If you follow this advice, you should be able to avoid getting into hot water at work (in Teufels Küche kommen).