Friday, July 31, 2009

Ideas and Idioms

Regardless of which language is your primary one, there is going to be an element of that language we call idioms. I would venture to say that idioms cause more problems of understanding than any other element of language.

Simply understood, an idiom is "an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements" or " a speech form or an expression of a given language that is peculiar to itself grammatically or cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements." Thus, to kick the bucket has nothing to do with kicking or buckets and being under the weather has nothing to do with weather. Since an idiom may also be "a regional speech or dialect; a specialized vocabulary used by a group of people; jargon," we add more layers of confusion to interpretation and understanding. "Stop bugging me," "He's bugging out," and "There's a bug in the program" are examples of such idiomatic speech.

Those who are learning a second language frequently run into problems precisely because of idioms. The idioms present in one language are usually not the same as those of another language. Trying to translate directly gives us some very peculiar sentences. Boy one speaks Spanish; boy two does not. Boy one is trying to teach boy two about how to be a good date. In English he tells boy two that when on a date throw flowers out the window at her. Boy two is very puzzled. "I should throw flowers at her?" he asks. So he goes out and buys a bunch of flowers and when the girl approaches his car to get in he opens the window and he pelts her with the roses. She turns around and goes back into her house, deciding that this boy is just not worth the time. Boy two comes back to boy one very ticked off. "Your throwing flowers bit got me nowhere!" Bad advice from boy one to boy two? No, idiom problems. Spanish has an idiom--"hechar las flores por la ventana" which translated word for word means to throw flowers out the window. But the correlated meaning of that idiom in English is to compliment someone, no flower throwing needed.

There are also phrases we use as part of living together as human beings that are idiomatic. Perhaps chief among those are the two questions "How are you?" and "How do you do?" Unless you are visiting with someone who is quite ill, the questions are not about how you are feeling or how you are getting along. In fact, they aren't questions at all--they are greetings. The answer to "How are you?" is not a long litany of your gastric problems. "Fine, thank you" is all that is required, whether true or not. In less formal parlance, "How's it going?" is also a greeting rather than a true question.

There was some discussion pre-Tisha Ba'Av about the use of "have an easy fast." Some people objected to the use of "easy" as not being truly indicative of what Tisha Ba'Av is about or should be about. A few people substituted "good" for easy. A few substituted "meaningful" for easy. Some thought that "positive" words such as good or easy were not what one should be wishing someone else for this fast. Their feeling seemed to be that the fast is about recognizing what you have done wrong and where you need to improve. Here's my take. "Have an easy fast," like "Have a good day" is idiomatic. It is the fast day substitute for "Hiya." It lets us greet someone without using "hello" or "hi" which we are not supposed to use that day. What I may mean by "have an easy fast" does not have to correlate to what you may mean by it; you can take that phrase any way you want to. But don't assume that the way you take it is how I meant it.

I am among those who are not "good" fasters. "Only" getting a headache and feeling nauseated would actually make it a "great" fast for me. My concern for people who are fasting has to do with their physical condition during the fast. When I say "have an easy fast" I'm talking about not becoming physically ill or debilitated. For me, "have an easy fast" is the equivalent of "stay well." If you want to, consider it as a "gashmius" greeting. As to the ruchnius, that's between you, yourself and God.

So yes, I hope you all had an easy fast yesterday. Just keep in mind that that is an idiomatic phrasing. It's not an opening to tell me all about your actual fasting and what you thought about and what you decided to do or not do. Like "how are you" and "fine, thanks," have an easy fast only requires "thank you, you too" as an answer.


Anonymous said...

Two people wished me a meaningful fast. One person who I wished an easy fast added "and meaningful!", as if I had forgotten something. I think that an easy fast implies, as you mention, physical health. It's hard for me to change; when I was young, it was normal to say "have an easy fast." The meaningful part, while not inappropriate, is a recent addition, and I guess has become the new chumra.

Simi said...

A few people also wished me that meaningful fast or an easy and meaningful fast. Both of them were single--my brothers. I'd rather they had just wished me that easy fast, because it wasn't. It was hot and humid. 25 hours of no eating and drinking while watching four little kids. The baby is teething badly. They needed feeding and entertaining. And like you I don't fast well.

I decided to give them all the kind of meaningful fast I was having. At 3:oo I gave the men over the kids and I went to bed with an ice pack. They got me up at 6:30 so they could go to mincha. Those were not meaningful looks on their faces. They were looks of relief.

I'll gladly take an easy fast.

Anonymously said...

I can sympathize Simi. I remember the fasting while trying to watch all the kids. Who had time for meaningful?! If people want to say it then fine but could we not make it into some new requirement. Tesyaa may be right--a new chumra, for a change.

Anonymous said...

I actually fast well as a general rule, but the few times I haven't have helped me understand those who normally don't.

Saying "have a meaningful fast" (which I've heard quite a bit of) actually annoys me, but I'm not sure why. I do wish this would be the last fast before the coming of mashiach, I am cognizant of the spirituality of the day, but it still annoys me. Insights as to why it does annoy me are very welcome...

Eva said...

The meaningful bugs me too like anonymous 8:23. I think I know a little bit why. Seems to me that the only taanis people use it for is Tishe Baav. Why? For Yom Kippur we say "Gmar Chasimah Tovah" or "Gmar Tov." AND we tell people to have an easy fast after we say that. One for the spiritual, one for the physical. People who use meaningful on Tishe Baav mean what precisely? Wouldn't it be more accurate to say to someone "remember well"? Or maybe even think well? And then add the easy fast also because anyone who doesn't think that the physical is part of a fast hasn't fasted.

Those people who say meaningful fast aren't being consisten unless they also say have a meaningful yom tov for every holiday we have. Or for every shabbos. Or actually for every day. Singling out only Tishe Baav to say have a meaningful fast/day seems wrong.

Ari said...

I think the problem is that meaningful gets tossed around so much that it has lost any real importance any more. When everything is meaniingful then nothing is. Using meaningful to talk about tisha baav seems to be applying something that isn't all that important, that has become trivial. You think not? Listen to teenagers and young people throw around the term. Listen to your boss throw around the term. Listen to those in government throwing around the term. The term is too touchy feely for me to be applied to a day like tisha baav.

Ari (the other one) said...

Simi: "I decided to give them all the kind of meaningful fast I was having."


Rafi said...

It gets even stranger when you think that no one really says anything to anyone else on any other fast day like shev'asur b'tamuz, taanis Esther and the like. Why not say have an easy fast then? Or a meaningful one if that is your thing?

Leahle said...

Oh can I sympathize with you Simi. I didn't read any of those blogs discussing the meaningful versus easy but I'd be willing to bet they were written first by men, and then probably by single men. It so sounds like a yeshiva bochur kind of argument to have.

Over 50% of Jews are women, lots of them with children. Tisha B'Av is meaningful alright for them, the married with kids especially. If we manage to keep fasting, take care of the kids, ask all the men how they are feeling, worry about the parents and grandparents (who shouldn't be fasting but are anyway) and make sure there is food to eat to break fast on, while still standing up on two feet, well that goes beyond meaningful into miraculous. Of course it's easier for the guys to sit and think about Tisha B'Av--what else do they have to do?

jb said...

I also got corrected from easy to meaningful. I looked her straight in the eye and told her that easy is exactly what I meant to say. Let's face it, when the fast gets to be too hard, it altogether ceases to be meaningful; when the fast gets difficult, you end up laying in bed checking the clock every 5 minutes waiting for it to be over. So yes, I want you to have an easy fast so that you don't waste the whole day focusing on how hungry you are.

Anonymous said...

My father (and possibly my grandfather) has been saying "meaningful" for the Tisha BAv fast for many years, certainly all my adult life (30+ years) and probably even longer than that.

Shabbat Shalom all!