“To look like September: to have a long face (Russian)”, “To anger one green and blue: to be so angry as to see red (German)”, “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago, the second best time is now: proverb (China)”, “To visit Mr. Rock: to urinate (Spanish)” — if you find it fun to read such lists of idioms with little additional explanation or analysis then you’ll love this book.
Jag Bhalla’s I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears is a fun and casual look into the ways language shapes our respective worldviews. It’s organized intentionally to allow readers a high degree of freedom — that is to say, Bhalla wants readers to be able to explore the idioms he has compiled in any order, at any time, and with no prior reading or knowledge required to understand and enjoy it.
Bhalla has organized lists of idioms by the subjects they concern (love, health, time, work, etc.) and prefaces each chapter with short essays that tend to revolve around a few idioms of interest. These discussions tend to jump around between many different linguistic topics, but were the most consistently enjoyable parts of the book. Lists of idioms comprise the majority of the text. Most of these phrases are translations from Spanish, French, German, Italian, Russian, Hindi, Japanese, Chinese, Yiddish, or Arabic. They range in style from the easily understandable (a phrase in Russian that translates literally as “forehead to forehead” means the same as “face to face” in English) to the utterly bizarre (a French phrase literally meaning “to fart in silk” is an idiom for “to be very happy”, an “ink pisser” in the German speaking world is simply an “office worker” in English).
The final chapter covers “false friends” that seem to mean something that they do not (“to put someone to sleep: to deceive someone (Spanish, Mexico)”, “to give someone a big head: to bash someone’s face (French)”, “he’s really a chicken: easily fooled (Italian)”, and so forth). The chapters are punctuated by illustrations by New Yorker cartoonist Julia Suits that literalize some of the more unusual sounding idioms. These illustrations add to the book’s entertainment value and also give readers an additional way viewing the idioms, usually by literalizing an idiom’s underlying metaphor.
Idioms, of course, are phrases that mean something different from any of the words that comprise them. Accordingly (and as you can see in the two examples that begin this review), Bhalla connects the listed idioms with their English counterparts as often as possible. This is a concise and simple way to add depth and intrigue, as there are many idioms that have similar counterparts in other languages (the book’s title, for example, is the translation of a Russian idiom that means roughly the same thing as the English “I’m not pulling your leg” — a phrase that is pretty bizarre itself).
The downside of this idiom to idiom style of organization is that the reader may not always be familiar with the English idioms given. Of course, dialects vary widely within the English speaking world. Bhalla acknowledges this and points out that while he only speaks English, he actually speaks three different dialects of English (American, British, and Indian) that each have their own unique idioms and common diction.
Occasionally throughout the book Bhalla lists specific regions or countries where a given idiom is used in addition to its language of origin (frequently for Spanish-language idioms, occasionally for Arabic). Are all the French idioms listed the same among speakers in Mali, Quebec, and Martinique? Are all Chinese idioms the same in Mandarin and Cantonese and all their various dialects? Of course not, and it would be interesting and easily within the scope of the book to have made a greater attempt to be specific about where any given idiom comes from.
Generally, Bhalla leaves readers with lists of an idiom’s literal translation, its actual meaning, and the language it comes from with no further explanation or exploration of where (or in what dialects) the phrase is used, any etymology of the phrases, or even the actual idiom itself in its original language. In giving only translations, Bhalla removes any of the finer intrigue the book could provide to multilingual readers and limits some of the fun and real value of the book as a conversation piece and starting point for further linguistic exploration.
Bhalla does give an interesting explanation for this choice in the introduction: he asserts that “we are all at the mercy of various translators, upon whose good faith we must rely”. In an attempt to ward off claims that tracing the histories of some of these idioms could have made an interesting and relevant addition to the book, Bhalla asserts that doing so “would have taken far too long” and that he was “dissuaded by the challenges intrinsic to lexical archaeology”.
While I did not expect this book to be a finely-tuned comprehensive academic study of idiom etymology, I certainly didn’t expect the author to spend several pages making such excuses for not including additional information that could have been just as fun, interesting, and pertinent as the information that was included. He does make an interesting suggestion to readers who are more motivated and interested in such endeavors: create a wiki project to collect and share such information.
Indeed, the internet would be a wonderful tool for exploring linguistic variations both within and across cultures. While the idioms in this book are often humorous and certainly worth reading, they might be much better suited to internet presentation and distribution. After all, there is no really compelling reason for this book to exist as folks who are interested in its contents could find many of the idioms it contains online and have access to additional resources and material that Bhalla, by his own admission, was too lazy to include.
The book encourages a wide audience to think about the interactions between language and the greater culture for nothing more than the inherent fun and intrigue of it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do it nearly as well as it ought to, even as a humorous, light read. I wish I could say I was hanging noodles on your ears, but I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears offers just enough to whet the appetite.