March 22, 2008

Do you know what you're saying -- and why?

Does anyone know what a laundry list is? Me neither. I think I saw one in a museum exhibit last year, but I'm not sure.

I believe it's a list of all the possible items that a laundry will take, and you have to check off which items you're leaving to be cleaned. This is one of those expressions that makes no sense to me, so I don't use it.

I learned my lesson on this when I was about eight years old. Some family friends left our house after a visit and I, merely repeating an expression I had heard many times, said, "Goodbye and good riddance."

Let's just say there were consequences for my rudeness.

Using words accurately and appropriately is important to me, as you know if you've been reading Speak Schmeak for a while. Just about the worst thing a speaker can do is be unclear.

Who is your audience?

Imagine speaking to an audience outside the U.S. and using the expression "laundry list." Would anyone understand you? Probably not. How about using a baseball analogy? Right.

Now ask yourself whether your audiences who are in the U.S. understand you. Does everyone get sports analogies? Maybe not -- so why use them if you can't be sure?

True, there are a lot of idioms (and clich├ęs) we use in our daily language that are pretty clear as to their meanings, if you think about it for a moment: "putting the cart before the horse," "walking on eggshells," "like a fish out of water."

You might even be able to translate those abroad, but I wouldn't try it without consulting someone who is a native speaker of the language to find out if there's an equivalent expression.

Meanings are not always obvious

But what about those that aren't clear? Talking about someone who's "hoist by his own petard" is great if everyone in the audience is familiar with Shakespeare or medieval weapons, but otherwise, the meaning is far from obvious. By the way, did you know that "piece of work" also comes from Shakespeare? I've never heard anyone use that expression except in the movies, where they seem to say it a lot.

How about "close but no cigar," or "down to brass tacks?" Sure, your audience can go look these up after your presentation, but in the meantime, they're thinking "What the heck does that mean, anyway?"

Yes, I'm being a little facetious. Most people will have heard these expressions and have some sort of idea what you mean. But then, I said "most."

It's all relative

Last Christmas, I gave one of my husband's nieces a button that was a pictogram for "clothes horse." She had never heard the expression, but then she's only 13. However, only one other person in the room, besides my husband, knew what it meant. And there were probably 15 adults and teenagers there.

In attempting to explain the expression to them, I realized I had no idea what its origin was. All I could tell them was how it's used now. Which, of course, made no sense to them because they couldn't wrap their brains around the "horse" part.

So back to my main point: Be clear. Don't use expressions that you don't understand yourself. Be extra cautious and assume the audience may not get your favorite idioms, especially in our multicultural world of today.

Not to mention all the young people who wrinkle up their noses, get all squinty-eyed, and say, "huh?" when we old folks say something like "Don't count your chickens before they're hatched."

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2 comments. Please add yours! :

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of a US pilot during the Gulf War who said "Baghdad was lit up like a Christmas tree". The foreign journalists immediately assumed that the US was in a "Holy War" against Iraq. Even non-Christians in our culture use the expression. However, due to cultural differences, this was taken way out of context.
I am equally frustrated by many French speaking Quebecois who use expressions, that while I understand the WORDS they are using, I do not understand the context. Likewise, they had never heard the expression "he was spinning around faster than the button on the back house door".
Yup, gotta know your audience.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Yeah, another reason to be especially careful. People just not "getting it" is one thing, but people misconstruing a statement and being offended is a whole other thing that we really want to avoid.

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