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<   No. 2442   2009-10-03   >

Comic #2442

1 Death of Insanely Overpowered Fireballs: The Balrog's about to burst into flame!
1 Death of Being Wrestled To Death By Steve: Steve's about to apply the death hold!
2 Death of Insanely Overpowered Fireballs: I can't bear to watch!
2 Death of Being Wrestled To Death By Steve: The suspense is killing me!
3 {beat}
4 Death of Being Wrestled To Death By Steve: You know what I mean.

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Metaphors are interesting, in that they often apply even if the literal meaning wouldn't make any sense whatsoever in the culture.

For example: if you give someone an inch, they'll take a mile.

People use that where I live. We all know what it means. But most people born here in Australia within the past 40 years or so would have trouble telling you what an inch or a mile literally is, because we've been using the metric system since the 70s and children aren't taught what inches and miles are at school. (I mean, most people would probably know they're units of distance, but would have trouble telling you how big they are.)

As culture and language change, metaphors get frozen in time, offering us snippets of meaning that have been lost to literal language over the years. Some examples:

2023-05-27 Rerun commentary: These words (in the original annotation above) are what are known as fossil words - words that used to exist in English but are now obsolete (so that almost nobody knows what they mean any more), yet they persist in common idiomatic phrases.

It's one of the things that makes idioms difficult to learn in a new language, as if they weren't difficult enough. When you begin to have a grasp of a foreign language and think you know what words mean, and then you encounter an idiom and even though you know the literal meaning of all the words it's completely impossible to work out what the combination means.

Imagine telling someone to "break a leg" to wish them luck, when they have learnt English as a second language and have never heard that phrase before.

Or in reverse, if you're not fluent in French, consider the phrase "il ne casse pas trois pattes à un canard". Translated literally, it renders in English as "it doesn't break three legs on a duck". What do you think it means as an idiom though?

Answer: "it's mediocre" or "it's nothing special". Or in English idiom, "it's nothing to write home about". (Wiktionary link.)

Ain't language a barrel of monkeys?

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