Like an Octopus in a Garage

Jag Bhalla collects the world's odd idioms and out-dated metaphors.

When describing you to prospective dates and employers, do friends say you "Have one on the waffle" or "The roof has slid off"?If they have (and I hate to tell you this), your friends think you have bats in the belfry-they're just using idioms from other languages. As Jag Bhalla has shown with his book, I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears, the world of idioms is one of the most amusing and entertaining areas of language. I'm not pulling the hair out of your nostrils (to use a Japanese idiom meaning "pulling your leg") when I say that, for people with an interest in language, reading Bhalla's collection is like living on a large foot (living in luxury, as they say in German).Bhalla defines an idiom as "a group of words always used together as a phrase, where the meaning of the phrase isn't clear from the meaning of the words in it." These "fossilized metaphors," as Bhalla calls them, become stuck in the lexicon, sometimes long after their literal meanings fade. As Bhalla said by email, "One illustration is idioms that preserve words that are no longer in use in the rest of English. For example, we no longer say kith, shrift, haw, raring, kilter, fangled, fro, spick, boggle, and hither, though we still say ‘kith and kin,' ‘short shrift,' ‘hem and haw,' ‘raring to go,' ‘off-kilter,' ‘newfangled,' ‘to and fro,' ‘spick and span,' ‘mind-boggling,' and ‘come hither.'"With chapters focusing on time, animals, emotional states, food, numbers, and other areas, Bhalla offers florid phrases from a terrific range of languages. If you ever needed almost two pages worth of expressions involving the stomach/torso/midriff/back, you're in luck. (My favorite of that section: "Bury an umbilical cord," meaning "a hereditary claim on land" in Hindi). Hanging Noodles also offers a tour of the major thinkers about language, such as Noam Chomsky, David Crystal, George Lakoff, and Steven Pinker. Bhalla's own prose, for its part, is as creative and vibrant as the language he collects.In Hanging Noodles, Bhalla says, "I'm hoping that this book can, in a small way, contribute to the wholesale jewel thievery that has characterized the progress of English." That's a cause I can rally behind, and though you can find hundreds of others in the pages of Bhalla's book, here are seven I think would sound particularly good in the latest tweets and health-care reform bills:donkey killerAs a language columnist, how can I resist this Spanish term for a dictionary? It gives word geeks a much-needed image makeover. Instead of a nerdy doofus geeking out, I am dangerous. There better not be any donkeys around this coffee shop.mouse milkerIn German, a mouse milker is "one overly concerned with details." That's a lot more appealing than the overused and corporate "micromanager."live like a maggot in baconIf you like grossing out your friends while communicating with terrific accuracy, then I don't think you can go wrong with this German expression for being really happy. I, for one, would be happy to live in bacon, as is, no Kafka-esque maggot transformation required.window-lickingI bet the retail industry could get behind this French-ism for window-shopping, which makes non-buyers sound non-hygienic have a pretty green hatIn Chinese, this isn't an innocent comment that would prove flattering to any fez or beanie-wearer: it means your wife is cheating on you.octopus in a garageThis Spanish term for a fish out of water is so much more vivid than "fish out of water" that I propose the English-speaking world adopt it immediately.the pure potatoA Spanish term for "cold, hard cash," this idiom could be easily borrowed and broadened. It sounds, to my ears, like a natural synonym for "the real deal" or "the bomb." For example, I have often noticed that Mary Louise Parker is the pure potato. How can you argue with that?