BOOK REVIEW: ‘Funny How You Say That!’: Philip Yaffe Pens a Fun Book on Idioms

REVIEWED BY DAVID M. KINCHEN

You can always count on Philip A. Yaffe to produce an interesting, useful book, but with his new ebook, “Funny How You Say That!” ( Amazon Digital Services, Inc.. 192 pages, $4.79 Kindle edition) he raises the fun bar several notches.

I read the book from the attachment that Phil Yaffe sent me and found it delightful. For instance, the saying that a room is so small that there’s not enough room to swing a cat, definitely doesn’t refer to my favorite animal (yes, I’m a proud cat person!). It refers to a whip called the cat-o-nine tails. You need room to swing this instrument, especially if you have long arms.

51aSba4+QWL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Yaffe’s book is about idioms, phrases we take for granted, like “once in a blue moon,” “it’s raining cats and dogs,” etc. It’s also about how a language, say French (which I took in college decades ago and still manage to understand much of it when I read a book or watch a subtitled French movie) forms itself. What works in English ain’t necessarily so in French, German, Italian, Japanese, Croatian, etc. and Yaffe gives many examples in his very readable book.

Here is the author in his own words, explaining how the book came to be written:

It is frequently asserted that learning to speak other languages helps you learn about other cultures and other ways of living. This is true, but only up to a point. For native English-speakers, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom, learning to speak another language is virtually impossible because they live in big countries where English is so dominant that they hardly ever hear other languages.

A more profitable reason for studying another language, if not actually learning to speak it, is the effect it has on broadening the mind and improving effective thinking.

I was 24 years old when I first began thinking and speaking in a foreign language. It was like being released from prison. I saw my cell door swinging open and my mind flying free. That was nearly 50 years ago, but the picture is as fresh today as if it had just happened.

I grew up in Los Angeles. In addition to my native English, I have become fluent in two other languages and have a good working knowledge of three more.

I doubt that all of this effort has given me any insights into the cultures of the people who speak these languages. At least no insights that I couldn’t have acquired more easily in 30-60 minutes by reading a well-written essay or in a few hours by attending a few well-crafted lectures. What it has done is given me a deeper insight into how the world really works and taught me that there is frequently more than one way of doing the same thing correctly.

In our daily lives we all make assumptions about how the world works; often we are not even aware that we are making them. And that’s the danger.

If we are insensitive to our assumptions, we are almost certain to end up believing things that aren’t true and refusing to believe things that are. Learning at least one other language can help correct handicap. Nowhere else but in other languages are our assumptions more rapidly and forcefully challenged by other equally valid assumptions about what is or is not the right and natural ways of doing things.

“Funny How You Say That!” explores the important relationship between becoming familiar with other languages, if not actually speaking them, and effective thinking. It is not a scholarly book aimed at linguists and philologists. It is actually a fun book devoted to examining the weird and wonderful world of idioms and picturesque turns of phrase.

For example, a native English speaker will say “It’s raining cats and dogs” without realizing that he has said anything unusual. But the way the same idea is rendered in other languages can be quite different, and colorful. The equivalent idiom in other languages include: 1) raining wheelbarrows, 2) raining shoemakers’ apprentices, 3) raining pipe stems, 4) raining ropes, 5) raining chair legs, 6) raining pocket knives

If these sound strange to you, just imagine how strange the idea of raining cats and dogs must also sound. And what about “spill the beans”, “get up on the wrong side of the bed”, “room to swing a cat”, and the hundreds if not thousands of odd expressions that English is heir to?

To explore the often odd contrasts between English and other languages, the book is divided into the following chapters:

Origins of Common Idioms

Pot Pourril of Idioms

Common Idioms in Four Major Languages

Common Idioms in a Variety of Languages

Common Idioms in Specific Languages

Common Idioms involving Colors

Remembering Common Idioms

Words that Don’t Translate into English

False Friends: Words in other languages that seem to be the same as in English but really mean something quite different

“Funny How You Say That!” is not all fun and games. The book therefore concludes with four thoughtful and thought-provoking essays:

The Road to a Perfect International Language

How Learning Languages Can Help You Better Understand Science

How to Make Language Teaching in the USA Dramatically More Effective

Seven Ways French Is Easier

About the Author

Philip A. Yaffe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with a degree in mathematics and physics. In his senior year, he was also editor-in-chief of the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s daily student newspaper. He has more than 40 years of experience in journalism and international marketing communication. At various points in his career, he has been a teacher of journalism, a reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal, an account executive with a major international press relations agency, European marketing communication director with two major international companies, and a founding partner of a specialized marketing communication agency in Brussels, Belgium, where he has lived since 1974.

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