phrases whose literal meaning...

Gerald Cohen gcohen at UMR.EDU
Sun Nov 3 19:37:32 UTC 2002

>At 11:14 AM -0500 11/3/02, James A. Landau wrote:
>My daughter needs to know the term to be applied to phrases whose literal
>meaning is one thing but which are universally interpreted as something else.
>  Her examples are "How do you do?" which literally asks "How are you?" but is
>used merely as "Hello"; and one from Hebrew, "mazel tov" which literally
>means "good luck" but is universally used as "congratulations".

Aside from "idiom" and perhaps "expression"  I don't think there's a
term for this, but I have a few good examples:
"Break a leg" --  (in theater; = Good luck!)
German: "Hals- und Beinbruch!"  (literally: Neck and leg break!) i.e.
You should break your neck and leg.  = Good luck!  (This German
expression is probably the source of English "Break a leg!")
"Kick the bucket" ( = die)

     Also, a lady from South America told me that she had a job in
Florida, and her boss had to leave the store for an hour or so.  As
he left, he told his employee that she should "hold down the fort."
The lady is very conscientious
and wanted very much to carry out her boss' order, but even though
she understood each individual word ("hold," "down," "fort"), she had
no idea what the boss wanted her to do.

    She was very nervous the whole time, since the boss might be upset
upon his return that she had not held down the fort, whatever that
meant. Of course, everything turned out fine, but she still vividly
remembered the incident and her discomfort when she told me the story
some years later.

Gerald Cohen

More information about the Ads-l mailing list