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Katzensprünge - idioms and how we experience them

One of the pleasures of learning any language is encountering unusual idioms that make you stop and think about the about the words and phrases that we use without even thinking about them, and realizing how they often don't translate - for example, most Irish people are genuinely puzzled that other English speakers don't understand what we mean when we say "giving out"!

I came across this short blog post by a writer who used to live in Germany, and recently came across the sentence “Das Traumwunderland ist per S-Bahn wirklich nur ein paar Katzensprünge entfernt.” which translates literally as, “By streetcar, the dreamland is really only a few cat jumps away.”, which made him realize that his mind's eye sees an actual cat jumping when he encounters "Katzensprünge", but he doesn't imagine a stone being thrown when he uses the English equivalent "a stone's throw" - he is experiencing metaphors more fully in his learned language than in his primary language, where the metaphor itself is almost lost, and a stone's throw is just a stone's throw.


March 11, 2017



An interesting article. For myself, I've always wondered why metaphors/idioms vary from culture to culture. Why does an italian speaker use 'Il vestito costa un occhio della testa.' and an english speaker use 'The dress cost an arm and a leg.' What is it in the differing cultures/languages that cause speakers to see the world in these varying and interesting manners?


A short article on the origin of “costing an arm and a leg” can be found here. (The French metaphor noted there is quite similar to the Italian metaphor.)


That’s a new one on me! The NEID gives dul sa seans as its translation.


This source disputes that particular origin, but the phrase is very common in Ireland, and not quite as common in Britain, and the fact that it only starts appearing in print in the late Victorian era doesn't rule out an origin from Irish immigrants, or more particularly, Irish soldiers in the British Army.


The OED agrees with that source (or perhaps vice versa). The earliest noted use in the OED of the transitive verb “to chance (something)” with the “to risk (something), to venture (something)” meaning was from 1859, so it seems as though the event surrounding the Door of Reconciliation demonstrates the meaning, but wasn’t the Middle English source of that meaning.


The fact that the OED doesn't have documentary proof of it's use before 1859 doesn't mean that the phrase wasn't used before that. This would be particularly true of a term that might have been slang in Dublin, and that might have become British army slang after Catholic Emancipation, when enlistment in the British army from Ireland swelled rapidly (or so I have been told). As Dublin would have been largely English speaking, the lack of a direct equivalent in Irish isn't necessarily indicative.

That is generally the problem with reference works, particularly when it comes to slang - the absence of proof is not proof of absence. (having said that, you would expect the history of a place like St Patrick's Cathedral to have been documented to some degree, and not just handed down orally).


You’re right in that the absence of proof is not proof of absence. However, even most people in the Pale in 1492 spoke (Classical Modern) Irish rather than (Late Middle) English, and the Earldoms of Ormond and Kildare were both literally beyond (the 1488 boundaries of) the Pale. “Chancing your arm” could well have had its origin as Dublin slang, but it wouldn’t have been coined as Dublin slang in English in 1492.


I love those metaphors but "chancing your arm" kills me; it's so rich.


The podcast, "The Allusionist", might be of interest if you enjoy this sort of thing. http://www.theallusionist.org/

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