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Sweet-sounding non-sensicals

There are some expressions that sound wise but are actually nonsense. The “darkest hour” is really not “just before dawn”, it’s at midnight. The other sort of nonsense is more interesting for us today: those phrases that no one even pretends make any sense, but just sound catchy, due to the rhyme or alliteration. A few spring to mind:

Choke up chicken.

Crikey O’Reilly.

No way, José.

As right as rain.

What’s so right about the rain? Or so good about gold for that matter? Gold is heavy, expensive, malleable, I hear, but good? It is surely just the alliterative qualities that drove this expression, not any truth of it.

There are probably theories as to the provenance of some of these phrases with proper names, and I apologise to the O’Reilly estate if their ancestor was some illustrious altruist who did something amazing to earn his place in common parlance, but my feeling is that it is simply pleasing to say out loud, nothing more to it than that.

The same happens in other languages. In Spanish:

La cagaste, Burt Lancaster = You’re in deep doo-doo now!

Echa el freno, Madaleno = Steady on, old chap!

Qué risa, María Luisa = Ha-ha! That’s a laugh! (said sarcastically)

These names are only used because they rhyme with the operative word of the sentence, not because they have any traceable link to the meaning!

In French:

Tu parles, Charles

A l’aise, Blaise

But more interesting perhaps are some rhyming idioms that do not contain proper names:

No prizes, but can you think of equivalent English idioms, once you have translated these phrases literally? Copy and paste into Google Translate if necessary.

Possibly my favourite one of all is in the German language, partly because it is actually used a lot. I’ll be honest, I had to think/look quite hard to find some of the above. The German equivalent of the Beverley Knight song title “Shudda wudda cudda” might be “Hätte, hätte, Fahrradkette”, which directly translates as “would have, would have, bicycle chain”.

What do bicycle chains have to do with looking back at a hypothetical past event with a mix of nostalgia and regret? Nothing at all; it rhymes that’s all.

It’s catching.

Lothar Matthäus, German football legend, once used this phrase in a TV interview, but got it a bit wrong. “Wäre, wäre Fahrradkette” means “would be, would be, bicycle chain”. This is just as non-sensical as the more generally used phrase, but also lacks any alliterative or rhyming quality. Simple error or post-modern wit? Either way, memorable.

These phrases interest us as language learners at three distinct levels:

· the simple acquisition of new words

· appreciating the subtleties of nuance and figurative meaning

· gaining insight into points of cultural reference

If you have any questions or comments about any of these phrases, or a related subject, or indeed would like to find out about signing up for a language course, you know where to find me, or start a conversation...

Andrew Wenger

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