I Think You’re the Bee’s Knees!
Slang /slaNG/ noun
a type of language that consists of words and phrases that are regarded as very informal, are more common in speech than writing, and are typically restricted to a particular context or group of people.
I have a slightly simpler addition to the textbook definition: “Don’t overthink them because they often make no sense, whatsoever.” Which takes me back to the title. Saying someone is the bee’s knees means you think they’re really special. Yet, there’s absolutely nothing special about a bee’s knees. The expression originated in the 1920s, and it is more likely than not that the simple rhyming of the phrase caused its popularity. Don’t look for logic; look for cute.
Also from the 1920s is another wonderful slang phrase to compliment someone that you’ve more than likely heard: “You’re the cat’s pajamas.” Again, don’t look for logic. But how about those other ways to compliment folks that originated in the Roaring Twenties that have failed the test of time? Specifically: the cat’s whiskers, the eel’s heels, the snake’s hips, the sardine’s whiskers, and, of course, the owl’s bowels (hard to understand why that last one fell out of favor and, no, I did not make up that phrase or any of the others.)
Slang comes in two basic flavors: individual words and phrases. The individual words often fall into sub-culture lingo. Children of the late 1960s may recall the words “boss” and “groovy” to describe something that was very good. Children of the 1980s may recall the word “gnarly” being used to describe something not good or dangerous, and they might be surprised to learn the slang use of the word began about four decades earlier to mean the exact opposite. But that’s language, right? It evolves. (Frankly, sometimes it devolves.)
What makes slang phrases interesting to me is how much we take ours for granted and then we seem surprised when folks from other countries look puzzled. After all, what could be confusing about describing doing something easily as being “a piece of cake”? According to my sources on the Internet—along with agreement from a number of my friends from around the world—a piece of cake means, well, just that. As one person remarked, “Easy? Have you ever tried baking a cake?” Hmm, fair point.
What other of our phrases puzzles them? Here, I list just a few. “Break a bill,” when you want change; “Put lipstick on a pig,” to make something appear better than it is; “Fanny pack,” to describe a waist bag (especially odd to friends from the UK who claim the word fanny is a vulgarism); “We’ll table this discussion” was especially confusing and as one person remarked, “Wouldn’t shelving the discussion make more sense?” (An excellent point, to be frank); and, last, but not least, “Jump the shark,” which is impossible to adequately explain to almost anyone who never watched the television program, Happy Days.
But make no mistake; American slang phrases are not unique. Every country has its own special way of confusing the rest of us. Let’s now look at translations of some of the crème de la crème of the international linguistic cuisines.
“A raisin in the sausage”: A pleasant surprise in something already good. (Norway)
“All mouth and no trousers”: Someone who talks boastfully without any intention of acting on one’s words. (Britain)
“Flat out like a lizard drinking”: Surprisingly, this has nothing to do with drunken reptiles. Oddly, it means you’re extremely busy. (Australia)
“Noodles on the ears”: This is the equivalent of “pulling someone’s leg.” (Russia)
“Bob’s your uncle” and “Fanny’s your aunt”: One of these will typically come up at the end of an explanation or demonstration, and it essentially means, “It’s that simple.” (Britain)
“You’re ripping clouds with your nose”: You’re very conceited. (Serbia)
“You’re drawing a snake with feet”: Said to someone who is telling an overly long story filled with unnecessary information and asides; just get to the point. (China)
“My hand is coming out of my throat”: This means, I really want that—a job, a shirt in a store window, etc. (Japan)
“Inner pig dog”: Did you ever have to get up for work but wanted to stay in bed? Or found some lame excuse to keep from raking leaves? You didn’t get to the gym this morning? None of these were your fault. Your inner pig dog is the responsible party. (German)
“Take your little horse away from the rain”: Essentially, don’t hold your breath waiting for something to happen. (Portugal)
“A lot of noise and no walnuts”: Simply, this means all talk and no action. (Spain)
“The carrots are cooked”: Uh, oh. You’re stuck with whatever happened because it can’t be fixed. (France)
“I’ll treat you with a fish in your face”: This is said to someone who is being disrespectful. (Italy)
“There’s no standing on one leg”: You’ll need more than one drink to have a good time (Germany)
Finally, my personal favorite, “I see the sun on your back”: This translates, idiomatically, to “Thank you for being you. I am alive because of your help.” (Kazakhstan)
Worldwide, language can be fun. After all, Fanny’s your aunt. And, I think I’ll close here before Mary Strieff tells me I’m drawing a snake with feet.
This week’s Street Advertising Smile: