Monday, January 4, 2010

Verbal Efficiency

I realize that lot of people probably don’t spend their time thinking about words. But haven’t you ever wondered about some of the weird phrases we use? What about “thank goodness”? Are you thanking your own goodness, or lack of it? Or is it an atheist/agnostic version of “Thank God”?

Then there’s “Heavens to Betsie.” Okay, it’s not a phrase you hear anymore. But when I was a kid, little old ladies with blue hair said it all the time. And what’s it supposed to mean? Is it a practical outworking of “the meek shall inherit the earth” and Betsie clearly won't?

Of course, English isn’t the only language with weird phrases. Consider the French sacre bleu. Literally, it means “holy blue.” What is that? Is it swearing by some papist vestment? Or is it the French version of “holy cow.”

The weirdest phrase I know is a Dutch one. It’s used as the equivalent of “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe it.” The phrase is mensen kinderen. It literally means “people’s children.” It implies “other people’s children,” and it is said with a sad shake of the head. You get the implication, right? When bad stuff happens, it’s the fault of “other people’s children.” See, at least the Dutch made sure their weird phrases did something—like passing the buck and shifting the blame. Yep, that’s efficiency at work. Don’t you wish you were Dutch?


  1. Feeling a little demure with your post about "collections", I did not share my favorite book with you, so this must be the right time..."Idioms" by Chambers. My favorite. Mike bought it for me years ago since I am an idiot on idioms. I could go on for hours on the all the ways I have messed them up. We have had so much fun with it. Mike tells me that there is a larger version, but much more expensive. This one is small and reasonable, but maybe you can get the full version on interlibrary loan and loose yourself for weeks.

  2. Thankfully, I don't have to wish that I'm Dutch. :)

  3. I like that Dutch phrase. It's always funny to see you and Oma use it--including the sad, disappointed headshake part. :)

  4. So what do you say if it turns out to be your children running amok and defacing the city?

  5. Well, now, I don't have blue hair- yet. But you will still hear me say "Heavens to Betsy" on occasion. My grandma used to say, "by gurry" all the time. As in, "We'll make it up that icy hill, by gurry!". Did you ever hear that in New England or was that just something she said? I wonder. Either way, both my mom and I still say it. Isn't it facinating how language evolves?