Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

What a novel concept.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

This quote from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass is–unfortunately for all pedantic autodidacts such as yours truly–how language works in the real world. In an ideal world, which I shall mandate as soon as I am appointed God-King-Emperor of the known universe, language would be a tool for communication: words would be used with their generally accepted definition in mind, in order to convey thoughts from one mind to another.

Case in point: coma. Wikipedia, that fount of all knowledge, ever so helpfully gives us a description: “a coma (from the Greek κῶμα koma, meaning “deep sleep”) is a state of unconsciousness (…) in which a person: cannot be awakened; fails to respond normally to painful stimuli, light, or sound; lacks a normal sleep-wake cycle; and, does not initiate voluntary actions.”

Let’s reflect on that last bit for a second. A person in a coma does not initiate voluntary actions. This means that a person who is comatose does not and can not “fight for his life.” If anyone is fighting for the patient’s life, it would be medical personnel – not the unfortunate patient who is literally unable to do anything, let alone fight.

Now, I understand this is a phrase that should not be taken literally. Even so, it needs to die. I implore you, tabloid journalists of the world: please stop using this cliché. That goes for everyone else as well. While we’re at it, let’s all stop saying stuff like “he’s gone to a better world” (Newspeak for dying) or worse, “Grandpa’s in Heaven now” (Kurt Vonnegut’s favourite joke notwithstanding). If our hearts are pure, we can stamp out these phrases in our lifetime.

Colloquial Finnish

The Finnish language often comes up in discussions about languages and their relative difficulty for a non-native speaker. Some believe this is because Finnish evolved from Klingon. Laurie Anderson may have had a point when she, inspired by William S. Burroughs, told us that “Language is a virus from outer space.” (Her ode to Finnish Farmers, on the other hand, takes a few liberties with historical fact, but I digress.) Others, such as those contemplating the adoption of Finnish as the universal language, consider the perceived difficulty to be a minor obstacle.

As a native Finnish speaker, I believe it is my duty to spread the joy of Finnish, especially among those unfortunate enough to speak some other language as their first. For instance, I have introduced the wonderful word “hölökynkölökyn” to natives of Germany, Belgium, Italy, Australia, New Jersey, and other developing countries, often with great success, although just as often after quite a few repeated lessons.

I would now like to introduce a few Finnish sayings and idioms, with the intent of making the study of colloquial Finnish just a little bit easier for the newcomer.

“On se ilmoja pidellyt.”

Lit. “It has been keeping airs,” as a (native Finnish) friend of mine likes to say. More boringly, “How ’bout that weather, eh?” A prime example of a sentence with no information content.

“Hyvää päivää kirvesvartta.”

Nine out of ten Finnish Zen masters recommend using an axe handle as a meditation prop.

Nine out of ten Finnish Zen masters recommend using an axe handle as a meditation prop.

Lit. “Good day axe handle.” Originally a two part conversation: “Hyvää päivää!” “Kirvesvartta.” The joke (yes, it’s a joke) is that the second person, who is whittling an axe handle, is hard of hearing, and has mistaken the greeting for an inquiry about his pastime. Often shortened to just “Kirvesvartta.”

“Pidä ittes miehenä.”

Lit. “Keep being a man.” A traditional farewell, especially from a father to a son. Also what I said to my ex-wife upon parting, having just signed our application for divorce.

“Vituttaa kuin pientä oravaa.”

This little squirrel is a bit late to the party and presumably not too happy about it.

This little squirrel is a bit late to the party and presumably not too happy about it.

Lit. “Pissed off like a small squirrel.” Of note, incorporates what is possibly the most popular and versatile Finnish word in its many forms: vittu, literally referring to female genitalia, but in modern parlance almost always understood to stand on its own as an equivalent to the English fuck.

Just why a small squirrel would be pissed off enough to warrant its own idiom is lost in the mists of time, but could possibly refer to harsh winter conditions in which it can be difficult to find suitable nourishment. A small squirrel, compared with a large squirrel, would be particularly at peril, not having too much in the way of reserve energy stored as body fat.

“Vituttaa niin ettei veri kierrä.”

Lit. “I’m so pissed off my blood no longer circulates.” Obviously a condition best avoided.

“Joulu juhlista jaloin.”

Lit. “Christmas is the noblest of all celebrations.” Often followed by “Pikkujouluista kontaten,” lit. “Getting back from the office Christmas party on all fours.”

This witty (well, it would have been witty back in the Bronze Age when it was coined) pun hinges on the fact that “jaloin” means not only “the most noble” but also “by foot,” and that “joulujuhlista” means “from the Christmas party”. Note that this only applies to the one word spelling “joulujuhlista,” as “joulu juhlista,” even though pronounced exactly the same, means “Christmas among all celebrations.” Take that and smoke it in your pipe, dear student of elementary Finnish.