As clear as mud

Posted on: 08 Nov 2011

Written by: malcolm

As clear as mud *

I went to an event at my church which featured a sketch with three actors. One actor kept saying “Say it with flowers”, the second, “Say it with chocolates”, while the third mimed being crucified and said “Say it with [an aspect of Jesus’ suffering, e.g. “nails through your wrists”]”.

To an English member of the audience, particularly one with some knowledge of the basics of Christian beliefs, the message was fairly obvious: we say we love or care for someone with flowers or chocolates; Jesus said he loves us by going on the cross.

Unfortunately the message was somewhat lost on a substantial fraction of the audience who were visiting the UK from other countries and ended up asking the organisers what “it” is that you say with flowers, chocolates, etc.?

When trying to communicate with people from other countries it can be quite easy to accidentally use expressions that are commonplace to you as a native speaker but which have little meaning to those who have learnt the language from another culture.

This can also be an issue with texts that are intended for translation or with speech that is to be interpreted. Sometimes there simply is no direct equivalent for “straight from the horse’s mouth”, “pigs might fly” or “born on the wrong side of the blanket”*.

The lesson is that when you are addressing a foreign audience it is best to keep your language as simple and clear as possible.

* “as clear as mud” = “confusing and unclear”
   “straight from the horse’s mouth” = “from an authoritative source”
   “pigs might fly” = “I don’t believe what you just said”
   “born on the wrong side of the blanket” = “born illegitimately”

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One Response to “As clear as mud”

  1. [...] have mentioned previously the difficulties inherent in translating humour and literature (see As Clear as Mud, Infamy! Infamy!). Of course, some people might take the attitude of “why bother with a [...]

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