When it comes to personality, some people seem to have been put on the planet to make life easier for everyone else:
Cooperar: (Spansih, Central America) to go along willingly with someone else to one’s own disadvantage.
Abozzare: (Italian) to accept meekly a far from satisfactory situation.
Ilunga: (Tshiluba, Congo) someone who is ready to forgive any abuse the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time
Vaseliner: (French) to flatter (literally, to apply Vaseline)
Happobijin: (Japanese) a beauty to all eight directions (a sycophant)
Radfahrer: (German) one who flatters superiors and browbeats subordinates (literally, a cyclist)
The Japanese have the most vivid description for hangers-on: kingyo no funi. It literally means ‘goldfish crap’ –a reference to the way that a fish that has defecated often trails excrement behind it for some time.
Sweet-talking others is one thing; massaging your own ego can be another altogether:
Echarse flores: (Spanish) to blow your own trumpet (literally, to throw flowers to yourself)
Il ne se mouche pas du pied: (French) he has airs above his station (literally, he doesn’t wipe his nose with his foot)
Yi luan tou shi: (Chinese) courting disaster by immoderately overestimating one’s own strength (literally, to throw an egg against a rock)
Tirer la couverture a soi: (French) to take the lion’s share, all the credit (literally, to pull the blanket towards oneself)
Specific numbers are used in some colloquial phrases:
Mettre des queues aux zeros (French) to add tails to noughts : to overcharge
Siete (Spanish, Central America) seven : a right-angled tear
Mein Rad hat eine Acht (German) my bike has an eight : a buckled wheel
Se mettre sur son trente et un (French) to put yourself on your thirty one : to get all dressed up
Ein Gesicht wie 37 Tage Regenwetter haben (German) to have a face like thirty-seven days of rain : a long face
Parts of the body have long been used to define small distances, the foot in the imperial system of measuring, for example. The Zarma people of Western Africa find the arm much more useful: Kambe kar is the length of the arm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger and gande is the distance between two outstretched arms.
Elsewhere we find:
Dos (Hmong, China) from the thumb tip to the middle-finger tip
Muku (Hawaiian) from the fingers of one hand to the elbow of the opposite arm when it is extended
Sejengkal (Malay) the span between the tips of the stretched thumb and little finger
Dangkal (Kapampangan, Philippines) between thumb and forefinger
Most first names, if not derived from myth, place, flower or surnames, have a specific meaning. Patrick, for example, means noble, from the latin patricius. Naomi means ‘pleasant’ in Hebrew, while the Irish Gaelic Kevin literally means ‘comely birth’. More unusual meanings of names from around the world include the following :
Astell (m) sacred cauldron of the gods (Manx)
Delisha (f) happy and makes others happy (Arabic)
Ebru (f) eyebrow (Turkish)
Farooq (m) he who distinguishes truth from falsehood (Arabic)
Fenella (f) fair shoulder (Manx)
Lama (f) with dark lips (Arabic)
Matilda (f) strength in battle (German)
Xicohtencatl (m) angry bumblebee (Nahuatl, Mexico)
Xiao-Xiao (f) morning sorrow (Chinese)
Here’s an interesting quote about Roosevelt’s reaction to a caricature once drawn of him that was being passed around the office. Sounds like rather a nice chap.
When he was Police Commisioner in New York… he came to dine one evening in great glee. He had gone to his office that morning and found the personnel at Police Headquarters gathered around a letter delivered by the postman; clerks and stenographers were tittering nervously, and hesitated to show it. “And here it is,” he said, pulling it out of his pocket. It bore no other address than a pair of glasses over a double row of clenched teeth. He was enchanted. “Few men, “ he said, “live to see their own hieroglyph.”
Marjorie Terry Chandler, Roman Spring: Memoirs, 1934
In the cliché of popular culture, the eye is ‘the mirror of the soul’, and archaic cultures believe in the magical powers of the ‘evil eye’. Such views epitomise the great social significance of gazing behaviour. Semiotic functions of the eye and of visual interaction have been explored by cultural anthologists, social psychologists, linguists, and many other interdisciplinary researchers in non-verbal communication.
Gazing behaviour is one of the most impressive examples for illustrating meta-communicative axiom of ‘talking without talking’. In social interaction, both gazing and not gazing at the other person may be equally communicative. Communication by gazing has been analysed according to three major variables: frequency, duration, and gaze direction (a one-sided gaze, mutual gaze (eye contact), gaze shift, one-sided and mutual omission and avoidance of gaze).
Apart from these studies in eye movements and the research in eyebrow behaviour, the eyelids and the pupils are two further domains of potential semiotic significance in gazing. Little research has been done into the significance of lid movements but studies on pupillary reactions, claiming that pupil dilation and constriction can be interpreted as an index of the degree of emotional arousal and interest, have caused a vivid debate.
In verbal interaction, the emphatic function of the gaze lies in its monitoring role in the initiation and maintenance of conversation. For example, it has been shown that the avoidance of eye contact in conversation is an index of the speaker’s desire to continue speaking, while the prolonged looking at another person is a signal for this person to speak next.
Conducted tests in which photographs of eyes isolated from the rest of the face were presented to test persons showed a significant agreement in the evaluations of emotions such as pleasure, surprise, and anger. Such gazes testify to the expressive function of looking behaviour.
Like other facial signals, gaze has both a biological and a cultural basis. Phylogenetically, staring eyes are a threat signal for many animal species. For several primate species, the glance has been shown to be a signal by which social dominance is established or strengthened. In human cultures, the motif of the evil eye seems to be an archetypical pattern of a threat signal. Cultural differences in gazing behaviour appear in both frequency and length of eye contact. These differences show that looking at each other is socially more acceptable in some cultures than in others.
The last words in a lifetime are significant just for that fact. Many important people have carefully selected them; in some other cases death took them a little by surprise. Some last words sum up a life’s path, some… well, some are just silly. Some are totally true, the rest, perhaps a little suspicious. Let’s take a look:
“Je vais ou je vas mourir, l’un et l’autre se dit ou se disent”
(Translation: “I am about to — or I am going to — die: either expression is correct”)
- Dominique Bouhours
(a French grammarian)
“LSD, 100 micrograms I.M.”
- Aldous Huxley
(in a note to his wife – she obliged and he was injected twice before his death)
“Put out the bloody cigarette!”
- Saki, AKA Hector Hugh Munro
(spoken to a fellow officer while in a trench during World War One, for fear the smoke would give away their positions. He was then shot by a German sniper who had heard the remark)
“¡Carajo, un balazo!”
(Translation: “Damn! A bullet!”)
- Antonio José de Sucre
(after being shot while riding his horse in the Colombian jungle on his way home. He was said to have been a fine gentleman who had never cursed until that day, according to Ricardo Palma’s “Tradiciones en Salsa Verde”)
“That was the best ice-cream soda I ever tasted”
- Lou Costello
The topic of metaphor lies at the root of semiotics, both historically and analytically. Historically, there is the long tradition of ‘theories’ of metaphor, which dates back to Aristotle. Analytically, metaphors concern the study of figurative signs and also raise the more fundamental question of whether ‘literal’ meaning is possible at all. Topics such as arbitrariness, conventionality, motivation, and iconicity have dominated the semiotic discussion of metaphors.
Despite many differences in detail, two central concepts reappear as criteria for most traditional definitions of metaphor: ‘transfer’ and ‘similarity’. Major variants of the former concept are replacement, substitution, and translation. Variants of the latter are likeness, comparison, and analogy. A typical definition combines these criteria as follows: “a figure of speech in which a word or a phrase denoting one kind of object or action is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them”.
The idea of transfer is already expressed in the etymology of the term. The Ancient Greek metaphorá means precisely that – ‘transfer’, or more literally ‘a carrying from one place to another’. The two ‘places’ implied in this definition refer to the spheres of literal and of figurative meaning. Both are said to be related by similarity or implicit comparison. Two terms are introduced for the two domains of meaning interacting in the metaphorical process: the ‘tenor’ and ‘vehicle’. When Shakespeare refers to the ‘sun’ as ‘the eye of heaven’, the sun (which is in certain respects like an eye) is the tenor – the underlying idea of this metaphor – and the eye is the vehicle – that is, the image which is used to represent or ‘carry’ the tenor.
In the earliest cultural beginnings, magic was closely associated not only with science, but also with semiotics. The etymology of several basic semiotic concepts indicates that the origin of the science of signs may be found in the context of magic rituals.
The English word ‘spell’ still means both ‘to name or print in order the letters of (a word)’ and ‘a spoken word believed to have magic power’. The old Germanic ‘rune’ is not only a sign from the code of the runic alphabet, but the word also means ‘charm’, or ‘magic incantation’. Another interesting case is the etymology of ‘glamor’, in the original sense of ‘a magic spell’ or ‘bewitchment’. This word is a derivation from the word ‘grammar’, from the popular association of semiotic erudition with occult practises.
The etymology of the German word ‘Bild’ (image, picture) also contains a magic element, namely, the Germanic etymon *bil-, ‘miraculous sign/.
This etymological evidence indicates that in the origins of our cultural history, the knowledge and usage of letters, writing, and later grammar was closely related to their acquaintance with magical practices. Evidently such a connection continued to be assumed for many centuries – the cultural origins of pictures and art in general are also to be found in the realm of magic.
An Old English charm prescribes the burning of a dog’s head as a remedy for a headache. A more recent folklore formula recommends the utterance of the following conjuration as a therapy against fever: ‘Fever, fever, stay away / Don’t come in my bed today’. These examples show that magic is a form of semiosis. In the first case there is a non-verbal icon representing the destruction of the disease; in the second case there is the speech act of a request (an incantation) addressed to the disease. In both cases there is an addresser communicating a message to a somewhat unusual addressee.