“English is my second language!”

Well, it is. I pretty much learned English five minutes after I learned Bengali, though fluency in the latter came first, and now, some 30 years later, I’m definitely more proficient in the former. Yet, I still use the old chestnut of an excuse; it’s a running joke with me and my friends and coworkers. When I stumble over a word, when I do something silly that has nothing do with language whatsoever, I cry, “English is my second language! Leave me alone!” As you’d expect, many coworkers who hear me speak on a daily basis don’t buy that for a moment. Between the four-letter words and the “Oh my God!”s, I sound like a cross between a trucker and a valley girl. If you talked to me on the phone, you would have absolutely no indication of my ethnic heritage. I think people are probably just as surprised when they meet me and this completely informal slang comes out of my mouth.

So, English is indeed my second language, and I treat it like a sparkly, shiny thing I found on the beach. Each new phrase I learn is a piece that glitters, that I tuck away in a box. To go for a different metaphor entirely, I’m a walking Swiffer. I pick up idioms, speech patterns, regional dialects, because I just can’t help it. I love me some swear words like you wouldn’t believe. I had a cuss jar at an office I worked at several years ago and I earned enough to buy my coworkers a pizza lunch. (I’ve since regulated my abuse of the f-bomb, don’t worry.) I picked up “sweetie” from somebody somewhere down the line and “whatever blah blah blah” from my friend Heather. I say “hella,” because of several trips taken with friends from northern California, and “y’all” and “reckon” because I grew up in a part of Ohio where speech has a very southern influence. I say “Dude!” all the time as an exclamation… and my most famous story about that is me “Dude!”-ing my then-still-new boss. In front of witnesses. I was so mortified! Four years later, I “Dude!” constantly and no one blinks an eye, least of all the Boss Lady.

Sometimes, I even have problems accessing the vast storage of linguistic detritus I’ve absorbed. Just a couple of weeks ago, I dubbed somebody a “golddigger,” when I actually just meant to say they were a “tramp.” Funny, right? But, hey, there’s a distinct difference! Tramps aren’t necessarily out for money, whereas golddiggers do what they do for financial gain.

I love words. I like making up words (I’m notorious for conjugating Bengali verbs as if they were English ones ala I’m “aashing” and “jaa-ing” instead of “coming” and “going”). I like slipping wacky words like “kerfuffle” into articles I’ve written. I love big words, small ones, ones that mean nothing, ones that are used solely for the Internet (OMG! WTF!). I am a veritable word tramp…or perhaps a word golddigger, since, as a journalist, I definitely use them for financial gain.

2 thoughts on ““English is my second language!”

  1. My approach to the analysis of idioms is based on determining the etymology
    of the idiom. It is no better or more accurate than the determination of the
    etymology of any other word or phrase. However, the phonetic aspect is often
    easier because most idioms have more syllables than most single words.

    To use an idiom properly does not require any knowledge of its etymology.
    However, this knowledge may help an L2 student remember an idiom and
    how/when to use it.

    When I was a young kid, all of my friends and I knew the meaning of “escape
    by the skin of my teeth” and not a single one of us knew it was the
    translation of B’3or SHinai, a Hebrew pun on the word B’QoSHi (which means
    barely, hardly, with difficulty) in the biblical book of Job 19:20.

    The majority of idioms are transliterated (not translated) from a foreign
    language directly into words that look/sound/feel like the target language.
    For English idioms, there are not a lot of foreign languages involved:
    Germanic languages, Latin, Aramaic (during the 600 years it was a lingua
    franca), French (1066), Hebrew & Greek (biblical translation), Arabic (7
    Crusades, Spanish Armada 1588 => Black Irish), Yiddish (in England prior to
    the Expulsion in 1290; 1840s from Germany, early 1900s from Eastern Europe),

    A minority of idioms are the translation of foreign idioms. These are more
    difficult to analyze because one needs to know not only the language of the
    source but also the foreign language into which the transliteration (sic)
    was made, which may or may not be the same. Additional intermediate
    translations should not affect the result if they were faithful.

    A cute translation idiom is “count sheep !” to go to sleep. This is probably
    the translation of a Hebrew pun S’PoR TSo@N on the Latin phrase sopor (as in
    soporific) sond (as in soundly / deeply). This English idiom has been
    retranslated back into Israeli Hebrew as LiSPoR KeVeS = to count sheep.

    In a few cases, the “original” was a euphemism and not “plain text”. I
    suspect this is the case with “kick the bucket”. It seems to be the direct
    transliteration of a Semitic euphemism for dying: to make love in Paradise.
    Using 3 for aiyin with its ancient G/K-sound: 3aGaV = make physical love +
    B’3aiDeN = in Eden. 3G => Kick, vB3Dn => BucKeT.

    In other words, this type of idiom formation represents the target
    languag-ification of a foreign word or phrase. It can be most easily
    illustrated with a foreign phrase that did *not* become an idiom: Latin e
    pluribus unum = out of many, one. This is a motto of the USA. If it had
    become an idiom, it might have become “a flower bush you name” but would
    retain its original Latin meaning. It would probably acquire a folk
    etymology, such as: we could give a flower bush many names, but we usually
    give it only one.

    Transliteration idioms are most easily formed at a time when most
    target-language speakers do not read and write. They hear a foreign
    word/phrase, understand its meaning in context, and convert its sounds into
    target-language words they do know.

    For a rare modern example, “face the music” is attested in the United States
    from the 1840s. This “music” is probably from Yiddish MoSKoNeh = inference,
    deduction, hence, consequences, from Hebrew MaSKaNah with the same meaning.

    Etymology is not an exact science. The 3 etymologies that a non-linguist is
    most likely to “know” are all false. Muscle is not from Latin musculus = a
    small mouse. Sabotage is not from French sabot = an old shoe. And cabal is
    from Hebrew het-bet-lamed = to plot, scheme, not from Hebrew Kabbalah =
    esoteric knowledge, literally, received (tradition). Porcelain has nothing
    to do with a porcine vulva, and gossamer is from Latin Gossypium = cotton,
    not from goose + summer :-). But that is another story.

    For more examples of idiom etymologies, do a Google search for

    Best regards,
    Israel “izzy” Cohen


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