This one won’t be about etymology. Let’s diversify our topics!
Rather, let’s talk semantics. There’s an often cited mantra in linguistics that every language can express the same set of ideas, which is all of them. For a specific case, some languages might use a concise word or idiom where some others need a convoluted expression, so it may look that that first language is ‘better’ at it when it’s simply ‘shorter’. Moreover, the amount of possible ideas that need expressing is virtually infinite, so in the end it all evens out, with language A being shorter to express some concepts and language B being shorter to express some others.
To illustrate how languages use different, but equally valid methods to express an idea, I’m going to adapt a relevant diagram I found a while ago on this article [es_ES]. It was a translator’s tale about equivalences to convert Spanish to English and vice versa. Here it is paraphrased:
John cruzó [trajectory] el Canal en avión [method]
John flew [method] across [trajectory] the Channel
Let’s examine what happens on this example: on Spanish the verb is carrying the trajectory while a complement carries the method; English has the verb carry the method and a complement carry the trajectory. A literal translation of the Spanish “John crossed the Atlantic in a plane” is also understandable, but less idiomatic and much more awkward.
Something similar happened to me yesterday. I wanted to say the following Spanish sentence while speaking English:
La mataría a besos.
Literally, this would be “I’d kill her with kisses”, which makes it sound like ‘Kisses’ is the nickname for your axe. I struggled to find something that sounded more natural, until I remembered the above example and thought: what if I exchanged the responsibilities of the verb and complement? I swapped the “death” and “kiss” concepts from the verb to the complement and vice versa, and voilà, I arrived to a version that pleased me a bit more, which is:
I’d kiss her to death.
So next time you’re looking for an alternative phrasing, don’t get fixed on finding a verb with the same meaning, and a complement with the same meaning. Try the other way around. It might sound better 🙂
Originally published in The blind mouse.