I suppose every parent has a collection of sayings that stick in their kids’ heads. Some would get used often; others, you maybe heard only once, but they were memorable. My dad had his share. I’m surprised, looking back, by how many I would hear very literally, completely missing the idiom. As a result, I’d often wind up confused. It wasn’t until I got older that I understood the nuances of the expressions. This is how I would hear some of the things he said:
“Never send a boy to do a man’s job.”
I would usually hear this one after being sent to fetch a tool from his workbench or toolbox. I would have brought him the wrong tool, whereupon he would employ this saying. Which would leave me wondering which part of me being a girl didn’t he get? In fact, according to my reasoning, I technically couldn’t even do a boy’s job, much less a man’s job. Years later, I realized he simply meant he’d dispatched someone who didn’t understand the task as given. (Monkey wrenches, crescent wrenches, allen wrenches — I mean, how’s a kid supposed to know which one’s which?)
“Don’t go blackberry picking in an evening gown.”
I heard this one the first time I ever wore nylon stockings. I was feeling rather pleased by the fact that my mom had given me such a vote of confidence and bought me a pair, and my dad’s comment made me think he suspected I might actually do something that reckless. I think it hurt my feelings a little. Again, I later realized he was just noting that I had ascended to a new level of finery and would be behaving more like a young lady than a girl. No need to have gotten sensitive about it.
When I was about thirty years old we moved to a place in the country and had access to wild blackberry bushes. Every time I went out to pick them, my dad’s words would ring in my ears.
“Who left all these lights on? Money doesn’t grow on trees.”
This one was two-for-the-price-of-one. For starters: it would take a team on a par with Holmes and Watson to sort out who, given that seven people lived in the house, actually entered the room first and turned on the light in the first place, who entered the room subsequently, who was still in the room when the person who turned on the lights left, whether or not it was the responsibility of the second person to be mindful of the lights, since they didn’t have the natural prompt of having flipped the switch upon entering the room, and so forth. You see, establishing culpability gets sticky rather quickly. (And believe me, that’s exactly where my mind would go with that one.)
The second part, as to money growing on trees: I understood what that one meant, but it tickled me nevertheless — the mental picture of a tree with dollar bills hanging from it just was so ludicrous. But in any situation wherein Dad would have uttered these words, he wouldn’t have been in an ideal mood for humor, so I stifled any amusement.
And finally, one of my all-time favorites:
“Don’t make me stop this car.”
I’ll bet the number of kids who have ever heard that in their life is legion. What struck me as peculiar about this expression was that my dad never, ever actually stopped the car. Not even once (as far as I can remember). So really, it was just a threat. But an effective threat nonetheless, since I knew I never wanted to find out what would happen if he ever did stop the car. Upon hearing that line, I always piped down and immediately stopped carrying on.
In the course of a typical work day, I interact frequently with international students, both undergraduates and graduates. If I happen to use an idiomatic expression in conversation, I’m usually mindful that the meaning is often lost to non-native English speaking people because the phrases don’t translate well literally. If I get a puzzled look, I’ll stop and explain what the idiom means and how it came into being. Sometimes I am successful in getting the idea across and in other instances, I’m not.
Now here’s something curious: I don’t give a second thought to using those same kinds of expressions when talking with children — probably because they speak the mother tongue. I just forget they might be too young for abstraction. I wonder how often I’ve left one of them scratching their heads as to what in the world I meant.
And I was so adamant I would never do the goofy things my parents did…