by Jindan Chen*

[note: Chen, who is from China, has just finished her first year as a graduate student in the History of Science program.]

Watching how English works in daily life is absolutely one of my most exciting experiences here. During the first few weeks, I kept wondering if English worked in the same way as the textbook and my English teachers taught me. The moment I found people feed back in exactly the way I learned was just like the moment I observed in the science lab the phenomenon predicted by a theory. Amazing and delightful!

Additionally, one thing that struck me most was how often people like to say “I’m excited …” They say “I’m excited to have you here”, “I’m excited you’re getting better”, “I’m excited you had fun working out,” and so on and so forth. Maybe people here are just so used to saying this that they would not realize how much this actually made me surprised—and excited—as I suddenly felt whatever I did could cause many other people to be happy.

However, aside from the pleasure of successful use of simple expressions and the excitement from experiencing a new culture, there came more confusion, in particular when I encountered idioms and colloquial terms.  Once, one of my classmates made a reservation of a fancy multimedia classroom for watching a movie during class, since our regular meeting room had a projector of poor quality. After she gladly announced the confirmation of the reservation, one guy in our class winked mysteriously and said “fingers crossed”, with two hands lifted up, index finger and middle finger crossed. Everyone laughed except me. You can imagine that puzzled look on my face at that moment. It might capture the normal frustrations facing people functioning in another language. Now that I know what that phrase means, I cross fingers for myself to quickly get bearings the next time I bump into new idioms.

I guess everyone who learns a second language knows how much the words we can speak offhand are less than the words we can understand. During the moments our memories fail, the only solution seems to be to make up the phrases impromptu. Sometimes, the consequences of made-up phrases can be a series of miscommunications and laughter.  Once, I was walking with a friend in a park. Pointing to the happy kids sliding down the slide, I said “Look, the kids in the slippery slope!” Being a little lost and then pondering for a few seconds, my friend seemed to catch what I really intended to convey and answered, “haha, that’s a slide, not a slippery slope.” But, slippery slope is actually a slang phrase. It refers, in an argument, to when you keep trying to make your point, but there is nothing to stand on, so you just keep falling back.

Another time when a friend asked me “How is it going”, I intended to tell him I was busy with school. However, all of a sudden, I thought the word “busy” had been already overused by me and I should try some words new and more picturesque. So, I said what just popped into my head—“I’m getting a rush”. To my complete surprise, the response I got was “are you in a sorority?” As I explained how I was busy with school, I talked to myself, how could rush be in any way related to sorority.  With the confusion in mind, I consulted with another friend. Finally confusion was cleared up. It turned out ‘rushing’ is the process of selection for a sorority or fraternity. So, when you get a rush, it means you pass the selection. Once I was aware of this, that answer made sense.

Awkward as those moments might be, unexpected misconceptions also bring in unexpected thrills as these experiences get me know a lot more about the informal language and the culture. Absolutely, it is effective and entertaining to learn idioms in conversations. Is it even more fantastic when you realize how each idiom means a vivid story to you? I am sure next time I say “watched pot never boils,” I will recall the play where I first heard it and how my friend explained it to me. I am sure next time I say “grasses are always greener on the other side of the fence,” I will recall the zealous, old guy in the post office who first taught me the phrase.  I am sure the next time I say “leave no stone unturned,” I will recall the lively discussion about how to launch one’s research project.

* Jindan Chen is pursuing a Master’s degree in History of Science at Oregon State University. She is the one of the recipients of the History of Science program’s University Graduate Laurels Block Grant for 2011-2012.

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One thought on “Fingers Crossed: Some Observations about American English Idioms

  1. That’s interesting, I just noticed that I am saying I’m excited all the timed myself but I never thought about before. Very interesting post over here, it is even better that you’ve wrote it as not a native speaker, this way we are able to have a look from the side.

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