Book Review: The Illustrated Book of Sayings

I think language is so fascinating.  Words have so much power and history.  They evolve.  They're born and grow right along with us.  I think that is incredibly nifty.  My favorite radio program is A Way With Words on NPR.  I find the origins and development of our common phrases, expressions, idioms, etc. just endlessly interesting.  There is always something new to learn.

I've done fairly extensive personal "research" on a few linguistic queries that caught my interest.  For example, asking everyone who crosses my path what name they give when every soda from a soda fountain is mixed together into one (usually gross) concoction.  I grew up calling it a, "graveyard," as did every single person I've asked from my hometown in eastern Montana.  Matt, who grew up in southcentral Montana, calls it a, "suicide."  Almost every Billings native does the same.  I've only met one person who called it a "kamikaze."

Another one I like to ask about is based on the song "There's a Hole In My Bucket."  I like to ask people what names they associate with that song.  Almost universally people recall the woman's name to be Liza--though I have gotten one lone Martha.  However, there is rather wide discrepancy about the name of the male character.  Most often he is called Henry, however I grew up saying Georgie.  Georgie is decidedly less common--Sesame Street's rendition is well known and uses the name Henry.  Henry is also likely closer to the original--Heinrich, from back in the song's German ancestry.  Though it is worth noting that the earliest recording of the text leaves the man without a name.  (Here is the wikipedia entry, which is pretty decent though could use some more citations.) It intrigues me to no end that both my sisters sing the song as Henry, while I alone sing it as Georgie.  We grew up together.  We watched Sesame Street together.  We had the same music teacher.  We had the same pre-school and kindergarten teachers.  Yet, we say it differently.  I find this, perhaps, more intriguing than it really is.

Or like how my mom pronounces the word coupon with a strong Q sound rather than a "coo" sound, but I do the opposite.

The other day I was reading one of my Newbery Challenge books and the author used what I found to be a peculiar expression.  She was describing a nosy aunt.  Rather than using something along the lines of "She was always sticking her nose where it doesn't belong/into other people's business," the author used the metaphor of "putting her finger into [the] family pies."  I'd never heard that one before.

Stuff like that just fascinates me.

So, it was with all of this in mind that I picked out The Illustrated Book of Sayings: Curious Expression From Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders.
It was a cool read.  Each idiom has an accompanying illustration and is spelled out in both the native language and in English.  The art was simple, but pleasant.  It has the feeling of children't art, but is slightly more stylized than that in a way that also reminds me of vintage posters (think: WPA posters and old war propaganda).
Several of the expressions I adore and want to adopt into my own speech, either because they are adorable or tremendously spot-on.

"Not my circus, not my monkeys," is something Polish speakers might say to mean, "Hey, not my problem."  That one is probably my favorite.

There was also "You are my orange half," to mean soulmate, counterpart, other half in Spanish.

"He knows as much about it as a hen knows about the alphabet," as a barb Hungarians use against someone who is discussing something they clearly know little about.

" look at the radishes from underneath," is a German expression about the dead that essentially matches our "pushing up daisies."

Only one expression, from England, had I heard of previously, something my dad says, "Mind your Ps and Qs."  The rest were all fully new to me.
In addition to giving an approximate translation of each expression the text offers brief tidbits about the culture or country from which the idiom originates.  It is not in depth at all, but might be a jumping off point for learning more.  For example, the author talks about the positive symbolism of cats in Japanese culture.  Apparently cats are very common in Japanese expressions.  I'd like to learn more about that, cat-worshiping person that I am.
My only complaint was that the text was on the left page and the illustration--and idiom--were on the right page.  Several times I found myself reading the text without having read the saying it accompanied.  I eventually got into the habit of reading the right page first, but it felt very backwards to me.  Perhaps this is all part of the book's multicultural charm--reading from right to left.  Or perhaps it was just an oversight in the design and layout.

In addition to teaching me new sayings from around the world this book prompted me to do some pondering on American idioms.  It was the Farsi expression, "I will eat your liver," which really did it.  One the surface that seems like a very odd way of expressing deep care and love for a person.   Then I stopped to think about some of my commonly used American expressions.  Some are rather straight forward or sweet and charming.  Others, now that I stopped to think about it, were also a bit odd.  Like when I say I love someone to pieces.  Also, I must set out to discover where the phrase, "the apple of his eye," comes from...

All in all, a neat little book.

Disclaimer:  I got a copy of this book for free through the Blogging for Books program.  The review and opinions here are my own and were not influenced by that fact.


  1. I loved reading the pages you highlighted...and finding the new word Petrichor...and then looking up it's etymology...The word is constructed from Greek, petra, meaning "stone", + ichor, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek fun...Thanks for sharing...

    ~Have a lovely day!

    1. We share a mutual fascination with words, language, and the history of those. SO fascinating!

      (Also, I beg your pardon for ignoring you so long. Somehow I failed to notice I hadn't moderated any comments since last year!! I was startin' to wonder where my friends had all gone...only to discover it was me being a dummy.)

  2. I grew up calling the (delicious, amazing, mortifying, coma-inducing) combination of all the sodas in the fountain a "zombie". And the correct ratio of orange soda to everything else was VERY important. I'm from about an hour north of Billings and a few hours south of Sidney, so take from that what you will.

    Additionally, if the swapping of reading the right page first messed with you, try reading some manga! :)

    1. Darci!!! You make my day with your addition of "zombie," to my mental databank on this topic. Seriously. That one is totally new to me. No one else has ever mentioned it--and I've asked my fair share of folks, too!

      As it happens, just yesterday one of my students was reading manga at the desk so I borrowed it for a minute. You're right. That would take me some getting used to!!

      (Also, I beg your pardon for ignoring you so long. Somehow I failed to notice I hadn't moderated any comments since last year!! I was startin' to wonder where my friends had all gone...only to discover it was me being a dummy.)


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