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Verbal energy: 'Making a difference' this spring

A turn of phrase we use all the time raises a question it doesn't quite answer.

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Spring is fighting its way back into Boston again, never mind the patch of ice on my stoop the other morning.

And at least as reliable as the crocuses and the forsythia are the spring fundraisers for the various institutions that enrich our lives. My public radio codependency continues unabated, the Museum of Fine Arts has big plans, ditto the YMCA, and I expect to hear from my alma mater again sometime before its fiscal year ends. What's it like where you are?

One of the frequent refrains through all these campaigns is that they provide us an opportunity to "make a difference."

It's an idiom we rely on in English to do a lot of heavy lifting. But note how elliptical it is. It raises but doesn't answer the question, "the difference between what and what?"

Not that this stops us from using it, and not only when we're asking for money.

My Berlin friends were in town for a visit the other week, and so I had a chance to practice my German.

I find that when I shift gears into German, it can take a while to shift back. And during this time, some funny mangled turns of phrase pop up in my internal monologue.

Trying to translate an English idiom word for word is a great way to fall flat on your face in a foreign language. It is something I've done many times. But it's also a good way to confirm that the English expression is indeed an idiom, one of those more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts expressions that go beyond literal meaning. (This comes under the heading of "We study other languages to learn our own better.")

For instance, in English, we frequently use the word something, on its own, to mean "something remarkable/wonderful/awful." The adjective is implied, not stated. Not so in German. You have to plug in the "remarkable" or whatever.

So the first time I tried to render "that makes a difference" as even I could hear it clunk.

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