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Noodle-hanging idioms and other inscrutables

The buzz around a new book has the Monitor's language columnist noodling on some intriguing turns of phrase in use around the world.

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There are two kinds of idioms: Those that make sense and those that do not.

So I've concluded after tuning in to the discussion around Jag Bhalla's new book, "I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms From Around the World."

You've got to love a title like that: It comes with a built-in plot summary and a sound bite. But what's this with noodles? Mr. Bhalla alleges that it's a Russian idiom that means "I'm not kidding" or "I'm not pulling your leg."

Both noodle-hanging and leg-pulling fall into the category of idioms that don't make sense.

In a National Public Radio interview, Bhalla, who worked mostly from published sources, did not offer an explanation of the Russian idiom. Nor, so far as I can tell, have any listeners chimed in to explain it.

But then, the background for "pulling someone's leg" isn't exactly clear as day either. By idioms that make sense, I mean those rooted in an observable phenomenon. "He's barking up the wrong tree." In other words, he's looking in the wrong place for what he wants. The phrase is rooted in the observable (or at least imaginable) phenomenon of a dog confused about where that pesky cat or squirrel escaped to.

Presumably all idioms start out this way, but some have become disconnected. An idiom, or idiomatic expression, cannot be puzzled out by breaking it down into parts and defining them individually. An idiom works as a whole: to kick the bucket meaning "to die," for instance.

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