The cat and the ‘at’

Animals as gifts

The cat and the ‘at’

One of the interesting linguistic ways of giving colour to the variety of cultures (that is the very essence of Europe) is to compare the interpretative use of idioms.

Typically commenting on the weather requires, if not euphemisms then certainly, colourful interpretation! Rain is essential, but most of us complain about it and when it ‘rains cats and dogs’ we have every reason. The phrase dates from at least the middle of the 17th century and implies that in the severest of rainfalls one can expect every possible thing to fall out of the sky.

In old Norse weather lore, the cat is associated with storms and the dog with the wind, and although one of these weather elements is usually accompanied by the other, cats and dogs certainly do not fall out of the sky, though fish and frogs have done so on many occasions in different countries. Dismissing the many tales in folklore about this, more scientific explanations suggest that fish and frogs can be lifted by waterspouts that then deposit them some distance away. There are many instances when fish and frogs have fallen in heavy rainstorms in gardens.

For the Czechs it’s padají trakaře (which translates as raining wheelbarrows); for the Danes det regner skomagerdrenge (it’s raining shoemakers’ apprentices); pipestems for the Dutch; chair legs for the Greeks while in Spanish it’s estan lloviendo hasta maridos (it’s even raining husbands).

Likewise imaginative solutions are sought to describe another of the unenviable but well-known situations “between the devil and the deep blue sea”. This comes from being faced with a dilemma, or two dangers of equal peril.

The phrase comes from classical Greek mythology and refers to the treacherous waters near the narrow Straits of Messina, between Sicily and Italy, through which the galleys of Odysseus had to pass. On one side, there was the dreaded sea-monster Scylla whose six heads were capable of reaching out from her cave and seizing six crew members at a time from the decks. On the other side, there was the terrifying cliff of Charybdis on which another fearful monster lived. The latter monster sucked in the sea and then poured it out in a giant whirlpool, three times a day, hurling ships and crews to ruin, from which there was no escape.

The Portuguese are estar entre a espada e a parede (which translates as to be between the sword and the wall); the Russians between hammer and anvil (byt mezhdu molotom i nakovalnyei) while the somewhat more prosaic Dutch are tussen twee vuren staan (Dutch) between two fires.

As for the troublesome subject of what to wear! To be dressed “up to the nines” means to be dressed elaborately. In its other sense, it can refer to having a great deal of work on hand while reaching out as nearly as possible to perfection.

In former times the nines alluded to classical scholars seeking this perfection through learning – represented by the Nine Muses of Greek and Roman mythology. Of the nine muses, Calliope was the muse of epic poetry, Clio of history, Erato of love poetry, Euterpe of music, Melpomene of tragedy, Polyhymnia of sacred poetry, Terpsichore of dance, Thalia of comedy, and Urania of astronomy. The French prefer to say tiré à quatre épingles (literally, drawn to four pins).  

In these days of intense email use, it seems amazing that there is still no one translation for @. It is generally called the ‘at’ symbol. Other languages have come up with all kinds of mostly animalistic nicknames.

Poles calls it malpa – monkey, Germans – Klammeraffe for clinging monkey and Dutch (apeklootje) little monkey’s testicle. The Finns and Swedes see it as a cat curled up with its tail. Swedish has kattsvans and Finnish has at least three names for this idea: kissanhäntä `cat tail’, miaumerkki `meow sign’ and miukumauku, which means something like `meow-meow’. In French, Hebrew and Italian it’s a snail. In Turkish and Arabic it’s an ear, in Swedish an elephant’s ear (elefantora) and in Danish, it is a elephant’s trunk (snabel).

Emma Tidey
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