Category Archives: WORDS


People who don’t interpret may think we say what the speaker says “word for word” but it is more complex than that. We sometimes have to go quite far and completely toss out a phrase used in order to come to render the intended meaning. Interpreting is especially challenging during physical exams via video. It is rare that the camera would be so far back that I can see the patient and doctor in full body mode. Usually, I am looking at the patient’s face (supposedly to read their facial cues, which is very limited with mask on). For physical exams, I am often turned to the wall. So I miss most of the cues I would have in person. But we muddle through.

I had a neurology appointment with a stroke victim who was a new patient and needed a full exam, via video. Often, instead of using whatever exacts words the doctor is saying, like “lift your toes to your nose and don’t let me push them down” I will use alternate phrasing to avoid the long gaps as the patient tries to figure out what was said. There can be lots of gesturing and demonstrating by the doctor as well, in which case I can say, “like that” and the patient usually just copies the doctor’s positioning. For “push, pull, don’t let me move you, I’m going to try to push your arm down but you try to hold it up” and so many other quickly stated phrases (most usually without any pause for the patient to hear, let alone process, much less follow the instructions as the doctor launches straight into the movements and tries to hold down the leg that the patient hasn’t even started to try and lift) I will just say “resist” to indicate push/pull/lift/move/stay in resistance to the doctor’s pressure.

Unlike in the case of technical medical explanations, where it is hard to tell whether a polite patient has understood, in these physical performance exams, we can tell if the patient understood enough to do as asked. If we can see them, that is. The same goes for trying to guess what the doctor may be demonstrating off camera. I cannot just say, “like that” if I cannot see whether the doctor demonstrating. In this appointment, the doctor was having the patient walk off-camera (and the doctor was off-camera) and then he said “okay, now tightrope”. My mind reeled into words or phrases for tightrope in the target language: A loose rope. A narrow line. Equilibriism. I didn’t think any of these would work, so I started to say “walk heel to toe” and as I spoke I heard the doctor say “good” so I presume he was also demonstrating how to walk heel to toe as he said “tightrope”.

Realizing he and I were talking at the same time, the doctor peered down at the video camera and said he was sorry for jumping ahead of me, and I almost said “whatever’s clever” but I didn’t want to have to render that back into the target language, so I just said “it’s fine” in both languages. Which it was, because the doctor was able to garner all the information he needed without me tossing the patient a tightrope.


One problem with translating language is that words are slippery. Their meaning changes based on context. Very few lexicon items have an absolute one-to-one match across languages. Words hold more like a cluster of varying meanings, and several words in another language cover part of that cluster but not all of it, and in their turn have additional meanings as well. Rather than an equal sign for glossary terms, it would be more reasonable to show overlapping bubbles of meaning. Translators and interpreters have to think about this a lot. How can we get all the meaning, without adding unintended meaning? How can we be general enough, and not cut out part of what is meant? How can we avoid misleading by adding meaning that was not stated in the original language?

I was working on a written translation from English into my target language, to be published hospital-wide, and the simplest phrase cost me more time and thought than the rest of the page put together. The word was turn. Not exactly a highly technical or obscure word. Just turn. As in, your surgeon will turn your eardrum during surgery, and then remove your stapes, one of the three tiny bones in your middle ear. The stapes, or stirrup, is responsible for conducting sound vibrations to the oval window in the inner ear. But how exactly does the surgeon “turn” the eardrum, or timpanum?

Why do I ask? Because turn is one of those words that does not have a one-for-one match in my target language. One kind of turn in my target language means to turn over, or flip, like turning a pancake. Another means turn to the right or the left, usually as in a ship turning, or changing course. Another is used for a more general gyrating on an axle, or changing directions right or left while remaining upright, not flipping. Yet another means more like to double back, but then that one also means to fold in half, and I don’t believe the surgeon is going to fold the eardrum into two halves or pleat it down the middle. Some of these verbs in the target language are intransitive (one is turning oneself) and others are transitive (one is turning an object) while the English term covers both situations. I turn myself, and I turn the page. Yet another way in which the English “turn” covers such a wide swath. Which way to turn?

I asked everyone on my team. No consensus. I looked at some surgery videos involving the inner and middle ear to watch how the eardrum was “turned”. Not helpful, except to suppress my appetite for lunch. I did some research by skimming through medical websites written in my target language. They all failed to mention the “turning” of the timpanum in their patient education materials. I googled my top three choices, to see which one had the most hits. Warning for translators: This can be dangerous and one must look out for other meanings with the same construction. For example, chest can mean the breast itself, or it can mean the thorax, or it can mean a piece of furniture with drawers in a cabinet, or a place to hold treasures. So googling the word “chest” to see how frequent it is used does not equate the frequency of use to specifically and exclusively mean the upper trunk of the human body.

Turning our attention back to turn, I considered alternative terms, such as adjust. But adjust has a shade of meaning to move something that is a little off into a better position. If you adjust your skirt, chances are it is twisted around and you are straightening it. I didn’t want to mislead the patient that their eardrum was somehow off and needed to be put into a better position where it was destined to remain after surgery. I was pretty sure that the eardrum was going to be turned or moved slightly aside in order to perform the surgery, and then placed back into its original correct position. So the eardrum could not accurately be considered adjusted in this case. If the eardrum is turned forward, we have “pull” to consider, but the word for pull in my target language also covers the meaning of yank, and even jerk. Would you want to read that your surgeon would yank your eardrum around, or jerk it? Likely not.

In this case, short of trying to get a very busy surgeon to talk to me about it, I had to make an executive decision among the countless ones that we linguists make daily. I chose to substitute the English word “turn” for the more general target language word “move”. The surgeon will most certainly, if very slightly, move the eardrum forward in order to complete this surgery. Presuming any patient actually gets this far in reading the booklet and has further questions about whether the surgeon is in fact turning, flipping, folding, bypassing, adjusting, yanking or performing some other minute yet interesting movements upon the precious eardrum, that patient can pose such a question at their pre-surgery consultation. And just for my personal curiosity, I hope I will be the one there to hear the doctor’s answer.


Manipulation of language as a form of mind control and consolidation of power is nothing new. Whoever needs to be held down, can be held down to some degree by the words those in power use. Opinions are formed or altered by the ways in which we are fed information, or how those in media use words. I remember when I was studying sociolinguistics and first starting to analyze speech and word use. It was amazing and eye-opening to see in plain sight so many hidden messages that do not hit most people’s conscience minds as they listen to speech patterns and word choices. A huge part of language is how we choose to phrase things. We can manipulate people’s sense of reality by the way we talk and write.

We do this in so many ways because language is so powerful. Who is a terrorist and who is a revolutionary? Who is a war hero and who is a war criminal? Who is a victim, a survivor, or a perpetrator? In my jurisdiction, the crime of Soliciting a Prostitute has been renamed Sexual Exploitation as part of a conscious push to recognize and prevent at least this form of human trafficking. Some defense attorneys claim that the very title of the law is prejudicial, because “it makes it sound bad”. Prosecutors then argue that naming the actual title of the crime cannot be considered prejudicial. So far, the johns do not get to make it sound better, in the hopes of being judged less harshly.

With the expansion of human trafficking, especially in the sex trade, only people living in complete denial – for purposes of their own – can claim ignorance of the exploitation involved. The porn industry and much of the mass media try to whitewash this and make it look clean, pretty, and exciting, without being problematic or disturbing, but those of us who work closely with sex workers hear a different story, a story that is told to us first hand. We meet with and become the voice of the exploited as they are interviewed or testify. We read the police reports, victim statements, and hospital records. We see the cigarette burns and forced tattoos, cuts and scars that will last a lifetime, even for those who are able to get out of the field. The trauma is real and enduring.

Historically, the vast majority of people who end up in the sex trade have already undergone childhood sexual abuse. I have personally met people who were rented out by their own parents in exchange for drugs or money. Who don’t remember any safe childhood before the abuse started. Who were photoed and filmed while being abused, and have no control of those images. I don’t imagine that getting paid to play out other people’s fantasies involving being hurt or abused would be a great lot of fun for the sex workers I have interpreted for. So let’s not pretend it is something it is not. Let’s not buy the ad campaign that would convince us that industrial porn is sex-positive, any more than we would believe that McDonald’s serves health food just because they rename a menu item for their ad campaign.

Furthermore, some very unsavory porn practices are being mainstreamed, and it is happening through word manipulation. One of these is choking, a practice in which a number of people die annually and many more get permanent throat and brain damage, formerly branded erotic asphyxiation. There is a current push to rebrand choking with the even more friendly and hygienic term of Breath Play, which sounds more like yoga than violence. A friend told me she was recently asked if she would engage in breath play during intercourse. The guy wanted to choke her throat, almost to the point that she would pass out, while atop her. She asked for more explanation as to his motivation, and the guy actually admitted that what aroused him was “having your life in my hands, knowing that I could literally kill you in a minute!” She ended the relationship.

Someone else shared that her latest date told her his favorite porn involves Reluctance Play. He explained that this is where a man keeps pushing, bullying, and struggling to have intercourse with an unwilling woman who is resisting, verbalizing her resistance, saying no over and over, who eventually gives in or at least gives up on her resistance. I asked her, wouldn’t you class that as rape? But she was hesitant to go that far. Maybe it isn’t directly physically forceful enough to be violent per se, she considered. She paused and frowned, then thoughtfully suggested, maybe it is more fair to call it coercive? So the new pornspeak has become the authoritative term, and we mere mortals feel uncomfortable using our old words for these old acts. And the mass consumers are perfectly comfortable with their menu item choices, because they are backed by the industry and the media.

Desires are slippery, I really do get it. Okay. But food lovers can ethically complain about the fast food industry without shaming the people who eat there. And we are justified in questioning why a billion dollar industry firmly based on sexual exploitation is now attempting to dictate our desires and direct our most intimate play through pirating our language. Coining sanitized and toothless words that aim to distort the realities. We are justified in asking why the mass media is bent on popularizing and mainstreaming several aspects of the porn trade. And to question who benefits from these intrusions. Who benefits and who suffers from eroticizing and normalizing these power plays.

For the record, the risks of choking include permanent brain damage and death. A sore throat, difficulty swallowing, bloodshot eyes, blurry vision, discolored tongue, ringing ears, bruising and neck pain are the least of the problems. Other symptoms include drooling, nausea or vomiting, and incontinence of both bladder and bowel. The choking victim may have difficulty breathing afterward, or become permanently hoarse. They can lose consciousness, go into seizures, and suffer from memory loss and brain damage. Or die. Within minutes. And choking, AKA erotic asphyxiation, AKA breath play, consensual or not, is considered an accurate predictor for future lethal domestic violence. Chokers are ten times more likely to eventually murder their partner, according to national data. So who consents to call this play? And why?

What confusion! What misspeaking! So let’s ask the questions, using the language we know. What feelings of impotence and barely masked rage fuel the chokers and rapists in their desire to play out these dreams of power and control with their “loved ones”? And how “loving” can these relationships be, considering that the men involved want to act out with their real-life partners these mass-produced violent fantasies? And how mentally healthy can the men be who deeply despise and disdain the very women they claim to desire, so much so that they can only be aroused by humiliating or endangering them? This is more than a war of words, my friends. Buying into pornspeak can literally kill us. And it will certainly make us sick more often than it will nourish us. And shouldn’t sex, like food, be nourishing to everyone partaking, body and soul?

What distress. What sadness. How can we talk about this? How are we to react to it? How are we to negotiate our own sex lives in this climate, and speak out about what we want to happen around and inside of our own bodies? Do we have a voice at all, if our potential partner’s hands are reaching for our throats? Like it or not, it is abundantly clear that these softened and sanitized pornspeak terms are meant to create submission on the part of the deeply reluctant partners whose voices are not only being silenced, but literally choked off in this new dialogue. We have to release our throats and reclaim our words and our true voice before we can have the full and free conversation that is so deeply needed here. And use words not to further harm, but to heal.


Since I first started interpreting in my earliest youth, people would ask me whether I would soon be replaced by a machine or computer program. And yes, computer-assisted translation and glossaries are vitally important. I use them regularly. But I don’t expect to be completely replaced during my professional lifetime. And I have a theory on it, based mostly on my ignorance, and my imagination, two things that computers are not conscious of having, by the way.

My theory is that to the degree that what we are asking a computer to do requires cultural context and filtering of meaning, focusing on areas of knowledge, and discarding what doesn’t feel right or seem right, the human mind will still be needed. Can a machine hold glossary terms to a larger degree than a flawed and aging human? No doubt. And the machine will not forget items. Which I reliably will, based on infrequency of use.

To the degree that massive amounts of linguistic data are input, a program such as Google Translate can get you a pretty good facsimile of whatever you search for the major language pairs. The way they do this is through what is now called corpus linguistics (body of language) where data is culled and processed from real-world documents, then analyzed in a myriad of ways, including glossary and translation formation. But the human mind must still look at it and decide if it fits the context, makes sense, and seems right. And sometimes override the offered translation.

Case in point where we needed both human and computer assistance, and then this human to override the computer. I was assisting a new patient in filling out her medical history. She was telling me that she had the little bell removed, you know, that thingie that hangs down in your throat, not your tonsils, but the thingie right in the middle, the little bell. I told her I knew exactly what she was talking about but for some reason, I could not think of the actual word in either language and I had to think about it for a moment. It is not a very talked-about body part, as body parts go.

She told me not to worry about it because she uses Google translate all the time and she can find it in a second. She then shows me her phone and says, “Here it is. I had my ‘Tinker Bell’ removed!”

I let her know that Tinker Bell in a fairy-like character in a famous story over a hundred years old called Peter Pan about a boy who never grows up and it is now a movie as well. Tinker Bell is so named because she is a tinker, a person who repairs old pots and pans, in the fairy world, and when she talks it sounds like ringing bells so only magic people can understand her. She can also give people the ability to fly. And she is so tiny that she can only hold one emotion at a time, which I believe may have been the author’s reflection upon the smallness of his own neglectful mother’s personality. But Tinker Bell is decidedly not a body part.

The patient had seen the children’s movie and we started giggling together and all of a sudden from the back of my mind, I called out, “uvula!” And uvula is the actual formal name of this body part in both languages. Then we started joking about what the doctor would think if we had walked into the pre-surgery appointment and told her that “somebody took my Tinker Bell!” The doctor would have questioned either my abilities or the patient’s connection to our shared reality.

If the word had not come to me spontaneously, I could have done a deeper internet search on the word the patient was using, and likely found uvula. I could have looked up throat anatomy in the target language, and found the body part that way. Computer research capabilities are almost endless. I could also, if pushed to the wall, have interpreted for the doctor that the patient has had “the little bell” that dangles in her throat removed, and the doctor would likely have looked at me quizzically and offered “uvula” to us. But I feel confident in claiming with certitude that the doctor would never have suggested Tinker Bell, as Google Translate did.

So yes, as Wikipedia likes to term it, disambiguation is a valuable part of our language processing. Being able to access glossaries such as Linguee that are based on terms translated in context culled from millions of existing published translations is hugely important. But so is knowing the context and even the cultural background of the speech communities in which we interpret. Because with all the data in the world, our human judgment, and our human ability to create meaning and to communicate it, have not yet been replaced. And this makes me happy.


When interpreting live, we tend to use a general term for something common like baby bottle or shortness of breath, and then reflect back whatever word the patient uses, so we can get aligned with that individual.  But we don’t have the luxury of direct feedback and harmonizing with the patient when we do written translations. We have to choose at a great distance from our nebulous potential readers.  And everyone has a personal lexicon, so three translators on a project means three opinions.

If there are two or three (or five) words that different patients use, say, for baby bottle nipple, then should we just list all of them in our written documents, and use hyphens, slashes, or parentheses?  Well, no.  Not if our patient population has difficulty reading even simple text, as many refugees do.  The use of symbols, such as parenthesis, cuts of the flow of the text and acts as a hindrance for comprehension.

Use the most general term, then, but what does that mean?  Which word is most general?  Which is correct?  Which is best understood? Translation teams can spend hours of research proving to each other that their specific term is “best”.   And a lot of it is simply personal preference or style.

One word for baby bottle nipple in my target language comes from teat.  But more patients use a word that comes from mammary.  That word, to complicate matters, is used by some patients to mean the whole baby bottle, and by others to mean just the nipple.  There are also a couple of versions of baby bottle nipple that come from the word to suckle, but various patients consider that a pacifier and not a baby bottle nipple.  Then we have a subgroup who use an indigenous term that is part of the name for Mother Earth, but also means both time and space as a combined concept.

Of course, I personally prefer the last one, as it is lovely.  The life-giving maternal nipple providing space-time nourishment so that the infant can remain embodied and continue to travel through time.  I also prefer this term because I happened to have lived among the people who use it, and I feel comfortable and even comforted by the term.  It is in the collection that makes up my personal lexicon – the words that are my familiar tools. 

But getting back to documents for publication at hospitals.  One of the best sources, in an ideal world, would be to look through prior translations and continue the path begun by presumably professional translators in the past.  But unless they are done with computer-assisted translation memory, I have found that all the organizations I have worked for, both large and small, have pretty much a mishmash of random choices made by the random translators, even on words as simple as breast.  So this is not reliable or definitive, either.

In the end, translators may have to use a search engine and see how many millions (or mere thousands) of hits a specific term has.  Then look at sources written in the target language by reputable groups.  We can ask our patients, but it ends up being such a tiny sample size, and I am not sure all patients would be comfortable being asked “how do you say baby bottle” while they are trying to get their own medical care.

So we do the best we can and settle down on a general term, after our best judgment.  We do research to resolve any doubts.  And hopefully if the chosen term is used consistently throughout all our documents, patients have a good chance of understanding it. An imperfect science, like many others.


Interpreters sometimes wonder whether a native source language or a native target language interpreter has the easiest time interpreting.  Would you rather hear something you can easily understand in your native language, then struggle to say it in your second language, or would you rather struggle to understand something in your second language, then say it in your native tongue?   Of course a true childhood bilingual who grows up in both cultures and is well educated has the easiest time.  But not all interpreters have had that opportunity.  We each have our pitfalls, weak areas, and learning curves.

As much as I sometimes worry about how “clean” my target language might sound under the worst of circumstances, I feel relieved that the vast majority of what is said in the courtroom is in my native language and pertains to the culture I am most familiar with.  Even so, it is incredible to me how common it is for people to use uncommon sayings and phrases that take quite a bit of unpacking.  I feel grateful to at least know what they mean to say, and have that head start in rendering these items into the target language.  Because of course we interpreters must rely on our strengths to help us overcome our weak spots.

Yesterday, I was imagining how many interpreters might need to pop up and interrupt the judge when he told the prosecutor that if the witness said something that he had been instructed not to say, the judge would give him the hairy eyeball.  I believe that the hairy eyeball means a lowered eyebrow, or eyelashes over the eye, so that the eye is glaring at you through hair.  It is used to mean disapproval or a warning look.  But I don’t think the phrase is something you could guess at if you didn’t happen to know this.

The judge also talked about a no-brainer.  This is a more common and more modern phrase.  But it can easily be misunderstood.  Rather than meaning something stupid or wrong, it means the opposite – something so obvious and simple that we can all agree to it without even thinking about it.

The judge told a lawyer a subject was “fair game” for questioning a witness.  If I had to guess, I would think that means you have to be fair about questions, like you are fair when playing a game.  In fact, “game” in this old phrase means the wild animals you are hunting, and fair game, means you are allowed to go for the kill.  So “fair game” in questioning means the attorney is allowed to go after the witness and question them hard in that area.  Again, this seems counter-intuitive.

The judge further told the court he wants to “get off the dime” early the next morning.  I happen to know that means get started right away, but what an odd saying.  It has a sad beginning in the 1920’s dance hall trade.  Women were hired to dance with men who paid a dime, and some of them would then want to stand and grind up against the poor women instead of dancing.  At that point, in the nicer clubs, a bouncer would come tell the men to get a move on and dance, that is, to “get off the dime.” How could an international person even fluent in English know this and so many other phrases?

The same judge on the same day told potential jurors he was “shooting across the bow”.  This was something done by certain nations whose ship would come across another mid-sea that was sailing without a flag.  The shot across the unknown ship’s bow would be a warning for that ship to immediately raise their country’s flag, or face enemy fire.  Now it is used (rarely) to mean any kind of warning.  Again, I wonder how many people know this.

These are just a few of the culturally laden phrases from a single day in court.  Here are a few more words I jotted down the same day, wondering how many people have them on the tip of their tongues.  These are literally all from my notes for the same day in trial, and of course I am only catching a thimbleful of the waterfall of words.  Ask yourself how many you can find an easy synonym for, and then ask yourself if you can easily find a synonym in another language:

Lenity.  Fret. Hard-wired.  Garner.  Moniker.  Force of habit.  Offhand. Hallmark.  Voluminous.  Verbose.  Abundance of caution.  By the same token.  Take the winds out of the sail.  At the get-go.  Pass muster.  Entire panoply.   Betwixt and between.  Rules of engagement.  Auctioneer. Innocuous.  Overthink.  Sequester.

Whew.  And by the way, “whew” is a Late Middle English word, similar to “phew” .  It is the sound one makes after holding one’s breath in in a state of tension.  Once the relief comes, we stop holding our breath and we exhale an audible sigh of relief.  This can sound like whew, or phew.  I know that is what I sounded like when my workday ended yesterday.


There must be something in the weather, or maybe I am just noticing it more.  But just this week, it seems like everyone agreed to sprinkle their language with a heavy dose of wordplay, old sayings, and things that although I understand them are quite hard to figure out how to say on the spot in the target language at the rate of 200 words per minute.  Just a few examples:

A lawyer asks for release from jail at a defendant’s second hearing.  The judge tells him, “This is not “Second Bite at Bail” court!”  Second bite means a second chance.  Bail is usually set at the first hearing, when the charges are formally read to the defendant.

“They kicked him loose.”  I suspect the new lawyer was combining letting someone loose and kicking someone to the curb into a single strange saying.

“Splitting hairs” means arguing about something that is too specific or petty to worry about.  But it is hard to suddenly come upon this and other idioms or saying in another language on the spot.  Do we get rid of hair altogether and say quibble, or cavil?  If we do, does anyone but a lover of literature even know what those words mean in English, let alone in the target language?

“That was a loaded question” gives the idea that the question may explode on you like a gun.  It is defined as a question containing a controversial or unjustified assumption.  Again, not all target languages will necessarily have a one-word fix for this rather complex concept.

“Cross the line”.  It means to go too far, but when we hear it, we have to think about whether there is a way to say it with line, or whether to just say you overstepped, or talk about boundaries, or being inappropriate, and after all that runs through our heads, we are behind the speaker by a few sentences again.  Argh.

“You may have an axe to grind” means you may have a hidden desire to get back at someone, like you are sharpening your axe for battle.  It can just mean you have a strong opinion about something.  A judge told the jury during selection that they may have an axe to grind, and I took it to mean they may be impartial.  For example, if someone you know want hit by a drunk driver, you may want to punish this drunk driver by convicting them on slim evidence.

To top the cake, one of the judges told the audience that “we do our darnedest.”  For God’s sake, and I mean that literally. Let’s take the swearword “damn”.  This means we are asking God to condemn someone to hell.  Reduce it to darn, which actually means to mend something, like a sock.  Damn and darn are like shit and shoot – the latter words are a little softer than the real swearwords.  Now take darn and make it past tense, so we have darned.  I darned my socks.   Then try to change it to an adverb by having it describe how you do something, even though you are not saying what you are doing.  Then to add to the confusion, add a superlative suffix (the -est ending).  Are you still with me?  I am doing my darnedest here!  By the way, that means I am doing my best.  Dammit.



Words are strange and illuminating, and sometimes just frustrating reminders of societal development, or lack thereof.   But as professional wordsmiths, working in a high stress field, we try to find the happiness in whatever words our intellectual curiosity and our professional duty leads us to research. The other day, we were talking about jacking off.

In English, this refers to a manual stimulation of anyone’s genitalia, but the specifics offered here in a sexual exploitation case revolved around a verbal offer of a “hand job” and whether the potential client understood the term.  In direct questioning, of course, the term would remain in English, as it was said in English during the sting operation.  But for the rest of the trial, we needed to render it in the defendant’s native language. These slang terms tend to be very regional, and the two team interpreters had very different ideas on how to render the term.

One prim and proper interpreter said let’s just say “masturbate” but that is of course a very different register, and something one offers as a gift to oneself.   The second interpreter was used to more colorful and vulgar slang, and her term was to “make the hay fly” which sounds sweet, like a lovely scene in a barn, except that in that speech community straw or hay also means jism or cum.  So that term could be startling to a defendant not from that area.   To settle the matter, one of the interpreters asked the defendant (with the attorney’s permission outside of the courtroom) what term he himself used, and he said “the jacket”.

I personally like the unisex terms that come from hand that exist in several languages.  In Spanish, we have Manuela.  In Swedish, pushing the handcart.  In English, Rosie Fingers, or just Rosie.   Jackson Browne memorialized this in a song lamenting his loneliness, in which he sings, “Rosie you’re all right – you wear my ring – when you hold me tight – Rosie, that’s my thing.  When I turn out the light – I’ve got to hand it to me – looks like it’s me and you again, tonight, Rosie.”

But alas for the court situation.  We are not there to be poetic or bring in wordplay.  We have to focus on actual communication.  So Rosie and Manuela and all their siblings were not invited, the hay did not fly in the barn, nor did we offer the gift of self-love.  We rendered the handjob, simply, as “the jacket”.   The argument then moved on to whether the defendant could understand the hand gesture for hand job, and we had to sit on our hands because we are not allowed to repeat gestures.



Most people just don’t know how they talk.  They really don’t.  They say whatever comes to mind, without any consideration of their audience.  They mumble.  They repeat.  They change course mid-sentence.  They use obscure words that are out of usage, and they pop in uncommon cultural references.  They talk in sports metaphors.  They use sarcasm and talk to themselves in asides.  Even in front of parents going through a divorce who are required to take a seminar to know how to navigate the complex court system.  Even through interpreters, most of whom are foreign-born.

As a native English speaker who loves literature, I myself can understand  and even appreciate these speech patterns and phrases, but I am concerned for the global community, with or without interpreters, for whom each such phrase forms an unnecessary barrier to understanding.  I have directly witnessed perfectly excellent interpreters struggling to understand some of these speech patterns and references.  This leads me to believe that members of the public may also be confused.

Let’s look at just a few examples of what was said in a recent parenting seminar, with my suggestions of phrasing that would have been a lot easier for everyone to understand.

If you are shy – missing something

It’s a red flag – a warning

Anyone can hang out a shingle –  start up a business

Get out of Dodge – leave

The ball is in your court  – you have to act

Only game in town – only option

Good to go – done

back to square one – starting over

catch-22 – a dilemma

make a pitch for – argue for

your verbiage – words

ABC company – any company

five different directions – all over

Add to that a large dose of running commentary, asides, and sarcasm, such as looking up at the screen and claiming, “My favorite thing is small font”.  I have to say, it is so hard to interpret sarcasm. How about something straightforward like “This font is so small, it is hard to read!”  The very concept of saying the opposite of what we mean and then smirking to show we mean something completely different is a strange cultural quirk that is decidedly not global.  And not well suited for a public informational talk in the court setting.

Some of these old phrases are very tasty to chew upon, although not so digestible for the general public.  Catch-22 is a novel that not everyone has read, but people who have know it means a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.  The old Wild West town of Dodge City, Kansas, has fallen off the mental map for most people, but many of us are familiar with this phrase for leaving town.

I don’t know how many people understand ABC company simply means any company.  If you are “shy” a dollar and you owe ten, it means you have nine dollars and are missing one.  I don’t believe this meaning of shy is in current usage.  “Hanging out a shingle” to mean starting up a business is also not in common usage in the general public.  If we wish to convey that there is no rule on who is allowed to make a parenting plan evaluation, so be careful who you pick, why not just say that?  That way we convey our meaning.

Sports analogies, such as a ball in your court, or pitching, do not always translate well either.  Neither do phrases such as “five directions”, which refers to North, West, East, South and Center. Even using words such as “verbiage” that are at too high a register for the speakers can add to comprehension barriers.  And if you are talking at 220 words a minute, and your word choice causes the interpreter to pause for just thirty seconds, we are now 110 more words behind you and we have to catch up as we can.  To give you an idea of how what 110 words means, this paragraph is 110 words.

So we are left with untrained speakers (with the best of intentions) trying to tell an untrained public how to navigate through a highly complex and difficult legal system using words and phrases that make it that much harder to understand.  And interpreters are left leaping like acrobats, catching words mid-air and conveying them as best we can to the listening public.  Don’t you just love it?  (Yes, that was sarcasm.)



Like all of us, lawyers have favorite words and phrases.   One lawyer used  the phrase “second guess” to mean four different things within the same attorney-client meeting.  I probably wouldn’t have thought about it much, but as I had to render it into another language, I had to focus on what he was really trying to convey.  I soon realized that he meant something different each time he said the phrase.

When he said he could not second guess what the jury would do, he meant that he could not predict the outcome.  He was warning the client that the jury decision as to his guilt was unpredictable.

When he said the judge would not second guess the jury, except in very limited situations, he meant that the judge was not going to replace the jury’s judgment with her own.

Once the defendant decided to take a plea deal, the lawyer advised him not to second guess himself.  He meant not to dwell on whether the decision was the right one.  This is a very special meaning of second guess, that includes the idea of taking a good decision and by doubting yourself, possibly replacing it with a worse decision.

Lastly, the lawyer assured the defendant that he was not going to second guess the defendant’s ultimate decision to plea out or go to trial.  This time, he meant that he was not going to criticize or judge him for that decision.  He was assuring his client that he was free to choose for himself, and that the attorney would be fine either way.

One version of the origin of the phrase itself is that baseball umpires used to be called “guessers” and those who criticized them and wished to replace his decisions with their own were coined “second guessers”.  The verb was then back-formed from that term and brought into general use outside of sports.

Nowadays second guessing can mean to predict outcome, to replace someone else’s decision with your own,  to doubt yourself, or to criticize someone’s else’s decision.  It can refer to hindsight or foresight, past or future, and be directed toward others or one’s self.  Sorry if this leaves you second guessing what someone means when they talk about second guessing.  But I am not going to second guess myself about this week’s post.