Category Archives: WORDS


I was considering whether to swim in a lake after a sauna when my cousin’s friend said to me in Finnish, “Just hop in!  The water is like bird’s milk!”  Between a native English speaker, a native Swedish speaker, and a native Finnish speaker, we then had a conversation deciding what exactly it means to swim in water that is like bird’s milk.

One thought it must be cold and bracing after the sauna, another said no, it is warm and nice, just right, and the third thought it must mean something impossible.  How can a non-mammal have milk at all?  What kind of a bird can this be?  Does it come from a forgotten story, an ancient myth?  How can we as humans make up language to describe something that is real by using words to describe something that is not real?

In one of our many human creation stories, we say that in the beginning there was the word and the word was god – the word was itself the creator.  Some linguists have theorized that language isn’t “just words” but in fact language “does” things – language makes things happen.  Language brings things into creation.  God says “Let there be light” and there is light.

To a degree, this is a “chicken or egg” argument – which came first?  We could not make a word for tree without the tree, but could we perceive or understand the tree without naming it and being able to talk about it?  Some languages have basic words for both light and dark blue and English just has “blue” and then adds descriptors.  Studies show speakers of those languages that have two words notice the two colors as distinct, more so than English speakers.  This is one example amongst countless others.

One of the magical things about language is that we can talk  We can talk about our wounds in healing ways.  And we can describe about things that are not real.  We can talk about things that can never happen.  We can talk about things that are ephemeral and catch them by the tail.  We can talk about things that are deeply painful in a way that allows us to laugh instead of crying. the water of an inviting lake in Finland  as feeling like bird’s milk.

It turns out that Finnish speakers have somehow, sometime, agreed that water that is delicious to the touch, smooth and caressing upon the skin, exactly the comfortable temperature, is like the milk of a bird – an impossible thing made possible through language.  And just hearing this, and knowing this, will make that lake water feel differently upon my skin, because of language.  And swimming in that lake at sunset after a sauna will make the phrase “bird’s milk” taste differently on my tongue, in all languages.


“Tell her my computer is being persnickety,” the judge told me in traffic court.  No, I did not direct the judge to please speak directly to the party, using the second person instead of the third.  Nor did I, as some interpreters might, interpret her sentence literally for the party, who would have wondered who she was supposed to tell this to.  Like most fields of work, the handbooks get you only so far and when you are on the ground, you find workarounds.  I did ask the judge to clarify exactly what she means by persnickety, as the word is out of usage and I considered it to mean rebellious.

The judge explained that she used it to mean that her computer will only work if treated in a certain way.  If she hits a button on one ticket, and then fills in the information, when she goes to click on the next ticket (issued at the same time) the information she plugged in above disappears, and she has to hit some other button to re-enter it.  So for her, persnickety means having to do things only one certain specific way.  This got me to thinking, as many times before.  How do we learn words?  How do we decide what they mean? How do we appropriate these words and use them to build social contracts with shared meaning?

As a pre-schooler, I was warned by my mother not to be persnickety. Probably mostly around four or five years old, when the poor dear was suddenly confronted by my personality for the first time, without the buffer of at least one older sister at home.  My two older sisters went off to school together and my little brother was still just half-made, a tiny egg floating unripened in my mother’s ovary.  During our two years alone for the school day, I was routinely commanded to stop being persnickety.  So I searched my young soul for any character flaws I could recognize with my limited life experience, enhanced by my Sunday school teachings, and presumed rebelliousness was the meaning.  Eve and the apple.  Getting too big for my britches.  Uppity.  Persnickety, to me, came to mean challenging authority or having disparaging thoughts, even unspoken, about the way the world was run.

I was guilty as charged, as far as I understood the meaning.  I frankly found part of my childhood legal system to be unwarranted and simply a tool used to control the masses, that is to say – me and my sisters. Arbitrary rules, arbitrary punishments, administered without any checks and balances (with father simply referring us back to our mother).  Some of the rules I tried to challenge to no avail:  Why is it wrong to eat unripe hazelnuts from the yard?  Why can’t I roll my eyes, if it brings me solace?  And in a shocking display of narcissism that I hope I have grown out of, I recall wondering – is it really that bad to run over biting red ants with my trike?  Is it truly necessary for me to stand in the corner of the living room and think about how the ants might feel?  I didn’t have an exoskeleton.  How could I conceivably put myself in their place, no matter how long I faced the wall?  But I digress.

The judge had heard the word persnickety from an old granny in her childhood, and it was when she didn’t want to eat something or wear something – when she wanted things a certain way.  If the word persnickety had continued in common usage, by running into the word in a myriad of contexts through the years, we would have refined and polished the meaning by trying it out and using it within our speech community.  We could have decided more closely whether it leans toward rebellious, fastidious, or stretches out into a wider, more ambiguous meaning.  This is what we do with all the words we use, without thinking much about it.  Because words are tiny social contracts.

I love the idea that these some thirty thousand words we know and use in our native language start acquiring meaning from our earliest experiences as we hear them and guess our way and then correct, narrow, expand, and refine until we each have our personal lexicon with words that taste a little differently than the same words taste in the mouths of others.  Like so many other things in life.  And of course, avid readers develop a very different understanding of words, seeing them in so many contexts outside of our oral usage.  It is amazing to me that these words work as well as they do to convey meaning from one person to another.  It is astounding, really.

It turns out the judge, who is older than me, had a more accurate view of the dictionary definition of the word.  Unlike me, who was left at my first guess, she may have heard it well into her adult years from a variety of sources.  The dictionary tells us that persnickety, pernickety, or pernicky, courtesy of the Scots, means either “placing too much emphasis on trivial or minor details, or being fussy”.  It can also means, as the judge used it, “requiring a particularly precise or careful approach”.

Ready to refine or expand my own understood meaning of persnickety, I went through the court the rest of that day, asking dozens of native speakers what they thought persnickety meant.  Almost all gave me a blank look.  No one had a clear definition.  And more importantly, no one under 50 years of age remembered having heard the word at all.  So no shared meaning to reach.  This tiny social contract is becoming null and void.   Goodbye, persnickety.

Fear not, persnickety, that your inherent meaning will be lost to future generations.  We have peculiar, fussy, fastidious, picky, finicky, and exacting, to carry on the work that you valiantly performed as long as people passed you from mouth to ear.  Rest in peace, persnickety.  Know that our human fussiness, our unreasonable desire to have things a certain way, our focus on unimportant details,  and even our rebelliousness will live on and be expressed through your offspring.  You may pass away, old dear, but take comfort in knowing that language lives on.



Someone I interpreted for recently had racked up 8 or 9 charges in a matter of two days. The prosecutor called it a “crime spree” and for the protection of the community, asked for bail to be set at $75,000.

Spree has a long and very widespread meaning as a cheerful, active word.  It is related to spry and sprightly, old-fashioned words that mean energetic, resilient, and tough, while optimistic.  Somewhere along the line, the word traveled around and changed meaning.  Now, strangely, it is used mostly to in the context of either a shopping spree, or a crime spree.  It is commonly understood to mean a sustained course of focused activity over some short period of time.

Some words just don’t end up in print much.  Spree seems to be one of those, so people are free to make up their own guesses as the “true” origin of the word.  Some sources now claim it comes from the French “esprit” or spirit,  Others from the Irish for “fun” or “sport”.  Still others from Scottish for a drinking party.  The bulk of academic linguistic sources seem to relate it to an ancient Indo-European word for sprout, which is I suppose one of the most energetic and optimistic actions to be observed in nature – transforming from seed to plant.  Talk about sustained effort.

According to the International Association of Crime Analysts, a crime spree is “characterized by high frequency of criminal activity within a remarkably short time frame, to the extent that the activity appears almost continuous.”  But in reviewing cases, it seems quite common that people in and out of court refer to a “crime spree” when a person appears to have committed a series of crimes over the course of days or even weeks.  The focus tends to be on the high number of crimes, rather than on the actions being almost continuous.

This turns out to matter rather a lot in at least two scenarios.  One is double jeopardy – the concept that one cannot be punished twice for the same crime.  For example, if I hit you five times in a row, is that five assaults or one assault?  The other scenario is if you live in a state with a “three strikes” law – that three “strikes” or convictions for serious felony crimes can lead to your being committed to life in prison without parole.  If you rob three banks in quick succession on one afternoon, does that make you a “habitual offender”?  How far apart in time do your three “strike” crimes have to be?  Food for thought.

The word “spree” is just one example among so many others, where the specific words and their specific definitions matter very much in a court of law.  Our state does not have a specific definition in the code for “crime spree” so the usage, meaning, and consequences of it are open to be argued, usually as part of sentencing, on a case by case basis.  In this case, the prosecutor was clearly using the term as it is commonly used outside of court – simply to say that the defendant had committed a lot of offenses within a short period of time.  And it was a bail-setting hearing, When the case reaches sentencing, that same prosecutor may be arguing that it was not a “spree” in the sense of making it fit into the category of a single act, or counting as a single strike.  And of course a crime spree can easily lead to multiple charges, as the 8 or 9 charges above.

This is just one example of so many times where my deep appreciation for the nuances of both languages and the law make it difficult for me to render a term (that could take an hour to explain) as one of perhaps two or three words per second that I just have to spit out in the moment in order to approximate the contextual meaning as best I can.  (A typical rate of speech is around 120 words per minute to 180 or faster for nervous types – and a lot of people are nervous in court).  In this particular context, I used the word for “wave”.  In another context, it will come out differently.  We just approximate the meaning as best we can.  And try to stay spry enough to keep up with our speakers.


One of the older monolingual probation officers I work with has a varied and colorful colloquial English that she simply cannot put aside when working through an interpreter.  It reminds me of when there was a sign interpreter at a live comedy show.  One of the comedians kept saying odd things, then pausing so we could all see how the sign interpreter solved the linguistic problem.  I remember the comedian saying things like “my heart leaps like a gazelle under the January moon,” and watching the interpreter’s hand make a leaping motion, then spell out the word gazelle.

I feel similarly put to the test with this probation officer, although I do not believe it is intentional on her part.  Some people just don’t think about how they speak or whether they communicate.  They just use the tired, familiar phrases they have been using since their childhood.  The problem is that these kinds of phrases are not easily rendered into the target languages due to our differing cultural and linguistic histories.  And some of them are simply not appropriate, even in English.

I will take just three phrases from my last encounter with this probation officer.   When the client looked nervous, she told him not to worry – she was not going to eat him.  Enough said on that one.  Awkward.  Secondly, she wanted to ask him if he had any prior experience of being on probation, but instead, she jokingly said:  “You seem like you’ve been around the block before.”  Once I had found a fair equivalent, he was quite upset and said no, he had never been in any kind of trouble.  Then she wanted his employer’s phone number, and when he hesitated, she said, intending to mean that she wasn’t going to call his boss, “I’m not going to sell you down the river.”  History class, anyone?

“You seem like you’ve been around the block” means you seem like you have direct experience of what you are now involved with.  In this case, she was joking that the defendant seemed to “know the drill” – another saying meaning the same thing.   As an aside, knowing the drill comes from military training, in which you do something over and over until you can do it without thinking.   But let’s take a look at the phrase she chose to use.  Some believe it relates to sex workers who were regularly harassed by police as they stood on the street.  They were constantly told to keep moving and not stand and wait for customers, so they kept going around the corner.  By the end of their shift, they had “been around the block a few times.”  Hence having been around the block would mean you have experience, but not necessarily of a socially sanctioned kind.

Then we have her phrase to say I will not put you into a worse position than you are already in.  I will not sell you down the river.  Think back just a few generations, and who could be sold down the river in our lovely country?  Those of us who had the skin color to be considered slaves and treated accordingly; a shameful part of our national history.  Slaves in the north who complained about their conditions would be threatened with being sold down the river, further south, into areas where their treatment was reported to be even worse.  I don’t think any public servant with an ounce of sense would knowingly joke about slavery in this day and age.  So why are we using these kinds of phrases and sayings in our public court?

My goal as interpreter was simply to convey the information that was being provided.  I didn’t want to get into the slave trade, which for the most part has died out in this country.  Or human trafficking and the sex trade, which sadly lives on.  I didn’t want to tell this young man that she was not going to eat him, devour him or consume him in any way, especially since the closest match in my target language that I know of would come out “I am not going to swallow you.”  Going from bad to worse here.  I just wanted to get him through a half hour probation appointment, with the best possible understanding of what she was telling him to do in order to stay out of further legal trouble.

In the end, I had to use my professional judgment in deciding how and when to drag along a more colorful phrase, or cast it aside when it would have obscured the meaning and hindered communication.  So I had her say, “You needn’t be afraid of me,” “You seem like you’ve walked this path before,” and “I do not intend to call your boss.”  If this were a novel under translation, I would have spent hours consulting others and researching for phrases that would be equally colorful, or footnoting the US history that gave rise to these sayings.  But not for this.  This wasn’t just a word party.  This individual needed to understand exactly what he was ordered to, so he could stay out of jail.

Our individual lexicons are like an archaeological dig into both our subconscious mind and our shared social conscience.  Our language  use reveals all kinds of old customs and habits, ways of thinking, and attitudes we may not even be consciously aware that we still hold.  We use phrases and terms that are markers for a value system that we don’t even remember we have buried in the back of our minds – a value system we may believe we vehemently oppose, until our words betray us.  You may want to dust your own lexicon off and decide whether your own favorite words and sayings have outlasted their usefulness in communicating who you are, and who you want to be, in this beautiful shared world.  Believe it or not, every word counts.


A party representing himself in family court was accused of having failed to follow up on one of the myriad obligations involved in trying to get a Parenting Plan and Child Support Order finalized.  To me, it is a miracle if any couple manages to do so, given the complex and confusing steps, departments, names of people, and forms.  Where I live, the process takes over a year to get from filing to trial date.  And we sometimes joke that it is not really because of a backlog, but simply because it take people a year to figure out the paperwork and steps.

In any case, this party wanted to tell the judge that he was absolutely sure he had not missed any deadlines or failed to provide a report or refused to speak to someone regarding a parenting plan evaluation, and in a very urgent voice, he claimed that he had been “at the margin” in every way throughout the year since having filed.  The funny thing is, that phrase usually means to be outside the law, but it was clear from context that he meant he WAS doing everything that had been asked of him.  I certainly wasn’t going to be a purist and have him say he had been outside the law every step of the way.  But I know some interpreters would.

This reminds me of a Russian interpreter who was working with an elderly, hard of hearing patient who was suffering from prostate problems.  The phrase for prostate gland starts out “predstatel” and the word for chairman is “predsedatl” and this gentleman always called his prostate his chairman, but the interpreter, knowing what he meant to say, was able to say prostate, and the elderly man never faced the rude but helpless giggles of the overworked staff, or a lengthy explanation about how he doesn’t know his own body parts.  He was suffering enough, and his meaning was clear.

If we pose this situation as being in a court of law at an interpreter training, there will be interpreters who pop up and say the correct response is to say “chairman” and then state on the record that the Russian word for chairman and prostate are very close and you believe he meant prostate.  Then other interpreters will stand up and argue that the interpreter by doing so has just made herself an expert witness and given testimony and now she must recuse herself and stop interpreting, mid-trial, with a full jury and courtroom of workers.  Then everyone can stand by for a couple hours while they look for a replacement interpreter.  Because interpreters are not allowed to testify.  And we cannot know what someone else means, the purists will argue, even though we make that leap of faith in every single sentence we convey all day long, because language and context and meaning are messy and organic and situational.

Interpreters all struggle with the concept of how to avoid “fixing” what someone says and still conveying their meaning.  In the case above, as this family father said he was outside the law, even if it is nonsensical in this context, some would say the interpreter must say “outside the law”.  If someone says Tuesday and we know they mean Wednesday, we certainly don’t fix it.  Then again, metaphors and such are not as clear cut as the days of the week.  He used a phrase that allows for some variation in meaning, and was exceedingly clear from context.

To me, it seems wrong to put a clearly false phrase into his mouth, causing a break in the hearing, creating confusion, and affecting his credibility and confidence on the stand.  Should the interpreter risk breaking the hearing down just to make sure the interpreter is not “fixing” anything?  In this case, the speaker’s meaning was crystal clear.  So I had to set aside the whole quandary of fixing, and get the right tone for his obvious meaning of really straining to do right.

My first go-to was to use something equally visual.  I thought of “up to the mark” or “toeing the line” but neither was a perfect fit.  Up to the mark sounds satisfyingly similar, but in English it means good enough, and no better.  In this case, the party was clearly trying to convey the idea of being much better than good enough – making it highly unlikely, almost impossible, that he had failed to comply.  Toeing the line sounds even less like a willing performer going above and beyond the call of duty, as it tends to mean following the rules under pressure.  In that split second of racing brain, I had to abandon both toes and lines.

“Your Honor, I want to point out that I have been scrupulous in fulfilling every obligation of this court.  I have attended every single meeting as required.  I have not missed a single hearing.  I respect your authority and I am following all the rules.  I do not recall having received this letter, or I would have responded, I assure you.”

Scrupulous.  It means attentive, thorough, and detail-oriented, along with ethical and upright.  I think I captured it.  I think I was scrupulous in coming up to the mark.  And I hope that knowing what he meant and conveying that does not put me on the fringes, or outside the law, in the interpreter world.  It is absolutely not the fallback position to “fix” what someone says, but when it is metaphorical and clear from context, such as my example, I find it appropriate to carefully convey the intended meaning.

So why is writing this giving me a nervous stomach?  Because there is so much more to say about this.  It reminds me of our interpreter workshops covering ethics, where we can argue endlessly about a single scenario, by just adding one more detail to our hypothetical.   For now, because it is a lovely Saturday, and the garden calls out to me, I will save further discussion until someone criticizes me, and then I can be up to the mark about justifying how scrupulous I truly am.


I have a lot of compassion for non-English speakers in trying to understand so many strange and wonderful idioms that have no meaningful link between the words used and the everyday meaning, unless you have grown up in the culture.  By that, I mean that you can hear and understand each word spoken, but no matter how much you try to guess or suppose, you cannot come forth to the actual socially understood meaning outside of historical context.  For native speakers, someone told us what the idiom meant when we were little, and then we heard and recognized it thereafter.

Of course idioms are not limited to English, and I have certainly puzzled my head over idioms in other languages.  But in court, it seems like it would be a good place to avoid them, so that all speakers would have a better chance of understanding the very vital and sometimes life-altering meaning of what is being conveyed.  The problem is that such phrases are part and parcel (another idiom) to our way of speaking and so they are used without even thinking.  Perhaps I need to explain that “part and parcel” is a legal term, that means a part of something that cannot be separated from the whole.  So it is with idioms – as I have just shown.  It is not easy to remove them from our speech.  But they can be hard to understand.

In court, a lawyer was explaining that her client who had an abstinence condition as part of his sentence had resumed drinking.  She stated that he had faced a personal tragedy, and had then “fallen off the wagon.”  What wagon?  Where does this come from?  Like many idioms, there are a variety of explanations and anecdotes about where and how the saying arose.  Falling off the wagon is no exception to the rule.

A story from England goes back the dark days of the 1500’s and beyond, when hanging was the punishment for all sorts of everyday crimes caused by poverty, and capital punishment was the norm.  This story has at least three versions, all involving the wagon used to carry the condemned to the hanging grounds.  One is that the convicts on the wagon were allowed a last stop to have a drink and then get back on the wagon.  This I doubt.   Another is that the guards would stop and take a drink, but the prisoners would stay “on the wagon” and have to wait without drinking.

Idioms aside, I can almost see the wagons or carts with their load of human cargo, reminiscent of other injustices.  Some had committed murder.  Others had done something as simple as stealing bread from a bakery.  Yet others were falsely accused.  And some were political prisoners, trying to improve their working conditions but breaking the very strict Master Servant laws in place at that time.  As the wagon moved through the populace, the story goes, members of the community would dash forward and offer quick drinks of alcohol, so that the hanging might be a little less painful.  If any of them had too much, he would “fall off the wagon”.  This also reads like myth, in that the prisoners were surely well-secured, and people on the wagon were also drinking, if a kind passerby brought a cup to their lips.

The US version is that around 1900 or so, when the Salvation Army was busy saving souls from the perdition of drink with their temperance work, water wagons went through the streets of major cities, spraying water to keep down the dust.  These same water wagons were used by the temperance movement to parade newly sober people around the town.  Those who had pledged to be sober were then “on the water wagon”.  If they started drinking again, it was said they had “fallen off the water wagon”.  As time went on and they quit watering the streets, the water part of the phrase dropped off, and we were left with the mysterious and antiquated wagon.    Some sources say it was the water, and not the wagon, referred to, in that someone would rather drink water from the water wagon, than drink alcohol, once they embraced sobriety.

Of course these idioms change over time, and the meaning of parading one’s sobriety is closer to the current meaning that heading off to be hanged.  Yet against the backdrop of the cruel legal system of that time, I have a soft spot for the humanity of people running forward to give one last human comfort to those who are about to be killed by their fellows.  And linguistically,  I like the use of the concept of falling as part of relapsing, because surely it feels like a fall from grace.

Over time, as speakers passed this idiom from mouth to mouth, they found a way to let go of the water wagon and simplify it to just the wagon.  Perhaps in a hundred or five hundred years, our descendants will let go of the outdated wagon as well.  Instead of falling off the water wagon, or falling off the wagon, our descendants may refer to this process as simply “getting on” and “falling off”.  Or they may get let the whole idiom go, and stick with the now more common “relapse,” which means to slip back.  And now you may all slip back into your daily lives, on or off the wagon as you choose.  Or as the Irish sometimes have it, go take a cup of kindness, if you will.


I was interpreting for a frustrated defendant who had been waiting for his attorney for over an hour.  The attorney was equally frustrated, as he had been stuck down “in the tank” with his in-custody cases longer than expected and was now running late for court.  After hearing the defendant’s complaints, the lawyer burst out, “I wasn’t just twiddling my thumbs!” and I of course had to rush to find a way to convey that.  But in my target language, people do not twiddle their thumbs.  And why would they?  Twiddle is such a strange verb.

Twiddle apparently showed up in English in the 1500’s when someone decided to combine the concepts of twirling and twisting – the circular movements – with the concept of fiddling, meaning wasting time or fooling around.  I don’t know why fiddlers got this bad rap of being time-wasters, but perhaps it comes from a long history of Puritan religious types who considered dancing a sinful waste of time.  So fiddling,  and twirling and twisting, were duly married and gave birth to the new phrase “twiddling our thumbs”, which has survived for the last 500 or so years.  But only in English.

I have a rather delicate problem rendering most slang into the target language.  Almost any really slangy phrase is likely to have a vulgar equivalent as the first go-to in my mind.  This is not because I have a particularly dirty mind.  But I happened to have learned my target language from an ethnic language group that has linguistically found a way to insert the penis or other phallocentric sexual references into pretty much every slang phrase.  So I have to bypass the first phrase that comes to my mind and see if I can quickly reach a nicer equivalent.  If I cannot do it fast enough, I have to just grab the underlying meaning and spit it out in less colorful language.  Which is still better than being too colorful.

I hate to disappoint my readers, but for twiddling my thumbs, I must confess that in the press of the moment, I ended up saying something quite bland.  If I recall correctly, I said “I wasn’t just gadding about”.  I used the verb form of the word that is now in English for “vagrant” which means a person who wanders about aimlessly.  Because the idea behind the lawyer’s phrase was to show that he was not just wasting time or fiddling about.  The term in the target language is not as quaint and unusual as “gadding” is in English, so it was easily understandable, and I chose it because it shows both movement and idleness together.

The first phrase that came to my mind and that I chose to hop over, to be perfectly biblical here, would be rendered as follows: “I was not casting my seed upon the winds”.  Or in lay terms, “I wasn’t just jacking off.”  As an older woman speaking between two younger men, the last thing I wanted to do was to introduce a penis where none had been brought up, or should I say, exhibited, by the lawyer himself.  So I moved quickly to “aimless wandering”  or “gadding about” as a second best.

Interpreters entertain ourselves for hours thinking about a word or a phrase, and I had fun asking my colleagues what they would have said in this instance.  No one came up with anything to do with thumbs (or penis for that matter) but both hands and arms were recruited, along with the belly button, and curiously enough, the crab.  Here are the top phrases we came up with.

“I wasn’t sitting with one hand over the other.”  This seems too passive to me, whereas twiddling is a sense of keeping busy and being active, while not productive.

“I wasn’t just there with my arms crossed.”  This has a slight flavor of aggression or refusal at least in English.  Someone stands with their armed crossed during an argument, to show they are closed and unwilling.  It seems more contrary than the happy twiddling.

“I wasn’t just gazing at my navel. ” This smacks of self-contemplation, or analyzing one’s self, rather than wasting time.  It also sounds a bit conceited and self-interested, which again twiddling does not convey.

My favorite: “I wasn’t just contemplating the immortality of the crab.”  It has a daydreamy, lost in thought feel to it that seems to make it the closest match to thumb twiddling.  If the music of the fiddle is lost in translation, it seems to be made up for by the playfulness of the phrase.

There is a funny little philosophical theory behind this old saying.  The premise is that the crab has no self-awareness.  An unlikely premise, but for the sake of this argument, let’s say the crab has no self-awareness.  Because the crab is not aware that it is alive, it will likewise not be aware when it dies.  Therefore, from its personal point of view, the crab does not experience death.  Therefore, the argument goes, from the crab’s personal point of view, it does not die.  And because it does not die, the crab is immortal.

So when you loll about contemplating the subjective and objective points of view, and how we shape our own realities, but perhaps not that of the universe, you can say you are “contemplating the immortality of the crab”.  You can also jokingly say this when you are doing a whole lot of nothing.

So, dear lawyers, when you see an interpreter hesitate for a split second before rendering whatever you just said, please do not judge us harshly, or presume that we hesitate because we “can’t think of anything”.  You couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Random yet interwoven bit and pieces, sticks and twigs, and even fleeing crabs, run through our heads like wildfire before our tongue catches flame and we exhale your thoughts, like a magical dragon.  And yet there are certain things that come to mind, like casting our seed upon the wind, that we have to make sure we leave unsaid.  So give us a moment, if you please, and be patient.  After all, it’s not like we are just sitting there, twiddling our thumbs.



As we don the new year and doff the old one, it occurs to me that interpreters have to know many archaic terms, such as don, doff, and for that matter, archaic.  Archaic means old and somewhat out of date.  Donning means putting clothes on, and doffing is taking them off.  It comes from contracting the phrases “do on” and “do off” that came into use during  the Middle Ages.  These terms dropped out of use a few hundred years later, because language is constantly growing and renewing itself.  But archaic terms like don and doff live on in our written laws, and are argued about all the way to the US Supreme Court.  Why?

With the exception of a few time-limited laws, such as a five-year bridge levy,  our laws live on in perpetuity (another legal term) without ever dying – unless and until the law or some section of it is actually killed.  It has to be voted out of law, and almost always replaced with another version covering the same area.  With the over-arching goal of written laws bringing stability to our legal and social systems, it is rather hard to change a law.  Any overhaul takes years of studies, massive negotiations, and in the end, often fails to pass.  Think of all the promises and threats of immigration reform, and how rarely meaningful changes actually happen.

I was interpreting for a rather large civil case related to employee rights, and one question that came up was the degree to which workers must be paid to “don and doff” which by which they meant changing  clothes and possibly putting on certain protective gear.  What if the company doesn’t want you “on the clock” until you are going to be actively productive?  Do you as a worker have the right to be paid for putting on clothes at work?  As usual, the legal answer is “it depends”.  And mostly it depends on how we define the terms.

The US Supreme Court recently decided that union workers putting on their protective gear did not have to be compensated as a matter of law.  Instead, it was open to be negotiated at collective bargaining.  But the way the Supreme Court decided this was to unanimously rule that “donning and doffing” means “changing clothes” under the relevant law.  The union bringing the law suit claimed that “changing clothes” and “donning and doffing” are not the same thing because putting on (or donning) protective gear should be compensated even if changing clothes is not.

The US Supreme court chose to define donning and doffing as synonymous with changing clothes.  They further ruled that “clothes” means – er – clothes, and includes “items that are both designed and used to cover the body and are commonly regarded as articles of dress.”  They then had to continue down the rabbit hole of words and definitions, and further rule, for example, that a “hardhat” is “clothes” but that “earplugs” are not “clothes”.  By the end of their ruling, they had a long list of “clothes” and a very short list of items that are “not clothes”.  So they decided that “donning” the short list of items was not a substantial enough matter of time to support a ruling that it should be compensated as work, as a matter of law.

Are you confused yet?  If so, you are not alone, because very few people follow the lawyers down these underground tunnels, curves and turns.  But interpreters have to.  It is our job to follow their logic, comprehend what they are saying, and quickly render it into our target language.  We have to keep up as best we can.  Trying to stay just a word, a half a thought, the inkling of an idea behind them, running along like a scared rabbit, hitting the walls of the tunnel, clawing and panting, heart racing, in my personal case, at the worst of times.

So if you ever walk past a courthouse and see an interpreter emerge and blink confusedly in the daylight, do not be surprised.  We have been donning our protective gear, girding our loins with the strength of our vocabulary and legal knowledge,  and following lawyers into the labyrinth of words and definitions, as closely as we can manage.  So when we finally come up for air, give us a moment to readjust to the everyday world – where people play loosely with language, and toss around words interchangeably.  And we don’t have to repeat what anybody says.  Whew.



Here is another window into the mind of an interpreter, and how we struggle to process a single word out of the thousands upon thousands we reiterate every day.

“The police report states that you went on a drug-induced rampage.”

So what is a rampage?  Dictionaries surmise that the word is a compound word that started out as ramp (to rear up like a horse)  and rage.  So it means something along the lines of acting out of anger in a violent way.  This helps understand the English construction, but does not make it easy to say in my target language as anything approaching a single word.

In the rush of the moment, I ended up saying “you ran around like you were crazy, because of drugs.  That was not very satisfying.  First of all, I hate “crazy” as a cultural construct.  Who is crazy?  Who gets to decide?  What does crazy mean?  Whom do we get to dismiss by labeling them crazy?  Secondly, in the legal field, diagnosed insanity could be a defense to a crime or the cause of finding of someone not being competent to stand trial, resulting in a dismissal of charges.

As interpreters, certain words will linger in our thoughts as “the one that got away”.  It is the same kind of nostalgic feeling that people who fish get when the line breaks and they see a flash in the water.  Or the kind of longing for completion that one might construct regarding a past love.  You can be left thinking about how you could have said the things you never said.  Or said wrong.  Or could have said better, to make the whole thing more lovely.

With words, interpreters have virtually limitless chances to seek out “the right word” and then put it into use when the next opportunity arises (presuming we remember it at that moment).  I asked around, and another interpreter suggested “go on a rampage” can be conveyed with the single word “raze”.  To me, that sounds like tabula rasa, creating a blank slate, or destroying everything.  Everything was razed to the ground.  Nothing was left standing.  The building, the people, everything is gone now.  It sounds more like carpet bombing.

In this case, it involved a choking attack on an individual, and the rampage aspect, in addition to the violence, was the failure to give it up when others came to help the victim.  That seemed “crazy” according to our general understanding.  It is crazy, according to the popular construction, to keep fighting once you are outnumbered by larger, more sober people.  In my own humble opinion, not giving up the fight when outnumbered is no crazier than choking someone in the first place, but that is another topic.

A dictionary suggested one of the words for “tantrum” but when I vetted that choice, people said it has more the feel of what a toddler would do, kick the floor and spill milk, and does not convey the sense of a vicious attack on another human life.

How about “put yourself on the offense” or “went on the attack”?  It starts to sound military, and as destructive as that can be, it tastes more like a controlled activity, whereas the sense of going on a rampage is uncontrolled, out of control, not planned and executed.

Another interpreter suggested infuriated, or freaking out, but to me these seem like states of mind, not actions.  Rampage has the flavor of an action accompanied by a specific mental state.  It isn’t the mental state alone, but the ramping up, rearing back and preparing to attack.

Rampage to me has the basic elements of taking an action or a series of actions which are violent in nature and out of control, based on a mental state of rage, fury, anger, aggression.  It must include some sense of both being out of control and acting upon it.

So to be accurate while not so evocative and metaphoric, if it comes up again, I will likely say something like “you acted out in a violent and out-of-control way”.  I may throw in a dose of rage as well.

This is not as lovely an image as a rearing horse, nostrils flaring, coat gleaming with sweat, foaming at the mouth, ready to kick a human in the head.  But perhaps it shouldn’t be.  Because a rearing horse is still lovely and natural.  A horse doesn’t take meth for days without rest and then decide to chase down and try to kill a loved one.

With horses and other creatures who are living according to their original instructions, every one of their actions makes sense on a very deep and satisfying level.  Everything is as it should be, and the delicate web of life remains in balance.  For all its apparent brutality, nature is the loveliest endowment, the most beautiful gift we can ever experience through our bodies.  I ardently wish more of the humans I meet could stop rampaging long enough to fully experience this gift.



Sometimes we don’t notice word patterns until we are interpreting.  I noticed for the first time that verbs that end with -umble tend to mean sloppy or uncoordinated, or almost doing something.  I theorized that” dumb” and these words were all connected.  It also made me think of one of Dickens’ favorite villains, Uriah Heep, who kept claiming he was so “‘umble”.  But he was no good at being humble.  We could even say he bumbled at being humble.  In one of Dickens’ many moral warnings, he reminds us that pride comes before a fall.

A fall is what many drunk drivers experience as part of their field sobriety tests.  It is not required, but happens quite a lot.  Prosecutors like to mention this kind of thing to juries.  They use a lot of -umble words, like tumble.  They talk about the suspect mumbling, stumbling and fumbling.  The drunks mumbled when they tried to speak – so they couldn’t speak clearly.  They stumbled when they tried to walk, so they almost fell down.  Sometimes they actually took a tumble.  Then when they look for their keys or license, they fumbled around, sometimes not even finding them, or almost dropping them.  Sloppy.  Uncoordinated, not doing things smartly.  And of course it is dumb to drink and drive in the first place.  But prosecutors are not allowed to say that, so they rely on -umble words to paint the picture.

Quite a few of these words just don’t have a one-word straight across translation.  For example, for mumbling, the closest thing in my target language is probably “to talk indistinctly”.  Then there is stumble.  The closest thing is “to almost fall”.  Then we have tumble, which means to actually fall down and maybe even roll a bit – a bad fall.  We have bumble, which means to mess something up.  And crumble, to fall into tiny pieces.   Fumble is also hard to interpret into another language – it ambiguously means either to do something badly – or fail to do it.  Fumbling for your keys translates as “searching for your keys by feel” but it could also mean “searching for your keys and failing to find them, or dropping them”.  If you mix up things instead of organizing them, you jumble them up.  You grumble when you just kind of mutter under your breath instead of complaining out loud.  There is even the unusual scumble, to put an opaque color over a painting  – to make it indistinct.

So of course all these words come from “dumb”, I theorized.  You are doing things in an unsmart way.  I felt quite clever in figuring this out.  But the weird thing is that this set of words do not seem to have a single common origin, at least that I can find recorded.  Oxford dictionary gives at least five different languages as origins for these various rhyming words.  These -umble words are similar to good friends that look and act so alike, people start to falsely presume they are siblings, when in fact they do not come from common stock.

Mumble comes from the English word mum, to keep ones lips together, to be mum or silent.  So mumble actually means to talk with your mouth almost closed, which is why you are not articulating clearly.  Dumb also means silent or unable to speak, and is related to Germanic and Old Norse. It has now been taken over by the alternate meaning leaking in from Dutch and German, meaning stupid.  This has been an unfortunate conflation of meaning for the speech-impaired, who used to be called dumb.  It also seems wrong for the speech-unimpaired, as most of the extremely intelligent people I know speak very little.  Still waters run deep.  The brilliant are often blissfully silent.  Or simply talk beautifully with their hands.

Bumble actually comes from the English word for a deep and resonant sound, boom, perhaps from the Dutch, meaning to hum or buzz.  Bumble bees are not bumblers by any stretch of the imagination. But they do buzz.  How this came to mean to do something poorly I do not know.  I cannot connect bumblebees with doing things in an awkward or confused manner.  I think bees would be insulted if they spoke English.  Bumble makes me think of the word clumsy, an adjective holding the same meaning, but coming to us via Swedish.  Clumsy originally meant to be numb, so it fits well for drunks.

Crumble comes from the German, from the word for crumb or a small bit of bread or cake.  Fumble is also from German.  It now means to handle something clumsily or to lose control of something.  Often, when numbed up on drugs or alcohol, what one loses control of is ones motor vehicle, it seems.  Then once pulled over, the car keys, license, and insurance paperwork.  Then ones feet, and even ones own nose, fumbling with a finger and failing to find the tip of it, during the field sobriety test.  Fumbling and driving is a bad combination.  Numbing yourself to the point of becoming clumsy is dumb.

Grumble also comes from German and now means to complain about something in a bad-tempered but muted way.  Perhaps it means an ineffective or bumbling way to complain.  It brings to mind the word mutter, to speak under ones breath, as we say.  I don’t know whether Germans have a tendency to mutter and grumble a lot, or if these words come from German simply because English is a Germanic language.  I do notice, on the other hand, that the words praise and compliment both come not from German, but from French.  I’m just saying.

Humble makes a great rhyming word for the above terms, but it is not related.  It comes from the Latin humus for earth.  I fear that once again it is a dis on agricultural workers and farmers who live and work close to the earth.  Townsfolk who would starve in a week without these growers have a long history of feeling superior to their more earthbound cousins.  With no good reason, I must add.  We are all of the earth, and therefore have equal reason to be humble, even those of us who are too bumbling to grow our own food.  Praise farmers!

Let us move on to tumble.  This is a sweet Old English word for dancing that in Middle English came to mean “dance with contortions” perhaps for circus style performers.  I posit that drinking became common even for these professional dancers, so tumbling came to mean not only their intended act of dancing with contortions, but also falling uncontrollably.  The French word tomber for falling may have also played into this new mixed meaning.  I highly suspect the French of influencing the further meaning of tumble: dancing with contortions with an intimate partner.

Artists have scumble, to add a dark or opaque layer over an otherwise brighter and clearer painting.  Scumble comes from the English word scum, meaning froth or dirt.  I consider alcoholics and other drug addicts to be scumblers.  Like these covered paintings, they are not as bright and clear as they could be.  They cannot shine forth in all their glory.  Some of them can be downright scummy, at the depths of their addiction.  I remind myself that the light is still within them, even if it is obscured and not visible.

We mustn’t jump over that most common of actions during the field sobriety test – stumbling.  It can mean to come across something unexpectedly, like the curb.  To stumble mostly commonly means to trip as one walks and to almost fall.  It comes to us from Old Norse.  I think they made it up to mean people who are so used to drinking that they can stay upright and trip as they walk but yet not actually fall.  A feat of alcoholism that started way before cars were invented.  Too bad it doesn’t transfer to driving.  It would be great if drunk drivers could manage to trip along in their cars without actually hitting anyone.

I should note that adding the suffix -le to a noun or an adjective in
English is one of the many ways to convert them into a verb.  For English language learners, finding lists of English suffixes is a great way to learn to identify parts of speech.  For the most part, English prefixes hold meaning, and the suffixes show part of speech, gender, count or other matters.

You are welcome to invent your own words based on these rules.  Just add -le to the end of your favorite adjective or noun and you are ready to rumble.  (Rumble is from Middle Dutch and started as the sound of thunder but now also means a fight or eager action.)

Remember that languages are organic and grow and change.  For those countries where Zumba is the new form of combined high-energy music, dance and aerobic exercise, if I show up to a class, I think we can safely say that I will zumble.  I encourage you to create your own -umble words and put them into use.  We can never have too many words!  Let your linguistic garden grow, share your new words with friends, and try to stay sober and humble.  And if you find something absolutely delicious in your life, go ahead and yumble.