Ever since the anthropologist Franz Boas said “language is the window on the soul,” linguists have been debating just what kind of soul he meant: Literal?  Figurative?  Spiritual?  Emotional?  While they’re busy arguing, we can state this for sure: Expressions and structures such as idioms, slang, proverbs and puns are windows on the culture in which they were born.

The star of the idiomatic show, of course, is sports slang, brought to us by primarily the U.S., where baseball is a religion and football a rite of passage. To the intensive, interactive sports-slang sessions I give in my Paris-based English classes and How to Do Business with Americans seminars, I affix the following subtitle: “Why you will not survive a board meeting in an American company or be able to fully understand an American press-article, movie, TV show or conversation without having attended this session!” For proof, we need look no further than the Boston-bombing coverage. Was there a report about the FBI’s possible lapses that Article-quote-imagedid not refer to their having “dropped the ball”? Maybe there was, but I sure didn’t see one. Given this story’s planet-wide reach, there must have been millions of English-as-a-second-language speakers scratching their heads.

Until I correct their misconception, my students usually approach sports slang as the domain of the eloquence challenged: school dropouts, thugs, the dim-witted, the stereotypical jock (yes, that last word is sports slang). Then, among innumerable examples, I tell them about venerable Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz’s calling an Obama speech a “home run,” about International Herald Tribune columnist Roger Cohen’s asserting that those wishing to play a global role must “step up to the plate” on certain issues, about Vice President Joe Biden’s reporting in an e-mail that “the first lady knocked it out of the park” during a campaign appearance for her husband.

But the cultural window opens well past the realm of recreation into those of geography and gastronomy, history and hagiology, and far beyond. While “changing horses in midstream,” “horse trading” and “riding herd on someone” conjure images of the American West, would anyone doubt that “You don’t water a camel with a spoon” is an Armenian proverb?

The most fun I have with my students is in exploring references embedded so deep down in our respective cultures that even some native speakers might not comprehend their meanings or appreciate their brilliantly layered messages. While, for instance, Americans born at least a decade before the Kennedy assassination might understand why “grassy knoll hypothesis” means “conspiracy theory,” the phrase might baffle their children, and certainly their grandchildren, as readily as it would most foreigners.  Among some uneducated French listeners, a radio broadcaster’s news that renovation of the Bon Marché department store caused le bonheur des dames (the happiness of women) didn’t even make it past the barrier of ambient noise, whereas this word play enraptured their compatriots who had read Emile Zola’s paean to such emporia. The title of his book (and of his fictitious department store based on the Bon Marché)? Au Bonheur des Dames.

Once you’re on the lookout for these cultural-linguistic treasures, they seem to be everywhere. Paris’s Autour de Midi (‘Round Midday) jazz club is a wink at Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 film entitled Autour de Minuit (‘Round Midnight) about…jazz clubs.  In substituting Archives for armes, the advertisement for France’s new National Archives building that screams “Aux Archives, Citoyens!” thrillingly echoes the famous refrain of the country’s national anthem.

In the cultural-references-in-the-press game – with “culture” referring both to mores and to the arts – no category is left behind (yes, those last several words are a cultural reference): politics, history, literature, entertainment, cultural phenomena that have become categories unto themselves – as the following mere thimbleful of daily (hourly!) headlines and text attest. (Some of them are very subtle. How many do you “get”?)

“…people look at me as a huddling mass still yearning to be American.” (“You Know, That Russian Guy,” by Serge Schmemann, IHT, March 11, 2008)

  • “What repeatedly goes unrecognized by all of Mr. Obama’s opponents is that his political Kryptonite is…” (McCain Channels His Inner Hillary,” by Frank Rich, IHT, March 3, 2008)
  • “Mr. Teacher has left the building…” (“Let’s Get out of the Political Boneyard,” by Garrison Keillor, IHT, February 29, 2008)
  • New South Looks Away (Headline over article by Albert R. Hunt, IHT, October 13, 2008)
  • Champagne, Switzerland, Gets No Kick From Its Name (Headline over article by Jon Tagliabue, IHT, April 28, 2008)
  • “How did it feel?” (“Dylan Fans Grapple with His Pulitzer,” by Dave Itzkoff, IHT, April 16, 2008)
  • “…Obama’s strong and realistic effort to reach where no black candidate has gone before.” (“Obama’s Color Line,” by Juan Williams, IHT, December 1-2, 2007)
  • “The boxers-or-briefs question of the 21st century is: What’s on your iPod?” (“iPod, Therefore iAm,” by Alex Beam, IHT, November 29, 2006)
  • “…the museum works not because it offers different historical narratives but because it creates out of many, one.” (“Away Down South, 2 Museums Grapple With the Civil War Story,” by Edward Rothstein, NYT, September 2, 2008) – NB: There is a cultural reference in both the quote and the headline.)
  • “…the ones who…took away Marlon Brando’s chance to be a contend-ah.” (“G.O.P. To W.: You’re Nuts!” by Maureen Dowd, NYT, February 22, 2006)

by Shari Leslie Segall, a writer who lives in Paris.

The Speak Easy is a great way to learn more idiomatic expressions.