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In the most recent blogpost (nasc thíos), we did some discussion of noses (sróna) and grindstones (clocha líofa), which led to an interesting vocabulary work-out. In today’s post, we’ll actually look at some more traditional ways of saying “to keep your nose to the grindstone,” none of which mention noses or grindstones. This is typical of proverbial, figurative, and metaphorical expressions as you go from language to language. Sometimes the imagery is the same but often the imagination and wit is there, but expressed completely differently.
Before we actually start, let’s look at a few pairs of identical idioms and differing idioms, using one of the most popular comparisons (samhlacha, from samhail, simile, also likeness, model, etc.). Both Irish and English use coal, pitch, and soot in referring to black (chomh dubh le gual / pic / súiche), but I’ve never heard the exact equivalent of “chomh dubh leis an mbac” in English. Sometimes translated as “as black as soot,” the word “bac” doesn’t literally mean “soot;” it means the fire hob, the hob being a projection or ledge in the back or side of a fireplace for cooking or warming food. BTW, “bac” can also mean a hindrance or barrier and also shows up as a verb, as in “Ná bac leis.”
We also have the contrasting pair “chomh dubh le Poll Tí Liabáin,” which is clearly distinctively Irish, and “as black as Erebus” (Greek). “Poll Tí Liabáin” (Hole of the House of Liabáin/Liabán) is used to describe several locations in Ireland that are either sinkholes or bottomless pits or blow-holes in rocky coastlines or (!) the bed of Diarmaid and Gráinne as they fled from Fionn. According to some legends, the “Poll” swallowed up “Teach Liabáin,” much like a sinkhole might today. Why did “tí” change to “teach“? “Tí” means “of (a) house” and “teach” simply means “house.” Anyway, Erebus, in contrast, was an ancient Greek god of darkness, so each comparison is specific to its own culture. The curious thing to me is that a dictionaries may say something like “chomh dubh le Poll Tí Liabáin” means “as black as Erebus,” while, really, I would say the phrases are equivalents, but not translations of each other. Have you encountered any situations like this, as you’ve pursued your study of Irish? For a few more Irish samhlacha, see the nasc below.
Anyway, now, three phrases considered the equivalent of “to keep your nose to the grindstone,” using completely different imagery.
1) an taos a choinneáil leis on oigheann, lit. to keep the dough with the oven
You might recognize “taos,” here meaning “dough,” from phrases like “taos fiacla” (toothpaste) or “taos éisc” (fish paste).
2) do phíce a choinneáil sáite, lit. to keep your pike thrust
The word “píce” has several meanings: a pike (in the military sense, as a weapon), a fork (in the agricultural sense, a pitchfork), and a peak, either of sails or hats, but not, afaik, of a mountain (that would usually be “binn” or “stuaic“).
“Sáite” comes from the verb “sáigh” (thrust).
3) do dhá cheann a choinneáil i dtalamh, lit. your two “ends” to keep in the ground, may also be translated as “to drudge.”
This one is especially interesting to translate, since there are several possibilities and I’ve seen several interpretations. Normally, of course, “ceann” means “head,” but since most of us don’t have two heads, it must mean something else.
It could refer to agricultural work, bending over, where the two ends refer to the feet, at one end, and the hands and/or head at the other end. But I’ve also seen the “dhá cheann” here interpreted as the two “feet” (sticking to the task and not wandering off, I suppose) but that doesn’t suggest to me the grueling nature of constantly working in a bent-over position.
Of course, the phrase could take on a completely different meaning if we were talking about some bicephalic creatures like Zak and Wheezie (the two-headed dragon on Dragon Tales) or Orthos (aka Orthrus, a two-headed dog in Greek mythology, sibling to his more famous brother Cerberus, usually depicted as three-headed). Or the occasional real-world two-headed snake, turtle, calf, or lamb (saw one that had been taxidermied in the museum in Llanidloes), which probably spent most of their life pretty close to “an talamh,” anyway.
One thing about all three of these that I find interesting is that all of them seem to emphasize the idea of working hard and sticking to your task but not exactly the aspect of not being distracted. Maybe there’s not much difference, but in English, if I simply wanted to indicate “working hard,” with long hours, I might say “burning the midnight oil” or “burning the candle at both ends” or “working my fingers to the bone.” To me, “keeping your nose to the grindstone” also implies not getting distracted by other tasks or by the temptation to do things for fun. Since we never really keep our nose to the grindstone (ouch!), it suggests to me really focusing on the task with a type of tunnel vision.
Anyway, that’s some more choices for you, and some interesting vocabulary along the way. SGF — Róislín
Agus maidir le neacha décheannacha: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polycephaly
For a little bit more on “samhlacha,” you might want to check out: Liúdair go dtí a) an Caisleán Nua, b) an Aithin nó go c) Toraigh?Posted by róislín on May 15, 2012 in Irish Language
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