August 2009

Selena Chambers


An Interview with Jag Bhalla

Idioms are turns of phrases or expressions unique to a language. They are extensions of metaphors and similes, and often become immortalized as clichés. While they add flair to daily speech, they can also be problematic to a foreign speaker. The expressions are so tied within their own cultural connotations they sometimes sound absurd in translation.

Jag Bhalla's I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears uses this absurdity to its advantage. Illustrated by New Yorker Cartoonist Julia Suits, Bhalla catalogues and presents 1,200 idioms from 10 countries translated into English, and shows how playful, poignant, and convergent languages are. After dipping into Hanging Noodles (a Russian expression for "Believe me"), you begin to see, through language, not only each country's individuality, but also their underlying commonalities. If an American were to say, "Stephen Colbert makes me bang my butt on the ground," it would sound off-kilter, but after a while the French expression makes about as much sense as "knee-slapping," "LOL," "rolling on the floor," or even "dying laughing," which this book often made me do.

Jag Bhalla sat down with me, via e-mail, to discuss these often overlooked nuances of language, linguistic convergences and divergences, humor, and the simple joy of armchair traveling.

Please tell us about yourself and your background.

The most relevant part of my background is that I've always been fascinated by language. For me a novel turn of phrase or a well-sculpted sentence can be literally thrilling. I don't mean that metaphorically, I mean actual spine tingling and a rush of the best kind of neurochemicals. But to answer your question more conventionally, my education has (so far) been overly biased towards the inhumanities. My work has been in design, film, technology and marketing and I'm very pleased to now be a first-time author.

You are an extensive traveler, and all the material for this book was collected during your travels. Where did you go; what did you see; what did you learn?

I have been lucky enough to travel but I'm afraid what lead you to ask this question is an example of book "marketing license." Someone at National Geographic put that sales-y text on the advanced reader copies but I made sure it wasn't on the actual book. Unfortunately, the truth is a lot less glamorous. The expressions were gathered via a form of armchair travel, specifically foreign language dictionary diving. I love the idea that all books are a form of travel -- to another place, to another time, to other worlds, to other people's shoes, or to another person's mind.

If not physical travel, what specifically gave you the idea for this book?

The genesis of the book is a tale of two phrases.

Firstly, I heard a Russian explaining that when he wanted to say he wasn't kidding, he would use the expression "I'm not hanging noodles on your ears." A bystander reacted by saying that was ridiculous. To which I retorted, "I'm not pulling your leg" isn't much less ridiculous. That exchange lead me to read up on idioms and what I discovered was fascinating. Idioms are curious little pre-solved language puzzles -- turns of phrase that require a turn of meaning. We don't pay them much attention, but idioms are more important than we usually realize. Steven Pinker believes we have as many idioms and stock phrases in our long-term memory as we have words. Linguists classify both words and idioms as lexemes (i.e., self containing units for conveying meaning). And idioms turn out to be a crucial piece of evidence in the surprisingly heated and ongoing debate on the evolution of language. I use that connection to discuss some origin of language theories. Including theories known by folksy nicknames such as la-la (from bird song), woo-woo (from broader sexual selection pressures), poo-poo (cursing may have been the precursor), and tut-tut (in order to gossip).

Secondly, I was astonished (original meaning = struck by lightning) by something Bob Mankoff (cartoon editor of The New Yorker and professor of applied humor at Michigan University) said in a Charlie Rose Show interview. He said he thought of "humor as a necessary counterweight to the hegemony of reason." I use that as a running theme for the short lighthearted essays in the book. I look at evidence from various fields, including linguistics, anthropology, psychology, neuroscience and behavioral economics, all of which adds counter-weight to the increasingly, demonstrably, inaccurate view of human reason that generally dominates our discourse. Humor and much science can help us overcome some of the most egregious errors of the Enlightenment.

Out of these hundreds of idioms, which one is your favorite and why?

Now that's a very tough question. The book contains over 1,200 idioms from 10 languages. It's impossible to choose just one (incidentally, there are many idioms that capture the notion of the impossible -- e.g., French "to size the moon by the teeth," Chinese "climb a tree to catch a fish," and Spanish "to ask an elm tree for pears."). However, expanding your constraint a little, I particularly like the more absurd idioms:

German: to live like a maggot in bacon= to live in luxury
French: to strike the 400 blows= to sow wild oats
Spanish: think one is the last suck of the mango=have a big head
Japanese: I'll make tea with my navel= that's laughable
Yiddish: onions should grow in your navel= a mild insult
German: to pull worms from the nose=to force to reveal a secret

And of course the title…
Russian: not hanging noodles on your ears=not pulling your leg

Let's talk about Julia Suits's illustrations. They bring your book whimsy, and their very literal visual representations show the surrealism and absurd nature of idiomatic language. How do you feel the visual "translations" of these almost untranslatable expressions add or detract to the difficulty of understanding them?

I was very lucky to be able to work with Julia Suits, who is the creator of some of my all time favorite New Yorker cartoons. Her work is a very important part of the book. As you point out, her intriguing illustrations are a perfect fit for the humorous tone of the book. And they add greatly to its browsablity, which was a key design goal. We wanted it to be a natural gift book (I often take a book instead of a bottle of wine to dinner parties) and hence to be ideally suited for serendip-ping. Julia's eye-catching illustrations mean that anyone can pick the book up and flick through to very quickly find something amusing or talk-provoking.

In your introduction to the book, you write: "Languages give their users different lenses through which to view their respective corners of the world." Based on the idioms in this book, what do you think readers can discover about different cultures and their own?

There is much that readers can discover about other cultures, but I've tried not to be too prescriptive about that aspect of the book. I include only a few such observations in the chapter introductions and leave the majority of the idioms to stand on their own. I love the thought that readers can discover their own cultural connections, resonances, and meanings.

An example of an explicit observation that I make is the Japanese's closer attention to detail in general and in facial expressions in particular. They have an expression "to lower the outside corners of the eyes," which means to look pleased. Though that seems not to make much sense to us, it turns out that smile-ologists believe that that is the only reliable way to tell if a smile is genuine (it's possible to consciously fake all other muscle movements involved in smiling). Remarkably that's something we are mostly completely unaware of, but which is baked right into the Japanese language. It's an example of what the Japanese call "haragei" which means "visceral, indirect, largely nonverbal communication." I quote an expert who explains that "Direct verbal communication, the way we use it in the West, is generally shunned. Nuances, silences, gestures, facial expression are much more important.… One Japanese can understand what another is trying to communicate by closely observing posture, facial expressions, the length and timing of silences, and the various 'meaningless' sounds uttered by the other person."

What is next on the horizon? Will you continue to do linguistic based projects, or do you have other things lined up?

One possibility is a sequel. I have many idioms in a database that weren't used in the book. I'm also researching an idea, which I can't say too much about yet. It does share some of the spirit of Hanging Noodles in that it looks at something commonplace and accepted in our intellectual lives, but which upon closer inspection, is demonstrably and revealingly mistaken. However, the opportunity to do another book depends on the first one being, at least to some extent, commercially successful!


To find out more about Jag Bhalla and I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears, please visit


S.J. Chambers lives in North Florida. Her writing has appeared in Yankee Pot Roast, Strange Horizons, Fantasy magazine, The Baltimore Sun Read Street Blog, and Up Against the Wall. She loves to entertain visitors at her online drawing room: