Learning to speak American is a piece of cake

Some years ago, as I sat chatting with a young couple from the Netherlands who spoke fluent English, I took a quick glance at my watch. I had a job my boss wanted me to do, and my time was running out.

“Sorry,” I told them, “but I’ve got to take care of this. You know how Ed is. I don’t want to get called on the carpet.”

The young couple glanced at each other, and their faces lit up. They chattered excitedly in Dutch with each other, and they beamed smiles of pride. They looked as if they wanted to high-five each other.

I don’t speak Dutch, so I didn’t know what all their excitement was about. I shrugged to ask what was up, and Jon explained: “It’s that phrase—‘called on the carpet.’ We have exactly the same phrase in our language! And judging by your context, it means the same thing!”

OK…but why the celebration?

“It’s just that we understand so few of your American expressions. It’s exciting when we have the same words.”

“I’m surprised you find us hard to understand,” I told him, “because you both speak English so well.”

“Yes,” he said, “our English is pretty good. But you Americans don’t really speak English. You speak metaphor.”

He was right because, after all, getting “called on the carpet” isn’t a literal phrase, is it? It’s a metaphor for a lowly laborer being summoned into the well-furnished office of the boss, who sits behind a mahogany desk atop a fine carpet. Any poor working slob knows that if you’re answering a call to stand in front of that desk with a thick carpet beneath your feet, you’re not standing in a happy place.

Still, it came as a bit of a shock to me that English speakers the world over still scratch their heads over how we Americans talk. Do we really use so many metaphors instead of speaking in literal terms?

I thought of that young Dutch couple today when I flipped over to CNN to see what the talking heads were talking about, and I found myself washed away in a sea of metaphoric expressions.

There was talk of “draining the swamp” in Washington.

And “kicking the can down the road” when it came to the budget.

And a special council “witch hunt” that was turning into a “fishing expedition” that might be “crossing a red line” when they “turn over every stone.”

But “on the flip side,” another talking head said, that’s “fair game” when your administration “hedges their bets” and don’t “lay all their cards on the table.”

And that was after only ten minutes or so of talking-head speak. Talk about a foreign language!

And yet I knew exactly what they were talking about, because I speak fluent American Metaphor.

Although I can order a salad in six or seven languages, I can’t say I’m fluent much beyond that — which means that I’m a typical American, I guess. It is said that only about 20 percent of Americans can converse in another language besides English.

The situation is drastically different in Europe, where virtually every nation (except a few English-speaking ones, like Ireland and Scotland) requires that children learn a foreign language before they become teens. In more than 20 European nations, children are required to learn not one foreign language, but two. English is usually one of them.

It would be easy to criticize Americans as being linguistically lazy when you look at statistics like that. If other people around the world can make the effort to speak another tongue, why won’t we go through the trouble?

But to criticize us for linguistic laziness would be to ignore the fact that while most Americans can speak passable English, we are all also fluent in American Metaphor. And while Spanish, German, French and Italian are languages that hold still while you study them, American Metaphor is a squirmy tongue that changes shape so fast it’s hard to grab hold of it long enough to tame it.

Consider a word as simple as “good.” Three generations ago, it was “the cat’s pajamas.”

And then, before you knew it, the cat’s pajamas turned into the “bee’s knees,” which then became “groovy” and “cool beans.”

Which then became “rad.”

And then “da bomb.”

And then “the shiznit.”

Go ahead, check out an urban dictionary online and ask it to give you American synonyms for a common word as simple as “good.” You’ll find no fewer than 400 items in that thesaurus.

Sweet. Tasty. Slammin’. Kickass. Money. Out of sight. Dookie fresh. Off the heezy fo’ sheezy.

However you say it, it’s all “good.”

And it’s not enough just to know one or two of these synonyms to call yourself fluent in American Metaphor, because unless you want to be looked at as a foreigner, you’ll have to know that what’s “wicked” in Boston will be “on fleek” in LA.

Well, that’s how we talked last week. Who knows what it will be by next Monday?

It takes a lifetime of day-by-day refresher courses to stay current with American Metaphor. English-speaking Europeans trying to understand us might struggle to “keep their head above water,” but to us Americans “it’s a piece of cake.”

So, if you’re one of those 80 percent of Americans that Europeans think are “dragging our feet” when it comes to language, don’t “flip your wig.”

Because they’re “way off base” — you dig what I’m laying down?

Author, musician and storyteller TR Kerth is a retired teacher who has lived in Sun City Huntley since 2003. Contact him at trkerth@yahoo.com. Can’t wait for your next visit to Planet Kerth? Then get TR’s book, “Revenge of the Sardines,” available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online book distributors.

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