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This should be a wiki (if someone knowledgeable could edit it into being one please!) to provide both high and popular culture references that have actually been brought up by delegates in meetings, maybe divided by language. Too often these references arise, and we are blindsided, even if we are well-versed in popular and high culture of our languages. And these are some of the hardest things to interpret, as they are so well-known in one culture that they seem not to need explanation, until we have to interpret them.

Just as an aside, unlike on "Desert Island Disks" (my first cultural reference, and yes, it was brought up in a meeting), quotes from Shakespeare and the Bible are too obvious to mention...

This question is marked "community wiki".

asked 01 Nov '15, 17:03

JuliaP's gravatar image


This is a bit of an infinite list isn't Julia? I mean cultural references!! Big list! It's just everything. I think a wiki would have to distinguish between deliberate and unintentional references - biblical and Shakespearean linguistic influences are most often accidental, they're just part of the lingo. And also limit itself only examples we've actually heard. And perhaps one wiki per language!

(03 Nov '15, 04:56) Andy

Possibly, but I have seen in some intl organizations that they have ways of sharing among their interpreters those surprising things that could trip up people in other meetings. It is true that sharing might be more appropriate in a more restricted setting, where several interpreters rotate through the same committees with the same in jokes. But anything I mentioned in my list (plus Desert Island Discs) was heard more than once, in more than one venue, and colleagues have asked me for information on them. So why not share things that come up?

(03 Nov '15, 05:21) JuliaP

No, absolutely, why not. I've added a few myself.

(04 Nov '15, 04:05) Andy

I see most of what you've posted can be found in an idiom or phrase dictionary. A linguist out there might have done this already, but it may be profitable to generate a computer-based list of idiom and phrases. I do know the frequency of commonly used idioms and phrases has been analyzed in Mandarin, and if English uses a similar number of phrases, would have somewhere around 5,000 to 6,000 idioms and phrases being used at the delegate level (believe it... Li Keqiang likes to say 壮士断腕), even if an average person uses no more than 300-400. That's a lot of idioms and phrases to enter!

It shouldn't be very difficult from a technical standpoint to generate a list of the most common phrases and idioms and convert it to wikipedia format. I believe BYU already has the software to do the analysis, and all you'd need from there is the database files for the several major dictionaries of idioms and phrases. It would probably be easier than thinking up and manually entering the thousands of common idioms and phrases.

This is a fantastic idea and I bet you'd find a lot of people in the community interested in building a good resource. In fact it's such a good idea I'm stumped at why none of the specialists in this field have thought of doing this for English.

(10 Jan '16, 22:59) Adrian Lee D...

Hi Adrian - it sounds like a great idea, why not do it? This particular wiki isn't a list of idioms, though, but actual phrases, idioms and cultural references that have been said by delegates during meetings, that in many cases have not been understood by interpreters. We haven't had any in other languages added yet, but they could be.

(11 Jan '16, 05:56) JuliaP

I agree that they're not necessarily idioms - I am mainly trying to say that the phrases, idioms, and cultural references you are referring to have all been catalogued and added to some sort of dictionary, often erroneously under the heading of 'idiom', and if not, in a strange source like urban dictionary. The work has already been done and the resources are already there, but it's big data right now, too unwieldy to make use of. But with a few parameters, the right resources, and some tweaking, the useful data could be pulled out and put in useful format.

I actually did already do this with Mandarin and it took me less than an hour. I have all of the Mandarin-Mandarin explanations and Mandarin-English translations as a resource. There's some pretty advanced stuff the computer can do with this data, like fetch all of the Economist/NYT/Atlantic/WaPo/New Yorker (equivalent media) articles that use the expressions that an A-level speaker but not a B-level speaker would know, inflating their natural language word frequency, making the full range of these tricky expressions second nature to you without substantially affecting the content of what you're reading. The reference resources are good, too, and can build depth and help see how others have translated the same phrases in the past. The limitation here is that the quality of the bilingual resources may not be that great; which is why your idea for a wiki could revolutionize this field.

(11 Jan '16, 12:00) Adrian Lee D...
showing 5 of 6 show 1 more comments

I am not sure how to add these references to make a wiki, but thought I would start the ball rolling with some US English language references, all heard in meetings, made by US delegates, though not necessarily in the US.

Peanuts, and in particular Lucy and Charlie Brown, and the numerous times Lucy promises she'll hold the (American) football for Charlie Brown to kick, and then pulls it away at the last minute, so he ends up flat on his back. Often used to refer to people/countries that don't keep their word.

TV & Film

Star Trek, both the phrase "To boldly go where no one has gone before" and a reference to the Holodeck, when describing an immersive virtual experience.

"It's life Jim, but not as we know it" (where "life" can be replaced by any other word)

"Doomsday Device", "Dr Strangelove", both from the Dr. Strangelove film - a gem!

"Schindler's List", the name of which doesn't always translate exactly

A circular reference from the film You've Got Mail, when Tom Hanks refers to The Godfather and uses the phrase taking someone to the mattresses.

Poetry & Literature

William Butler Yeats poem The Second Coming, especially the phrases "the centre cannot hold" and "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity." mainly when discussing politics, and in particular US Presidential elections. It was also quoted widely at the turn of the millenium.

Robert Frost's poems The Road Not Taken, The Mending Wall (for the phrase "Good fences make good neighbors."), Fire and Ice, and Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.

"Catch 22" = a double bind, "According to the novel of the same name, people who were crazy were not obliged to fly missions; but anyone who applied to stop flying was showing a rational concern for their safety, and was sane."

The Ancients

MEP Daniel Hannan, a fierce opponent of the Lisbon Treaty, ended every speech he gave in the European Parliament with the words "Pactio Olisipiensis censenda est" (the Lisbon Treaty must be destroyed) a reference to Cato the Elder's "Carthage must be destroyed"

"between Scylla and Charybdis" = between a rock and a hard place, to have 2 choices, neither of which is much good

A mashup of idioms

at a meeting including members of US law enforcement, about someone they wanted to question: We executed a habeas grabus, he had a come-to-Jesus moment, and now he's playing for team USA.

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answered 01 Nov '15, 17:18

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edited 11 Jan '16, 06:00

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question asked: 01 Nov '15, 17:03

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