Watch your moves

Credit: picture by Piers Nye, PCGN7 on FLickr

It's Time.

It has been a while since I last focused my attention on a peculiar idiom of this brilliant Shakespearian language, but I think it is now about time to come back to my first loves and shade some light on why I am still taken aback when my colleagues use certain expressions.

Obviously, an idiom is "an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements" as dictionary.com puts it. Most of the time they use an image, a metaphor to deliver a message. So when a non-native has managed to identify that the words which were pronounced by their interlocutor were not the usual meanings of its constituent elements... this person will attempt to decipher the message by visualising the related image. And that is when things can get nasty.

Ironic French sex?

Each culture has its own iconography or visual referential scheme. Let me take you through an example. In my previous life one of my clients had an idiom she kept on banging. She was in her late forties, not really attractive but not repulsive either. She was more like a school teacher than a Demi Moore if you see what I mean. And yet, I remember her looking me straight in the eyes and saying that she really likes "tongue in cheek".

Obviously her last three words do not mean what they usually mean in their literal context. I cannot see her wandering around with some chunks of tongue in her cheek. So there must be a hidden message. I blink. Red flashing light in my head. A drop of sweat goes down my neck. I find it hard to swallow... No, she cannot have meant that. No, no, no. Think again Cedric, think again. Another drop of sweat, colder this time. I blink once more with a nice commercial smile on my face to avoid showing my puzzled inner self. What the heck does she mean, in her very own language, because the images this idiom triggers in my home references is not appropriate either to the situation or to the person facing me. Is it?

I am conscious that I am surrounded by colleagues. My client is also aware that I am about to get married in the next months or so. And finally she did not whisper it but rather said it aloud, so my executive seated next to me should have clearly picked up her sexual harassment line. And yet he is not blushing like I would probably have if a client had overtly declared to my manager that she liked oral sex...

Tongue twister and twisted minds.

I already know a few of my English readers thinking "what are you saying you French perv'?". But let me inform you that if the literally translated idioms "tongue in cheek" has absolutely no meaning in French, the gesture in return has a meaning. And quite a dirty one. If one day you happen to put your tongue in your cheek in a French crowd, be aware that you are genuinely offering some "oral treats" to your audience. Why? Well look at yourself in a mirror when mimicking the idiom. Now mentally call to your mind the French meaning. Ah, ah... Suddenly who's blushing? Do you remember yourself in the bespoke situation and realise only now why you had suddenly so many friends in that Parisian bar?

The sexual connotation is obviously miles away from the English meaning of the expression. When you say something with "tongue in cheek", you say it ironically or mockingly. It's a form of humour, not a sexual position. It took me a while to really nail that one (I mean the expression not my client), but every now and then, when I hear that expression I cannot refrain myself from shivering. A memory from that painful moment of loneliness I assume.


  1. there's sometime a thin line between "humour" and "sexual harassment" and it can be easy to cross.

    I remember the "harassment class" i had when i arrived in my job in London (not that i've leant how to harass but it was more to be aware of the situation that could lead to a complain... or a lawsuit).

    It was a mixed group of uk/us people and more "european/latin" people and you won't be surprised if i tell you that french and italians were pretty confused.

    One guy from Milano couldn't get why to say to a collegue that he's gay or to make a fool of an assistant ass was harrassment.

    after all, idioms or not, the cultural background is involved. Like when Ryanair CEO said in a press conference that his new 1st class would have "B&B... Bed and Blowjob" to explain it would be "full option"

    or... after all, maybe it's all about sex??

  2. This is a very funny post. I have never heard that expression before but cleary understand why you were embarassed!