While speaking to one of my non-Tamil speaking friends, I spiced my conversation with translations of Tamil idioms, similes and proverbs, which was thoroughly enjoyed by him. Following this, I was impelled to write on the topic, for the sake of keeping non-Tamil readers interested.
Tamil idioms, similes and proverbs have plenty of rhymes and alliterations, which make them precise, beautiful and sometimes humorous. The precision and the beauty go off once they are translated, but the humour remains. They are used to keep the listener interested, or to support one’s argument or advice and also to have the last say.
As before, I would like to state that this article would be coloured by my own experience, as I feel that the best way of convincing the readers is to say that it happened to me, truth being stranger than fiction.
When a person is clueless about what is happening around him, we say, ‘He doesn’t know whether it is dusk or dawn’. A similar one is about a person who is a non-starter or utterly inefficient, he is said to be a person ‘Who cannot open his mouth, if someone shuts his nose!’If a non-entity of a person becomes important overnight, we say ‘He would stretch an umbrella at midnight’.
If a person is stubborn or inflexible or likes to hold on to his fallacious views, he is referred to as ‘The rabbit I caught has only three legs’, indicating his unwillingness to admit that it has only four legs or that the other person is right.
Another proverb related to the same theme, should not be misconstrued as an aspersion on the Burgher community. It is ,‘No matter how many times you tell him, a Burgher will never chew betel’. This proverb also hints at heedlessness or unwillingness. Another related one is the simile,’ Like ‘blowing a conch shell in a deaf man’s ear.’
If one has to wear a full sleeved shirt and a neck – tie only for one day, we say, ’It is like shaving the moustache for one night’s drama’. If a boss or a superior person commits a trivial offence and has the freedom to do it without being questioned by others, we say, ‘It is not wrong for the temple, priest to break wind’.This is always uttered as a joke. If you look around when you’re yawning, you would find another person yawning! This is because yawning has been found to be contagious, we say, ‘A girl who has attained puberty might go alone down the street, but a yawn will never’.
If one person flatters another person or butters him up, he is aid to have been ‘Kept on top of a Papaw tree’. If a braggart talks big as if he is wealthy and yet goes about on foot, we say, ‘His speech is palanquin, but thamby (Malli) goes walking!’. If an unwanted or unpopular person comes uninvited we say ‘like a bear that enters at a Lord Siva’s pooja’.
From humorous one, we move on to words of wisdom or statements of facts. If you have to put up with a person who talks nonsense after drinking liquor, you could take consolation in the dictum ‘A drunkard’s utterance is gone, once its morn’. ‘If your better half forgets to add salt to curry, then only you would realize the worth of salt’. Similarly, ‘once one’s father dies only, one would realize what a worthy person he was’. Another bit of advice‘A shrunken waist is pretty on a woman’.
Another statement of a fact, not known to the child is, ‘If you give birth to a child, tie your stomach,’which means one has to make a lot of sacrifices once a baby is born. If your little son doesn’t have any understanding of the painful sacrifices you make, we say ‘The mother’s heart is crazy over the child but the child’s is made of rock.’ This is, of course, an everyday occurrence in most families. Another word of wisdom, ‘What you learn as a child, would remain on your mind like words carved on a tablet of stone’ Personally, the writer remembers a lot of things he was taught in the Primary School.
Troubles are said to come one after another. The writer’s one time neighbours had to bear three funerals, first the father then the mother, later the servant, and finally, the dog whom they looked after like their child. All that in a space of 6 months. But when good things happen one after the other, we say ‘the fruit slipped into a bowl of milk’.
The crow is looked upon as an unimpressive bird. We say ‘even to a crow, its chick is worth gold’. No matter how ugly a child is, it would be very precious to its mother.
If the woman is vile or wicked and her husband is very much more so than the wife, we say ‘If the woman jumps ten feet, the husband would jump 20 feet’.
Similarly, there are thousands of idioms in Tamil, Sinhala and in several other languages, which were coined to add humour and wisdom in the day-to-day usage of the languages spoken around.
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