You have all heard of Russia, Portugal and Turkey. But have you heard of Russian roulette, the Portuguese man-of-war and Turkish delight? Do you know what they mean? Or exactly what is an ‘Indian summer’?
Merely knowing the meaning of certain words is not enough, you have to know the usage of combination of words too. Like British, French and German might simply mean ‘of’ Britain, France and Germany respectively. But when used in combinations with a particular word, the result is quite different.
First the French effect. A French window isn’t a window from France, but a glazed folding door. A French door is simply a glass door. What type of leave do you take when its without permission? French leave of course. A lot of ‘French’ is used in cooking too. A French bean is a kidney bean; French toast is bread dipped in a batter of egg and milk and fried, French fries are deep fried potato strips, and French dressing isn’t a type of dress but salad dressing prepared from oil, vinegar and seasoning.
Then the Dutch have a reputation for being miserly. Hence a Dutch treat is one in which each pays his own expense. An auction is a sale in which articles are sold to the highest bidder, but what if you found yourself in a sale in which the price was reduced till a purchaser was found? You’d be sitting in a Dutch auction.
A Dutch bern is one consisting of a roof supported by poles. A Dutch uncle is a person who criticizes with unsparing frankness and a Dutch door is one which is divided into two units so that they can be opened separately. You may not be able to speak Dutch, but you speak double Dutch many times. That is the term for incomprehensible jargon. Do you know how a drunk behaves? He disregards authority, speaks what he likes and could not care for the world. Such courage, got out of strong drink, is called Dutch courage.
Russian boots are high boots with cuffed tops. Roulette is a gambling game played on a table with a revolving centre over which a ball runs, but Russian roulette is a game, in which each participant in turn, using a revolver into which one bullet has been inserted, spins the cylinder, points the muzzle at his or her head, and pulls the trigger.
The Portuguese man-of-war is another highly misleading name. It doesn’t denote a belligerent from Portugal but a type of ocean invertebrate animal having a bladder like structure.
A Roman nose is a nose with a prominent bridge and a Roman candle is a firework consisting of a tube that emits sparks and balls of fire.
Indians are people of India, but Red Indians are the original inhabitants of America. India rubber is one which rubs pencil marks; India ink is a dense black pigment used in drawings or the ink got from it and an Indian file is a single file. ‘Indian summer’ denotes a period of mild, dry weather in late autumn or early winter.
(This article appeared in The Hindu newspaper on 11 February, 1995)