Grey cardinals, rubber time and the piece of shame: speaking foreign languages in English!

This post follows on from the one I bashed out last week considering the influence of advertising on speech, and the way in which this can sometimes make life hard for even the most fluent of non-natives. It also follows on from conversations and thoughts I had during my one-week stay in St. Petersburg recently. During a typically intense conversation in a bar one night, a Russian teacher started talking about the undermind – instead of the subconscious. I was curious about the expression and wasn’t sure whether this was simply a direct translation from the Russian and was being used to paper over the fact that word subconscious wasn’t known (or because it was just being assumed that it ought to also work this way in English!), or whether it was actually a slightly different concept to the subconscious, that I myself had yet to grasp!


It turned out that the teacher simply hadn’t realised that the words would be different from Russian to English, and so was translating directly in optimism and hope, but the idea of the under mind stuck somehow because the next day, whilst presenting to a big group of teachers there, I (subconsciously!) used the phrase myself- a fact which was noted and commented on by the teacher who’d passed it my way in the first place.

Now I can already hear you thinking so what, right? Well, as you are probably all aware, we all – to varying degrees – accommodate ourselves to our linguistic environments. The theory of communication accommodation was developed in the early 1970s by Howard Giles from the University of California and basically states that “when people interact, they adjust their speech, their vocal patterns and their gestures, to accommodate to others.” The theory also explores why it is that humans tend to do this, and considers  the links between language, context and identity.

All of which got me thinking about the degree to which people living outside of countries where English is the first language, and who are conversant to at least some degree with the local language, but who also spend a lot of time interacting in English with locals who speak the language well, start to pick up and use expressions which basically don’t really exist in English in any broader sense, but which work in the local language and thus also work when used in English conversations between (semi-) bilingual locals and foreigners. In other words, there must be countless EFL teachers (and other long-term peripatetic ex-pats) out there, residing in this country or that, spending much of their free time with very fluent locals and speaking a strange mashed-up hybrid that is in essence English as it’s spoken elsewhere, but all manner of locally-inflected variants.

Last year, I saw David Crystal talking at Spain TESOL about the way in which conversations such as those mentioned above can often be derailed by casual references to local phenomena that speakers take for granted and that they assume all participants must be aware of as they have such common currency in the local / national context. Crystal was referring more to the kind of thing my colleague Andrew Walkley has been blogging about of late – the Stephen Lawrence murder, the Leveson Inquiry, 7/7 – and so on and was suggesting that a worthwhile project would be to establish a kind of Wiki of some sort detailing and exploring the cultural meanings and significance of such condensed summarised tagging phrases. Of course, the longer one lives in a place, the more of such references one comes to understand.


But at the same time, and this is, I think, far less discussed or appreciated, one also comes to acquire a whole range of chunks, idioms and expressions that are used in the local L1 and one starts to use them freely in English as well. Thus it is that when I’m with Indonesian friends (either here in the UK or back in Indonesia) who speak good English (my own Indonesian is around B2 level, I guess) I may well joke about rubber time when they’re late, a directly translated reference to the local concept of jam karet, often used to justify or excuse lateness that by English standards verging on the psychotic!


In the same way, I’ve spent enough time with super-fluent Russians over the years to understand that if someone – usually Putin (!) – is referred to as the grey cardinal, it basically means he’s the power behind the scenes, the puppet master pulling all the strings. I’ve heard the expression used by Russians – in English – so many times that the fact it’s not actually a real English expression with currency beyond the Russian-speaking world barely registers. It’s become so that it actually feels like it IS normal English, albeit the kind of normal English one only engages in with Russians.


In the same way, I’ve heard so many Spaniards – and ex-pats who’ve lived in Spain for a fair while – offer me the piece of shame (the final piece of a particular dish designed for sharing, so the final bit of tapas, or the final biscuit on a plate or whatever), that I’ve started adopting the expression myself and have even found myself using it with other English natives or fluent foreigners of non-Spanish origin. I’ve also long since ceased looking puzzled when Japanese friends joke about sleeping dictionaries or when Swedes tell me not to paint the Devil on the wall if I’m being particularly pessimistic. As with anyone who’s spent half their life working with non-native speakers, these expressions – and many many others – have seeped into my own vernacular to the point that they almost feel ‘native’.

There must be thousands and thousands of these expressions out there, many of them maybe used by you! They maybe fill a gap that the English language doesn’t quite capture properly, or else capture a locally common concept in a particularly condensed and pithy manner. They exist in the grey areas being local pidgeonised variants and that elusive and possibly mythical beast ELF and, as with advertising slogans, basically have no place in the EFL classroom, particularly not as something one sets out to consciously teach!

However, sometimes democracy does strange things. In a Pre-Int class last year, one of my students turned up late and left the door wide open on entering. A Chinese student became very animated and shouted “OH! How long is your tail!” – a direct translation from Chinese. I laughed, as did most students, for the concept was immediately clear. I then explain that usually in English we say something like Were you born in a barn?

Even after the concept had been explained, the class remained unconvinced. The next day, when another student arrived late and left the door open, the masses had decided. Chinese English prevailed over my own preferences – and for the next few weeks in the particular micro-climate of our class How long is your tail was one of the most commonly recycled phrases!

18 responses

  1. 遠慮の塊 enryo no katamari is the japanese word for it. ‘The piece of hesitation’.

    1. Interesting that there’s an almost identical expression in another language!

      And is it something you’ve ever said IN ENGLISH?
      “Who wants the piece of hesitation?”

  2. Thanks for another interesting post Hugh. I think what you’ve described is generally referred to as calquing; coining new expressions through direct translation from L1. Wikipedia has a list of them – – which makes pretty fascinating reading.

    As for their role in ELT, I tend to find that there’s often no English equivalent for many of the expressions students come out with, but that direct translations make sense in a ‘poetic’ sort of way. A Spanish student recently pointed out I had a “for later” in my mouth, which was charming enough to mitigate my embarrassment at having bits of lettuce in my teeth. As long as meaning isn’t compromised that positive reaction to calques seems to be fairly widespread: ever done the Tingo lesson in New English File?

    1. I avoid New English File like the plague, I’m afraid Matthew, so not had that particular pleasure.

      Yeah, I think you’re right in that this is basically the same as calques (not a term I’d encountered before, I must admit), though in the vast majority of these cases, I suspect they DON’T move into wider use, but rather remain in use simply in particular countries / among particular speech communities.

      I guess you’re also right in that students often use direct translations from L1 to cover up gaps, as with ‘a for later’.
      If this happens in class, I think we have a responsibility to say something along the lines of “Oh, is that how you say it in Spanish? A for later? We don’t really have a word for that. We usually just say (and I’d write this on the board) ‘You’ve got something (stuck) in your teeth’.

      Which you may well have doe yourself, of course!

  3. Interesting post, Hugh, as ever. A couple of observations – “Don’t break my balls”, familiar to us all these days from The Sopranos seems to have entered the language, and is of course a direct translation from the Italian. I first encountered this in 1982, – I hadn’t heard it in the UK prior to that. We old Italy hands reckons it takes a new teacher about 18 months residency here to start saying “In fact” as a general term of agreement, rather than “Right” or “Yep” (“In fatti” is the Italian). And I guess the reason we don’t have grey cardinals is because we use (when we do, which in my case is seldom) the original French (“eminence grise” – which Wikipedia tells me originally referred to Cardinal Richelieu). All the best.

    1. Hi Tim –
      Thanks for this. I was just watching an episode of BREAKING BAD, which you might be familiar with, and one of the main characters used the expression Grow a pair!

      Now, I’ve no idea how widely used this is in US English, but it’s hardly ever used here in the UK, and your post got me wondering whether it’s also something that’s come in via Italian and / or Spanish. The whole ball-obsession thing!

      I think much the same is happening here with the references to mothers!
      I was at a bust stop recently and three lads almost got into a fight.
      They were all around 15 or 16 and Anglo-something: one possibly Anglo-Turkish, one maybe Anglo-Somali.
      Anyway, the conversation went something like this:
      A: Your mum, blood!
      B: What about my mum?
      A: YOU know!
      at which point C had to intervene.
      To a middle-aged, middle class white Englishman, the whole exchange bordered on comedy and the idea that insulting anyone’s mother may in any way impact on you seemed ridiculous, but I’m guessing these things are imbued with cross-cultural relevance and resonance also.

    2. I found this ‘grey cardinal’ phrase so very interesting that I made a short voluntary research. For a person with great political power, acting behind the scenes, we refer to, in Hungarian, as a ‘grey eminence.’ According to the Wikipedia, ‘This phrase originally referred to François Leclerc du Tremblay, the right-hand man of Cardinal Richelieu. Leclerc was a Capuchin friar who was renowned for his beige robe attire (as beige was termed “grey” in that era.) Although Leclerc never achieved the rank of Cardinal, those around him addressed him as such in deference to the considerable influence this “grey” friar held over “His Eminence the Cardinal”.’ Huxley wrote a biography of Leclerc, entitled ‘The Grey Eminence,’ and he of course appears as Father Joseph in The Three Musketeers by Dumas.
      But what I found even more interesting, is that a certain author, Serge Petroff, published a biography on the one-time omnipotent ‘behind the scenes’ politician, Mikhail Suslov, and the title of his book was ‘The Red Eminence.’

  4. Fascinating, and I’m sure this is something I’ve done many times. However, the only example I can think of now is actually using a Czech word for something that has a few perfectly good English names, but was instantly understood by all of my students. I think it makes the game sound more interesting, and it certainly made giving instructions easier 🙂 The word was ‘pexeso’ and it is the Czech equivalent for what I called ‘pairs’ before becoming a teacher, and have now been trained into calling ‘pelmanism’, which I think makes it sound a bit too posh!

    1. Yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it, how sometimes we find ourselves using local variations even when perfectly good – and simple – English versions exist.

      Your use of pexeso is very similar to my use of the undermind, I guess, in that it seems like it’s essentially driven not by a need to paper over cracks in your lexicon, but rather by a desire to accommodate and assimilate.

      Whilst calling the game pairs – or even pelmanism (funny you should say it sounds posh. I always thought it was a bit like some kind of peculiar public school kink that older boys may well have inflicted on their ‘fags’!) – may well work and be semantically transparent, you still went for a more ‘localised’ variant.

  5. When in Spain, the word that native speakers of English,who have a good grasp of Spanish, use most is “coño”, when they’re speaking English, even among themselves. A word that they probably wouldn’t use in English, but which litters Spanish conversation more than “fuck” and its varieties does in the UK. Now why is that, Hugh?

    1. Because they’re filthy, degenerate, potty-mouthed lowlife?

      1. Nice!

  6. We were in a restaurant in Germany last week ordering steak. My husband had been doing pretty well using the German he’d rembered from school but when it came to saying how he’d like his steak cooked there was great confusion. He expressed in German that he didn’t know how to say medium rare in English. The waitress then queried if he wanted his steak English. Apparently, they associate the English with overlooking food so much so that they use the term “English” to mean well done. The waiter assumed that as English speakers we used it in the same way.

    1. Ha ha! Marvellous stuff.
      You know things are bad when even the Germans look down on your sense of cuisine!

      There’s almost a post to be written on ways in which languages express ideas about other countries and the stereotypes and connotations that are connected to them.

      I know, for instance, that whereas in English we have the expression It’s all Greek to me for something incomprehensible, in Spanish it’s It’s Chinese!
      I’ve not yet found out what the expression in Chinese is!

      And I remember being quite disappointed to learn that the French don’t actually call French kissing FRENCH kissing – and often seem surprised to learn that there’s that association with them in English!

      1. In Czech they say ‘It’s a Spanish village to me’ 🙂
        When I lived in Paraguay, if you arranged to meet with someone you had to check whether it was ‘hora inglesa’ (on the dot, maybe a little early) or ‘hora paraguaya’ (any time you liked up to about 3 hours after the time).
        I also know that French and English have an interesting crossover of expressions. For example, a French plait in English is an English braid in French. And a certain disease has the opposite name…

      2. Ha ha. The global tendency to hone in on the unintelligibility of the other!

        I’ve encountered the concept of hora inglesa before, yeah.
        Students have asked me if we say this in English, and have looked slightly disappointed to find we don’t!

        Incidentally, apparently right up until the 18th century, the verb to befrench someone meant to pass on an STD to them!

      3. And what do the French say when they swear? I recently had a discussion about whether or not it was racist to say “excuse my French” after swearing. I am interested to know how the phrase came about (just been re-watching the sopranos and “Pauly” uses it all the time.) is it based on a stereotype of the French being rude? Does it date back to a time when French was widely spoken by certain classes in Britain and used to disguise rudeness? Whatever it’s origin, is it racist to use the expression?
        Is it a negative reflection on the English that Germans use “English” to mean well done? Many people like their meat that way. Is it a negative reflection on the French to imply that they swear a lot (do they?)

      4. I certainly don’t think it’s racist as the French are clearly not a race, and the definition of racism as I understand the term is something like “a way of behaving or thinking that results in people of certain races being treated unfairly”.

        However, I guess you could argue that it’s Francophobic, or stems from a certain perception of the French as being lewd, rude and more prone to such spicy language.
        The origins of the phrase seem to stem from the 19th century, when it was used literally to pardon someone’s French when they’d used it in some capacity and thought the listener may not have understood: an extension of French being the old courtly language, the language of the ruling classes and the elites, etc. By the early 20th century, it’d started being used to mean ‘please excuse my swearing’.

        I’ve used it in class before with French students, who’ve ended up saying Excuse my ENGLISH after deliberately swearing in class themselves, so it was taken in good faith and in jest, possibly because there’s no real power difference between France and England!

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