One of my best friends from college is now working as a pharmacist in Florida (a hell of a job to end up with after so much time in school). She’s Japanese. When I met her, she didn’t speak much English at all; now that she has a difficult graduate degree under her belt, she knows a bit too much. She recently told me about one situation where she politely asked a patient about the “efficacy” of his medication. The patient had no clue what she was talking about. After a minute of miscommunication, someone else behind the counter suggested that she say “Does it work?” instead.
The story reminded me of one experience I had in high school in Osaka. I had an earache one day, and went to the local ENT clinic to have it checked. The doctor, a wizened-looking old lady, peered inside and told me, in English, “You have timpanitis.” “Timpanitis?” I asked. That certainly wasn’t in my vocabulary at the time. She repeated the word a few times until I eventually figured out it must be a fancy way to say “ear infection.”
There were many occasions when someone would ask me about a certain phrase in English, and I wanted to explain that the phrase was a metaphor for something else. In most dictionaries, the Japanese gloss of “metaphor” is in’yu. While I memorized that word, I never met a single Japanese person who understood what it meant, even when I wrote it out; after a few failed attempts to communicate, someone suggested that I use chokuyu (“figure of speech”) instead. That one actually works.
Anyway, knowing too much of a language can often have the same effect as knowing not enough. I suppose the moral, especially for those of us working in wordy fields like law and medicine, is to keep things as simplified as possible. Imagine how much easier things would be if we all followed that rule…
Afterthought: “Metaphors in law are to be narrowly watched, for starting as devices to liberate thought, they end often by enslaving it.” – Benjamin Cardozo, former Supreme Court justice (apparently lacking a sense of irony…)