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"Are You Calling Me an Idiom?"

I’ve been lucky enough to be able to travel to Asia a few times over the last couple of years. One of my hobbies while traveling is to take pictures of English-language signs in Asian countries, as their translations can be alternately hysterical and insightful. Above is my favorite of the signs I’ve seen on my assorted trips.

This sign was positioned next to a staircase with sloped marble sides, and was ostensibly designed to discourage English-speaking tourists from walking up the ramp edges instead of using the stairs. (As someone who has mistakenly worn flip-flops in the rain to many Asian heritage sites with marble floors, they’re not kidding even at all about the slippery nature of the walking surfaces.)

But what’s so awesome to me about this sign is its unintended meaning. Americans grow up being taught the idiom “that’s a slippery slope” when discussing issues of moral ambiguity or in matters where things can go wrong in a hurry without warning, as in falling down a sloped surface which is slippery if one is not mindful of one’s movements or actions. Merriam-Webster defines “slippery slope” as a course of action that seems to lead inevitably from one action or result to another with unintended consequences.

I work primarily with authors who write for American readers, but not all of the authors themselves are American. They use phrases and words in their work which may be easily translatable, in theory, into American English, but do not always retain their meaning after translation. One of the most important things to remember when writing is to make sure your words say what you mean them to say. That they couldn’t possibly be interpreted any other way. That that slippery slope you’re talking about is literally a slope, one which is actually slippery.

I remember trying to explain vampires in a kid-friendly way to my four-year old niece one Halloween. She had seen an image of Dracula on the Halloween makeup kit, and I explained that he was a vampire. Then I showed her a movie poster from one of the Twilight movies and explained that those, too, were vampires. So imagine my surprise when at the checkout she spied a tabloid featuring the actors from the film and she shouted out, “Look, Lisa! Vampires!” Every mother in that line turned around to stare at me and sit in judgment of my “aunt-ing” skills. Sometimes what we think are simple words and explanations cause us the most difficulty.

To quote The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

That’s where editing comes in. In this new global, digital age, American (or any other variety of) English doesn’t have to be your first language in order for you to write in it successfully. You just need to know how to express yourself well enough with its words so that an editor who does know what you mean is able to help you get your message across as effectively as possible.

(Now it’s your turn. Do you have an epic signage fail to share? A favorite movie quote you want to see incorporated in a future post about a topic you can’t wait to read about? Comment away in the box at the bottom of the page. I love you long time!)



Originally published February 10, 2014

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