Volume 36, No.3 - Fall 1990
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas, University of Rochester
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1990 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

B O O K   R E V I E W

Strazhas-Kameneckaite, Nedda. The world of work as reflected in idioms based on English, French, German, Russian and Lithuanian phraseologies — Grazer Linguistische Monographien, 6. Graz, 1990.

In the Introduction (pp. 5-7) Nedda Strazhas-Kameneckaite (NSK) writes that in any language the bound combination of words, loosely referred to as idioms, are studied by a branch of linguistics called phraseology, the term denoting also 'the sum total of the bound word-combinations of a language.' She continues, saying: 'No matter how different every language community's historical and socio-economic experience may be in general, one of its elements is shared by all, namely the experience of work . . . Work idioms reflect the life of the majority of any society because the toiling people, whatever their toil might consist of, constitute its bulk and fundament.' Work idioms are verbal museum pieces, 'revealing what it felt like to work with crude tools, how hard and exhausting work was, how little it brought.' She then asks how the similarities and differences in work idioms in the languages in question arose, how the toilers of every nation experienced work, what values did they assign to it, what did work mean in daily life and what place did work occupy in the social philosophy of each language community.

According to NSK's account in the course of over thirty years of perusal of lexicographical sources and works of fiction she collected 470 work idioms in English, 540 in French, 260 in German, 200 in Russian and 560 in Lithuanian.

Part l, entitled 'Social stratification of the working population' discusses five distinct groups of workers: (1) servants, (2) employees comprising clerks and officials, (3) craftsmen, (4) peasants/farmers, and (5) workers, and gives examples of idioms relating to each of these groups. NSK writes: 'In the number of idioms, detail and diversity of representation the most prominent place is accorded, surprising, to servants, that is persons who work in a household for wages, food and sometimes lodging' (p. 12).

Part II, entitled 'The semantics of work' is divided into 10 subgroups called respectively: (1) Work as the main means of sustenance, (2) Aspects of work as activity, (3) Work as a process, (4) The jobs, (5) The quantity of work, (6) The quality of work, (7) The man as worker, (8) The worker as man, (9) The lazy and the idle, and (10) Work and interpersonal relations. In each section appropriate idioms are given from each language considered, e.g., in subgroup (1) we learn that The fundamental need for bread is emphasized by a series of its synecdochal representations. In Russian it is a 'piece of bread' — kusok khleba; in Lithuania 'a bit of bread' — duonos kąsnis (p. 33). In subgroup (2) NSK writes: 'In German, Russian and especially in Lithuanian, the perpetuity of work is shown synecdochally through the motion of the worker's hands: in German the diligent worker 'perpetually moves them' — die Hande regen; in Russian he 'never lays them down' — rabotat' nepokladaja ruk: in Lithuanian he 'never folds them' — rankų nesudėti (P. 35).

In Part II 'The semiotics of work' NSK writes that Lithuanian phraseology is richest of all the languages considered in the semiotic representation of work (P. 109). She writes further:

'Lithuanian is the only language which symbolizes hard work by images of parts of the face. Many of these images are static. Pieced together they present a composite portrait of a man engaged in strenuous performance as seen through the eyes of an observer.' Thus for example, 'somebody works with his head put down' (dirba galvą pasidėjęs) his 'eyes are wet' (akys šlapios), 'the sweat was running through the pupils of his eyes' (prakaitas per akių vyzdžius ėjo), etc. (pp. 110-111).

NSK writes in Part IV, 'The worlds of work,' that the semantic analysis of the conceptualization of work presents a 'picture of a certain historical period as it has imprinted itself upon the community's collective memory.' In case of Lithuanian the idioms for work reflect an agricultural, a homogeneous social entity of peasants and farmers who lived and worked before the mechanization of agriculture (p. 126). Thus, for example, 'hares manure the fields' (kiškiai mėžia laukus), the hard-working person is like an ant (kaip skruzdė), the busy woman like a bee (kaip bitė), etc.

The book contains a bibliography (pp. 158-161) and an appendix of work idioms in the languages considered (pp. 163-238).

The English idioms listed betray heavily the flavor of the nineteenth century English novel, rather than that of contemporary America. The reading of nineteenth century English novels is certainly a culturally more enlightening endeavor than the study of contemporary American English, but some of the idioms are (1) probably unknown to the average American, (2) might be only contextually interpreted and/or (3) might mean something completely different. Thus a dead horse is defined as 'a job for which one got his pay in advance' (P. 163), a meaning completely unknown to me. A soft snap is defined as 'an easy and/or lucrative job' (p. 164). For me it would be anything easy, but in the appropriate context might have the meaning ascribed. For the average American, however, the idiom knock up is a rather vulgar expression meaning 'render a girl or woman pregnant/ not 'earn' as defined on p. 172.

NSK is a gifted polyglot and an excellent linguist. Her book is full of interesting insights on the cultural attitudes towards work on the part of the speakers of the languages considered. In addition to being a valuable piece of scholarship, the book is a useful pedagogical tool for English-speaking teachers of French, German, Lithuanian and Russian.

William R. Schmalstieg
The Pennsylvania State University