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Der Voller, 1804, by Georg Emanual Opiz.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Chinese Practice


(tan1 duo1 jiao2 bu2 lan4)

bite off more than you can chew


文中實際用來形容小偷太過貪婪的句子即是「貪多嚼不爛」,字面上的意義是「嘴裡塞了太多食物,無法全部嚼碎」,延伸為貪婪之意,意思同英文的「biting off more than you can chew」。

如同中文的「貪多嚼不爛」,英文的「to bite off more than you can chew」很少用來指人一下子在嘴裡塞太多食物;這句話較常用作隱喻,表示人在念書或工作時一口氣處理超過自己能夠勝任的份量。




(I think studying the entire curriculum in one night is biting off more than you can possibly chew. It’s counterproductive.)


(This product proposal emphasizes small margins and rapid turnover, and there is no distribution system in place. It just seems overly ambitious.)


bite off more than you can chew

The book Amazing Tales — Second Series is a collection of short stories written in the late Ming dynasty in vernacular Chinese by the author Ling Mengchu. The fifth chapter relates a story of how a group of thieves descends upon a crowd of revelers celebrating the Lantern Festival. The thieves split up and one, before he’s stolen anything, spots a child dressed in his finest clothes coming out of a wealthy family’s residence. The thief follows the boy and kidnaps him from under cover of a throng of people. Unfortunately for the thief, the child has his wits about him. As they are passing an official’s carriage, he shouts “Thief! Thief!” The man, panicking, runs off and rejoins his fellow thieves, the only one of them who returns empty-handed. He tries to explain himself, saying that the child would have been worth a fortune, and he really didn’t want to let him go. The other thieves look at him and say, “And where is the child now? You were greedy, and now you have nothing to show for yourself.” The actual phrase he used to mean being greedy was "貪多嚼不爛了", literally “eating so much that it’s difficult to chew” or, in plainer English, “biting off more than you can chew,” although here it is meant in a purely metaphorical sense.

Just like the Chinese idiom, the English metaphor “to bite off more than you can chew” is only rarely used as a reference to actually stuffing your face with food: it is more usually used in the sense of taking on more than you can reasonably manage, for example with study or work.

And just like the Chinese idiom, the origins of the English metaphor do not lie in chewing food. The phrase is thought to have originally come into usage around the year 1870, at a time when it was still common to chew tobacco. When offered a wad of chewing tobacco, people would take a big “bite” of the tobacco, much bigger than perhaps they were able to chew comfortably. That is, if a person has bitten off more than they can chew, the implication is that the task in front of them is daunting to say the least, and more than likely impossible.

(Paul Cooper, Taipei Times)

Don’t you think you’re biting off more than you can chew taking on the editor’s duties on top of your own work?


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