Mon, Sep 03, 2018 - Page 9 News List


Pigs, 1913, Franz Marc.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Chinese practice


(zhi4 si1 yi4 fen2)

straighten silk, but tangle it up




在英文裡,若要說某人把事情搞得亂七八糟,可以用一句有趣的短語來說──「to make a pig’s ear of something」(把某事弄成豬耳朵,意為把事情搞砸)。很湊巧,這句話的起源也跟絲線有關。

「make a pig’s ear of」這句話第一次出現,是在一九五○年版的美國大眾家庭雜誌《讀者文摘》──其中有一句話:「If you make a pig’s ear of the first one, you can try the other one.」(如果你把第一個弄成了豬耳朵,你可以試試下一個)。這句話的靈感卻是來自一五七九年的一本書──《The Ephemerides of Phialo, Divided into Three Books》(菲蘿的日記,共三冊),為英國教士史蒂芬‧戈森所著,他用一句很有創意的短語「Seekinge too make a silke purse of a Sowes eare」(試圖用豬耳朵來做絲綢錢包),來指嘗試去做一些注定會失敗的事。「sow」字的意思是成年的母豬。

另一個可表達把事情弄糟的說法,是一個簡單的動詞「botch」,及其衍生形容詞,例如「to botch up」某事,或做一件「botched job」。這兩者都意指把事情做得很糟糕,結果不盡如人意。


所以我們可以說,差不多三千年前,在現今中國一個名叫州吁的人,密謀鞏固他對衛國非法獲得的統治權,但卻「thoroughly botched it up」(徹底搞砸了),且「made a real pig’s ear of the whole affair」(徹底毀掉了整件事)。



(To now employ such hardline measures, given the longstanding enmity and tensions between these two countries, will not only fail to resolve the situation, it will actually make matters worse.)


(The Counselors’ Office should help students deal with their emotional issues, so that they can keep things under control and the situation does not deteriorate further.)


make a pig’s ear out of something;

to botch something up

The idiom 治絲益棼, also written 治絲而棼, derives from the same passage of the chun qiu zuo zhuan (Commentary of Zuo of the Spring and Autumn Annals) that Using Idioms looked at on Aug. 20, discussing 玩火自焚 (if you play with fire, you’ll get your fingers burned). The chun qiu entry for the fourth year of Duke Yin (719BC) of Lu tells of how Zhou Xu of Wei plans to attack Zheng, and the attendant zuo zhuan commentary relates how the duke’s senior official Zhong Zhong suspects that Zhou Xu’s plan can only end in disaster. The relevant section has Zhong Zhong say 臣聞以德和民,不聞以亂,以亂,猶治絲而棼之也 (I have heard of winning over the people through virtue, but never through chaos and disorder; to attempt this through chaos and disorder is like trying to straighten out silk threads but only getting them more tangled).

As it turned out, he was right: Zhou Xu got himself in a tangle, and was put to death by his own people within the year.

In modern Chinese, 治絲益棼 is used to say that somebody is making a mess of things, and will only make matters worse by continuing what they are doing.

In English, when we want to say somebody is making a mess of things, we have the curious phrase “to make a pig’s ear of something.” As it happens, the origins of this phrase also have something to do with silk.

The phrase “make a pig’s ear of” something apparently first appears in a 1950 edition of the American general-interest family magazine Reader’s Digest, in the sentence “If you make a pig’s ear of the first one, you can try the other one.” The inspiration for this stretches back much further, however, to a 1579 book, The Ephemerides of Phialo, Divided into Three Books, by the English clergyman Stephen Gosson, where he uses the inventive phrase “Seekinge too make a silke purse of a Sowes eare” (seeking to make a silk purse from a pig’s ear) to mean attempting to do something that is doomed to failure. A sow is an adult, female pig.

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