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Women strolling by the pond in Yanagiwara are amused by a monk’s overreaction to a tug on his sleeve, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.


Photo: Wikimedia Common

Chinese practice


make a fuss about nothing

(da4 jing1 xiao3 guai4)

有一句古老的拉丁諺語「elephantem ex musca facere」(把蒼蠅說成大象),最早的文獻見諸古羅馬作家琉善的《蒼蠅贊》。把陸地上最大的動物和一隻小昆蟲並列,是比喻把微小的事物放大成很大的東西,也就是指不理性地誇大其嚴重性。此諺語現仍存於俄文中,但在英文裡已不大使用了。



尼古拉斯‧尤達爾所編、西元一五四八年出版的《新約聖經伊拉斯謨譯本釋義:卷一》,其中有這麼一句話:「希臘哲人透過擴張性的詮釋,可以把蒼蠅放大成大象、把小土堆放大成一座山」。尤達爾這句話顯然已加進「mountain of a molehill」這個比喻,其靈感可能來自卡克斯頓對《伊索寓言》的解釋。這是「make a mountain out of a molehill」一語首次出現在刊行的書中,沿用至今。它指的是把實為小問題的東西搞得很大。

「make a mountain out of a molehill」的意思,在中文裡可用成語「大驚小怪」來表達。由此語之形式來看,有人或許會認為它的意思是「對小小的奇怪的東西大感驚訝」;然而,這種「大…小…」的構詞形式,其實是中文裡很常見的結構,為的是強調語意──例如「大驚小怪」所強調的是「驚怪」的意思。「驚怪」一詞由來甚久,意思是「驚嘆」;以上述「大…小…」的結構變化後,便成了「大驚小怪」,意指「被嚇倒」(∕被震懾)。宋代理學家朱熹在其〈答林擇之書〉中,談到陶養學問操守的方法,即用了「大驚小怪」一語:「要須把此事來做一平常事看,朴實頭做將去,久之自然見效,不必如此大驚小怪,起模畫樣也」(應該把它看成一件平常事,在日常中踏實地去做,久而久之便會有成效,不需要過分聲張,當成大事般憂心嚴肅地去討論與教導,如此反而無助於事)。朱熹此處用「大驚小怪」來表示「被某事物所震懾」,但他是用否定句來表達。因此成語「大驚小怪」,即是勸人不要把小問題放大成大問題來看。



(Oh, come on, it’s just a perm, why are you making such a big thing of it?)


(If their children don’t do well in their exams, the parents need only encourage them to work harder and do better next time: there’s no need for them to make a mountain out of a molehill over it.)


make a mountain out of a molehill

There is an old Latin proverb, quoted in Ode to a Fly by the Ancient Roman writer Lucian, that goes elephantem ex musca facere: “to make an elephant from a fly.” The juxtaposition of the largest known land animal with a tiny insect was a metaphor for creating something substantial from something trivial: that is, unreasonably exaggerating its importance. The proverb still exists as a Russian saying, but it has largely gone out of usage in the English language.

A similar juxtaposition was used in the Aesop’s fable The Mountain in Labor, which tells of a mountain that began shaking and emitting loud noises, convincing anxious locals it was about to erupt. They assembled and watched it, to see what would happen, and then one day it split open and out came a mouse. Here, the message is essentially the same: do not exaggerate the importance of inconsequential things.

In 1484, the English merchant, diplomat and writer William Caxton (1422–1491) published a translation of The Mountain in Labor, which he described as a “fable Of a hylle whiche beganne to tremble and shake by cause of the molle whiche delued hit” (a fable of a hill which began to tremble and shake because of the mole inside it). In other words, Caxton was interpreting the fable as saying the local people had mistaken the mountain for a molehill, something that became quite apparent when all that emerged was a rodent-like mammal.

In 1548, The First Tome or Volume of the Paraphrase of Erasmus upon the New Testament, edited by Nicholas Udall, was published, and included the sentence “The Sophistes of Grece coulde through their copiousness make an Elephant of a flye, and a mountaine of a mollehill” (The Greek Sophists could, through their expansive explanations, make an elephant of a fly, or a mountain of a molehill). Here, Udall had apparently added the “mountain of a molehill” metaphor, possibly taking a cue from Caxton’s interpretation of Aesop’s fable. It is the first example in print of the proverb, which has been in use since that time. It refers to making too much of what is essentially a minor problem.

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