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Wednesday August 9, 2006
By LYDIA TEH
I ’LL take the fresh fruit cake, Lenny,” Eh Poh Nim tells the shop assistant at the bakery near her office. She’s buying it as a birthday cake for her colleague, Jane.
As Lenny removes the cake from the fridge, another customer walks in.
“I’d like to have a fresh fruit cake,” the man says.
“Sorry, Sir. This lady has just bought the last one,” Lenny says.
The man glares at Eh Poh Nim and grumbles, “It’s probably not fresh anyway”, and stalks off.
“Sour grapes!” she calls out after the man.
“Don’t worry, the cake is fresh,” Lenny assures Eh Poh Nim. “What do you mean by sour grapes? Grapes aren’t sour, lemons are.”
“Have you heard of Aesop’s fable, ‘The Fox and the Grapes’?”
“Is that the one where the fox couldn’t reach some grapes on the high branches and in the end he went away empty-handed?” Lenny asks as he puts the cake into a box.
“Yup. The fox said the grapes were probably sour anyway. When something is beyond your reach, you despise it like that fox did the grapes,” Eh Poh Nim explains. “The expression sour grapes originated from this story. That’s why it’s not sour lemons or sour limes.”
“There are lots of idioms using taste sensations. Take sweet, for example. My mum’s always telling me to take the bitter with the sweet, which is to accept adversity as well as good fortune.
“This term has been in use since the 14th century and is still going strong. Some idioms are self-explanatory and I suppose that’s why they’re so popular,” Eh Poh Nim says as she pays for the cake. “Speaking of sweet, I’m sure you’ve met lots of people with a sweet tooth.”
A plus-sized woman who has just placed her tray on the counter, chips in. “That’s me. I love sweet food. That’s why I’m this size. Fat people get high blood pressure, diabetes and all sorts of illnesses but I don’t care. I will endure to the bitter end,” Ms Big says with a flourish of her hand.
Lenny punches in Ms Big’s purchases on the cash register: three chocolate doughnuts, four fruit tarts and two éclairs.
“Endure to the end no matter how unpleasant it is? Huh, you’re a drama queen. I read some fascinating information about how the term to the bitter end came about,” says Eh Poh Nim.
“You know what a bitt is? It’s a post on a ship’s deck for fastening cables and ropes. When a rope is played out to the bitter end, it means there’s no more rope to be used.
“By the way, do you know that diabetics take bittergourd to lower their blood sugar levels? Apparently, it has plant-insulin properties.”
“Really? What a clever woman you are!” Ms Big exclaims. “You’re the salt of the earth.”
Eh Poh Nim blushes. “A person who’s good at English isn’t necessarily a good, worthy person. But thank you all the same for your compliment. This metaphor was first used in the bible when Jesus referred to his followers as the salt of the earth.
“There are lots of salt idioms. A common one is rubbing salt into the wound which means to add to someone’s distress on purpose. But have you heard of below the salt?”
Ms Big shakes her head.
“Salt was very important in mediaeval times. In England, the nobility sat at the high table and their servants at lower tables. Salt was placed at the centre of the high table and only those at the high table had access to it. That’s how below the salt was coined. It means common or lowly.
“If you’re an English teacher, surely you’ll be worth your salt,” Ms Big says as she pays for her purchases.
“I am worthy of my salary in my present job,” Eh Poh Nim says.
“That reminds me. I have to get back to the salt mines. I’m sure you know what that means,” says Ms Big.
“I haven’t heard that phrase for a long time,” says Eh Poh Nim. “It means to resume work reluctantly. It alludes to the Russian practice of punishing prisoners by sending them to work in the salt mines of Siberia. Oh dear, I really must get going too. Ciao!”
Lydia Teh is the author of Life’s Like That – Scenes from Malaysian Life which is available at major bookstores. Visit her blog at lydiateh.wordpress.com for more Eh Poh Nim articles.
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