Watch Your Tongue: An Interview with Mark Abley

The English language is a funny odd animal of sorts. Break it down and if you think too hard your head will hurt. Learn a little more about the author Mark Abley with his new book Watch Your Tongue What Our Everyday Savings and Idioms Figuratively Mean

Who are you and what do you do? 

Photo credit John Mahoney

Photo credit John Mahoney

I’m a poet, a journalist, a non-fiction writer, an editor, a children’s author – the idiom “jack of all trades” comes to mind, although it’s often followed by “master of none.” I was born in England, grew up on the Canadian prairies, and have lived in the Montreal area since the 1980s. Long ago I was a Rhodes scholar.


 How did you come up with the title for the book?


 A book about idioms needs an idiomatic title, and English is full of idioms dealing with language. Watch Your Tongue seemed like a good choice – better than Paying Lip Service, let’s say, or Taking the Words Right Out of Your Mouth, or any number of other inept possibilities. Admittedly I could have bitten my tongue, but it seemed smarter to watch it instead.


 What made you want to write a book about idioms and other oddities in the English language? 

 I’ve written a few earlier books about language, and I believe there’s an appetite for books that take language seriously without subjecting readers to a heap of linguistic jargon. Idioms provided a good way for me to make serious points about how we use language in the 21st century – while also having some fun with words.

 What is your favorite idiom? 

Out of countless possibilities, I’ll choose a British expression for a braggart who can’t back up his boasts with actual deeds: “all mouth and no trousers.”

 Did your research into this topic take you to any interesting places? As in did you have to travel anywhere in order to find out some answers you were searching for? 

 The honest truth is that for this book, I didn’t have to travel any further than my local public library. But for one of my earlier books,The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English, I travelled to Singapore, Japan, Oxford, Los Angeles, and some other places too. Singapore has the reputation for being a stuffy, buttoned-up place, but in terms of language, it’s absolutely wild – the language of the streets, Singlish, is a rich infusion of Malay, Tamil, and several Chinese languages on an English base. It’s wonderfully unpredictable and profane. Here’s an example from the Concise Singlish Dictionary, drawing on the Hokkien language of southeastern China: “When I found out that the char bor I was trying to chee hong in the disco was actually my auntie, I giah lum pah chu lai tom to’teng.” In standard English, that last phrase means “I take out my testicles and bang them on the table.” The idioms of Singapore are extraordinary.

 What was a fun moment in writing the book? 

 I was stunned to discover the origin of the phrase “gung ho.” I’d always assumed it came from the US military, and indeed it did – it was a battle cry introduced into English by a Marine commander named Evans Carlson during the Second World War. Hollywood soon took up the phrase and made it the name of a patriotic wartime movie. What I didn’t realize was that in the 1930s Carlson had served in China, where he admired the fervent Communist resistance to the Japanese invaders. He took what he thought was a Chinese phrase for “work together” and adapted it into the English “gung ho.” But contrary to what Carlson believed, that original Chinese phrase doesn’t mean “work together.” It’s a shortened version of “Chinese Industrial Cooperative Society.” Once you know that, it’s hard to think about “gung ho” in the same way.

 How did you go about pitching your book? It's a bit of an unusual topic. 

The pitch was a kind of dance between myself, my agent, and Simon & Schuster Canada. They were interested in a popular book about language. I’d spent a decade writing a newspaper column about the glories and foibles of English – it was called “Watchwords,” and it ran every couple of weeks in the Montreal Gazette – and I wanted to reach the same kind of audience I’d been able to touch with that column. Idioms made a good match for us.

 Why do you think idioms exist? 

 I believe that idioms are intrinsic to language. Not all languages contain as many as English, but probably no human language is devoid of them. Idioms act as miniature poems, warnings, sermons and jokes. They encapsulate so much of human experience in a few choice words. And, most important, they use language in a vivid, physical way. Idioms are free of the dead type of government-speak or corporate-speak that so often afflicts public language: you don’t come across idioms that talk about prioritizing strategies or building capacities or assessing contingencies. That type of abstract speech is the opposite of idioms.

Put it this way. What’s more memorable, “Our intention is to develop alternative methodologies for implementing current priorities” or “There’s more than one way to skin a cat”?


Fun questions

If you were stranded on an abandoned island what five items would you have with you?

 A pair of binoculars. A Field Guide to the Birds of Abandoned Islands. The complete piano music of Claude Debussy and Leoš Janáček. A fat Moleskine notebook, unlined. And a few reliable pens.


 Do you have a favorite bookstore or library and if so where is it? 

On Rue Milton, a narrow side-street near McGill University in downtown Montreal, there’s a secondhand bookstore named The Word, run with unflagging devotion by Adrian King-Edwards and his wife Donna Jean-Louis. It has catered to students, writers, artists and professors for more than forty years. Whenever I can’t find a book on some obscure topic, I ask Adrian – and within a few days, he’ll have exactly the work I need. The Word’s Christmas parties are legendary: imagine seventy or eighty people, most in heavy coats, crowded into a space where twenty could comfortably stand, all swilling mulled wine while a blizzard rages outside. But you have to know where to find The Word. It has no sign outside.

 Where is the best place you have traveled to?

I love the Orkney Islands, Costa Rica and Dubrovnik, but I’ll give an answer that seems apt for the sorry era of Donald Trump and other Republican vandals: the city of Isfahan in Iran. A few of the mosques and other buildings in Isfahan are among the most astonishing works of human imagination that I’ve ever come across. The Khaju Bridge, the Jameh Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, the Armenian cathedral – I’m very lucky to have had a chance to see these glories of civilization, and I only hope they survive far into the future.


 If you could travel in time where would you go? Who would you interview or write a story about? 

I would resist the temptation to find out what Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad and Moses really said (or whether they all really existed) and travel instead to London in 1600 AD. Who could possibly make a better subject for interview than Mr. Will Shakespeare? His writing remains, to this day, the bee’s knees and the cat’s pajamas.