Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user Lee Haywood

Idiom of the Week – The Thief Has A Burning Hat

By McKenna Tiegland/// Senior Staff Writer

Idioms become most interesting when they are translated across languages, because that is where we find a special handful that, well, just don’t work very well anymore. For example, the following phrase makes complete sense in its original Russian form: На воре и шапка горит (Na vore i shapka gorit). What this is colloquially accepted to mean in Russia, is that somebody has an uneasy conscience that betrays itself. However, when literally translated into English, we get: the thief has a burning hat.

While it’s probably not too terribly difficult to find the connection between the sentiment in its Russian form and the very rough English translation, it is interesting that somebody with feelings of guilt or other apprehensions is spoken of in terms of fire. English, after all, has “liar, liar, pants on fire.” So what’s the deal with lying and fire?

There is a phrase in Latin, capitis damnātus, that translates to “convicted of a capital crime,” or “sentenced to death.” I bring this up because damnātus has the word “damn” within it, and the most prevalent depictions of Hell – at least in Western terms –  are of a hot, fiery pit (i.e. see Dante’s Inferno). Back then, lying, stealing, or having an uneasy conscience for any other reason would be viewed, particularly back in ancient Rome or in Russian social expectations (and hopefully most every other culture), as wrong, and thereby damnable.

It is interesting, then, that while we err with the English language in understanding a Russian idiom, we are brought back in time to an ancient Latin sentiment. It would make complete logical sense if the connection was directly between Latin and English, for the latter draws upon the former, as well as old French, Germanic tongues, and whatever else it found in a back alley way back when. But, it doesn’t. The connection is filtered through a Russian lens, a language with a completely different alphabet than English or Latin, a language that does not bear such strong relations with the others.

Even though “the thief has a burning hat” is a humorous bungle in the translation of languages that only idioms seem to be so adept at creating, it also points to a bigger idea. That is, that, on a fundamental level, all language is interconnected. This in turn reflects something even greater: that the human experience transcends any and all barriers, whether they be geographic or linguistic.

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