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Clear as mud, and the convolutions of mnemonics

Mnemonics are really useful for learning vocabulary in a new language. So for example, in Italian the pavement, or “sidewalk” if any North Americans happen upon this blog, is il marciapiede. To help me learned this one, I thought about marching along the pavement.The Latin factor is clearly very useful. Piedi, feet in Italian, is related to the French pied (thanks O-level, you weren’t completely useless after all), and also related to the English word pedicure. Or the Italian verb to hide is nascondere. I’m thinking that’s probably related to the English verb to abscond, somewhere along the line.

It’s not, however, always so straightforward. I was trying to translate the English idiom “clear as mud” in Italian, as I often find myself in a situation where clarity eludes me, notably in class. The word for mud in Italian is, however, fango. Semi-unhelpfully, the thing that sprung to mind here was “You know when you’ve been Tango’d”. Ok, thought I, that’s fine, I have a vision in my mind of someone splattered with mud.

Unfortunately, I remembered the mnemonic, but forgot the first letter of the actual word. Jango, mango, gango, gah!? Okay, thought I, fango is like fangs, so that brings to mind vampires. It’s clearly unrelated though, with no nice neat Latinate etymological chain of connections. Instead, I the mnemonic visualisation got increasingly silly. So now when I try to think of the word for mud, I imagine a mud-splattered vampire.

And finally I can say Chiaro come il fango.

Unfortunately, this isn’t one of the idiomatic expressions that directly shared between English and Italian, as far as I know. Hi ho.

Yesterday, I tried a semi-mangled Italian translation of the English expression “between a rock and a hard place” with my teacher, Giammarco: tra una pietra e un posto duro. Though looking now, apparently the Italian version is tra l’incudine e il martello – which means between the anvil and the hammer. Which is great, very evocative, but I’ll need some new mnemonics to learn these words, as for me the word martello brings to mind martello towers, the defensive towers built on England’s coast in the Napoleonic wars. Which, etymologically, have nothing to do with the Italian for hammer.

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