Two Idioms.

I’ve recently had my attention drawn to two idioms, an ambiguous English one and an opaque Russian one:

1) Punching above one’s weight. Harley Cahen wrote me as follows:

I just stumbled upon your remarkable and effective 2002 demolition of David Foster Wallace’s infamous Harper’s essay.

At one point you write: “OK, even I am getting tired of this. It should be clear by now that Wallace is punching above his weight. He has no right to parade erudition he has no claim to, still less to condescend to people who know far more than he.”

I venture (cautiously) to observe that you have chosen a poor metaphor. To me it conveys the opposite of what you meant. To punch above one’s weight is to punch harder and more effectively than would be expected from a fighter of that weight. A flyweight might punch like a welterweight, a middleweight might punch like a heavyweight. To say that Wallace is punching above his weight is (on that interpretation) to praise him for doing much better than could have been expected of him.

What do you think?

I responded:

Good heavens, what an interesting question! It had never occurred to me that the phrase might not mean what I (no boxing fan) took it to mean, but a bit of googling suggests that you are using it in the/a standard sense; the Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary, for example, says:

If a country or business punches above their weight, they become involved in, or succeed in, an activity that needs more power, money, etc. than they seem to have:
Singapore punches above its weight in the world economy.

But Urban Dictionary, which is certainly not suitable as a scholarly reference but is useful for current senses of slang, says:

1) To be in a situation that requires powers or abilities that one does not possess.
2) To be (temporarily) successful in such a situation.

Their first definition is how I have always understood it […]. The Phrase Finder says “Competing against someone who you are no match for” and provides a potted history of its use in boxing. All in all, I am pleasantly confused and will probably have to post about it and poll the assembled multitudes.

So what say you all? Do you think of someone punching above their weight as succeeding or failing?

2) Живи ― не хочу. I ran across this Russian expression, which literally means “(You) live ― I don’t want to” (with the first verb in the imperative), and could make no sense of it. A typical example would be this, from Gazdanov’s Панихида: “Теперь у меня все это есть: и квартира, и обед, и жена, и даже ванна ― живи, не хочу” [Now I have all that: an apartment, and dinner, and a wife, and even a bathtub ― zhivi, ne khochu.] So I wrote to Sashura and Anatoly, and both were helpful as always; Sashura said “it’s used both as an expression of complete and utter joy and satisfaction with things that are going right in life, beautiful and plentiful, and in the opposite, ironic, sense, when someone swaps ideals for material well-being or favours,” and Anatoly wrote:

I understand “живи не хочу” to mean something like “such luxury!” or “such fine living!” or “such convenience!”, depending on context. I expect it to follow and emphasize a description of the fine living in question. Sometimes it might seem sarcastic or sad, but that’s because the whole description is sarcastic or sad, building up the impressive catalogue of fine living only to emphasize why the speaker can’t or won’t do it.

Similarly “ешь не хочу” [eat ― I don’t want to] is “wow, so much food!”, “гуляй не хочу” [stroll ― I don’t want to] is “so much great space/so much free time for strolling around” etc.

I’m puzzled by the structure of this idiom, and how “не хочу” got transformed into that. Never thought about it before (as is typical with idioms of course). Doesn’t seem to appear before the 20th century as you also no doubt noticed.

He sent me links to Ushakov, pointing out definition 5 (“1 л. ед. ч. хочу́ с отрицанием «не» и с предыдущим пов. накл. употр. также для обозначения сильной степени или большого количества чего-н. (простореч.). — Теперь наша воля… Гуляй не хочу. А. Островский. Яблок там — бери не хочу. Бумаги много — пиши не хочу. Закуски столько — ешь не хочу.“) and this poem by Hemnitser with the line “Ешь не хочу всего, чего душа желает” [(You) eat I don’t want to everything that the soul desires]. So though I’m still curious about the origin and history of the idiom (or rather family of idioms), at least I have a good sense of what it means — “What a life!” seems like the best translation to me — and I thought I’d pass it along for the delectation of other lovers of the Russian language.

Comments

  1. For #1, definitely succeeding. That’s how I’ve always heard it being used, and I suppose my sense is that the expression would be “getting pummeled above his weight class” (not “punching”) if it were meant to imply failure!

  2. I understand “Punching above one’s weight” as a compliment, if perhaps a backhanded or condescending compliment. It means that somebody is disproportionately strong, important, or effective in spite of inherent limitations. If you search YouTube, you will find a compilation video of Obama using this idiom on several different occasions. On each occasion he is praising the global influence of some small country like Ireland or Denmark. Obama is certainly not trying to insult the country in question. He is saying that while Ireland is hardly a global power, it nevertheless manages to be consequential. Some people might find this condescending, but it is not derogatory. It’s sort of like describing a person as “scrappy”.

    As for the second idiom, an instance of adverbial “ешь не хочу” occurs in Melnikov’s “In the Woods” from 1874:

    Хлеба — ешь не хочу, брага не переводится, а хоть сыты живут, да всласть не едят, не то что по вашим местам.

  3. The second sense is the most natural to me. My wife’s the boxing fan (or was, years ago) but didn’t know the expression.

  4. I am pretty sure that, literally, the second idiom should be translated as a dialog; not as “you live, I don’t want to” but with the person who doesn’t want it being the same one as to whom the directive is given. So, for example, in case of “ешь – не хочу”, the idiom conjures an image of two people sitting around a table loaded with food, one inviting the other to eat some more and the other so full that he refuses. This is supported by the punctuation in the variant of this idiom from Даль: “Ешь, душа, – не хочу!”

  5. Punching above ones weight has only ever (to me) meant competing at a level higher than one would be expected to, i.e. it’s a compliment. I guess I’ve most commonly heard it in sports reporting, when a poorly-financed/under-resourced team is doing well, defeating much wealthier rivals. But frequently in other spheres as well. A real eye-opener to get your interpretation!

  6. W.T. Dore says:

    I always took “punching above one’s weight” to mean doing better than expected. I ran into it in naval contexts, especially when talking about battle-cruisers that could go toe-to-toe with battleships.

  7. Peter Maydell says:

    I suspect for many UK readers the “successfully competing at a level higher than one would expect” sense of “punching above one’s weight” sense is the expected one, because it’s a cliche of UK foreign policy political rhetoric that the UK punches above its weight on the international stage, having an outsized influence and importance compared to the size of the country. (This is obviously an attractive bit of rhetoric in a post-imperial UK regardless of how much truth there is in it, which is why politicians keep using it.)

  8. I’m not a native speaker of English, but I had always thought that punching above one’s weight meant exactly as Urban Dictionary layed out: «she’s not capable of doing it, and even if she’s succeeding, it can go on only for so long». I’m surprised that I never thought of it otherwise and everyone else actually seem to think so. Certainly makes sense, but I still feel reluctant to leave my version behind. (It’s almost like a psychological test to find out how pessimistic someone is… A variation of the “Glass half full, or half empty?” question).

    This makes me curious about other examples of the kind. Two in Turkish immediately come to my mind. First one is an idom: “Teşbihte hata olmaz”. No errors in analogy, in English. I always had thought it meant “You should not make errors when constructing analogies”, and I think I’m right, but most Turkish people think it means that being able to shove an idea into an analogy proves its truth.

    The other one is a confusion among literary readers famously caused by the title given to the Turkish translation of Milan Kundera’s book ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. They translated it as “Varolmanın Dayanılmaz Hafifliği”. ‘Dayanılmaz’ means ‘irresistable’ as much as it means ‘unbearable’ in Turkish, and most people took it to be the former, which, I guess, could be considered a valid interpretation of the book in some sense. (Translator himself was not happy at all, though, as he repeatedly said, in interviews, that it was a mistake he should’ve seen coming).

  9. Agree with Yarb et al. Definitely positive

  10. AJP Crown says:

    Obama and the Danes know the meaning of punching above one’s weight.

  11. “Punching above ones weight has only ever (to me) meant competing at a level higher than one would be expected to, i.e. it’s a compliment.”

    Me too except for the compliment feature. This would depend on whether the endeavor was successful or not. I have taken it to mean one is attempting an endeavor which requires greater qualifications or skill than the person is perceived to possess. This would be based on the image of a boxer attempting to fight at a higher weight class.

    A recent example of the metaphor from the NYTimes regarding the newly elected Greek PM:

    “. . . the visit (to Europe) was also clearly intended to show that the relatively untested 37-year-old politician could punch above his weight in the larger European arena. Yet Mr. Tsipras found himself shunned in both countries by the leading political players, . . .”

  12. Absolutely fascinating! It’s like the rabbit–duck illusion, except that almost everyone seems to see the rabbit (the successful puncher). But:

    I had always thought that punching above one’s weight meant exactly as Urban Dictionary layed out: «she’s not capable of doing it, and even if she’s succeeding, it can go on only for so long». I’m surprised that I never thought of it otherwise and everyone else actually seem to think so. Certainly makes sense, but I still feel reluctant to leave my version behind.

    No need to leave your version behind; I’m not going to. We’ve got Urban Dictionary on our side!

    I am pretty sure that, literally, the second idiom should be translated as a dialog; not as “you live, I don’t want to” but with the person who doesn’t want it being the same one as to whom the directive is given. So, for example, in case of “ешь – не хочу”, the idiom conjures an image of two people sitting around a table loaded with food, one inviting the other to eat some more and the other so full that he refuses. This is supported by the punctuation in the variant of this idiom from Даль: “Ешь, душа, – не хочу!”

    Thanks, Tatiana, that’s very helpful.

    As for the second idiom, an instance of adverbial “ешь не хочу” occurs in Melnikov’s “In the Woods” from 1874

    An excellent antedate!

  13. I agree with Tatiana. I always thought that “X – не хочу” phrases meant “you can do X until you wouldn’t want anymore” that is until you’d say “не хочу” (more). Unlike Tatiana, mine is folk etymology, just a native speaker reconstructing the combinatorial semantics of an idiom.

  14. ‘Punching above your weight’ has only the positive sense for me. I would hear it as straightforwardly complimentary (not obviously condescending) from Obama, and as self-congratulatory from Irish politicians.

    In your comment on Wallace, I would have said he’s either ‘out of his depth’ or ‘in over his head’.

  15. I love the не хочу idiom.
    It reminds me of a relatively recent Israeli Hebrew idiom, חבל על הזמן xaval al hazman ‘it’s a waste of time’, which has come to mean something like ‘great’, ‘amazing’. In looking for an example, I found the story of a grandmother who’d baked a cake for her granddaughter’s birthday party at a kindergarten. The teacher came to her and said, העוגה יצאה לך חבל על הזמן ‘your cake came out, it’s a waste of time’. It was meant as a compliment, but caused some confusion.
    I never saw a definitive explanation of how that idiom came to be. Presumably it started along the lines of “I could go on and on about it.”

  16. gwenllian says:

    I’ve only ever thought of “punching above your weight” in the positive sense, but English is not my first language, and this is exactly the sort of idiom I tend to get wrong a lot of the time.

  17. Well, you’re clearly in line with most native speakers. It’s a confusing idiom that I will try to remember to avoid from now on.

  18. John Emerson says:

    Mostly the positive sense. There might be a slight hint that there’s a little bit of luck above.

    I don’t follow boxing closely, but I’ve incidentally heard of stories of boxers who were champions two weight classes above their natural class.

  19. Looks like we’re outnumbered, but I’ll give one more vote for Hat’s reaction: namely, I’ve always thought of it as negative, but upon reflection I see the logic of it being viewed positively.

  20. I’ve always known “punching above one’s weight” in the positive sense. I hadn’t even thought it might be interpreted another way.

  21. Adam Butler says:

    I’ve always thought of “punching above one’s weight” as being negative too, with an unspoken implication of failure.

    But then I was recently caught out in a similar way when questioning someone’s use of the phrase “steep learning curve” while trying to talk up a piece of software. I always thought of that phrase as being a negative criticism — my assumption being that the phrase implied that the learning process was arduous — but it was pointed out to me that a steep curve also means that one can quickly reach a high level, and that this is, obviously, a positive thing.

  22. I always thought of that phrase as being a negative criticism

    Me too! I wonder how many of these phrases there are?

  23. I think using “steep learning curve” to mean that something is hard to learn is the most common use, even though it doesn’t make much sense when you analyze it.

  24. Gassalasca says:

    Another non-native speaker here, and I’m in line with languagehat/Urban Dictionary.

  25. I understand “punching above one’s weight” to be a positive statement with a cautionary note added, as in “your success may be the exception to the rule.”

  26. Another vote for ‘doing better than you really have a right to.’.

  27. For me, “punching above ones weight” implies success. The closest failure metaphor is “out of ones depth”. Another troubling boxing metaphor is the ‘fair fight’. I’m not clear what makes a literal fight fair: does it suffice that the judges are not corrupt and nobody has a horseshoe in their glove? Must the boxers be in the same weight class? If one is simply much better than the other, is that fair or unfair?

  28. La Horde Listener says:

    No, no, no, no, no, no, no! Touchy’s on the bathroom scale, Nosey’s peering over, trying to see the readout, Touchy decks Nosey for PEEKING. Punching ~over~ one’s ~weight~, ta da!, just the way it says, people. Happy New Year, Gwidgey.

  29. I often use “punching above his weight,” always in the complimentary sense. To me it means, “going by how hard he hits, you’d expect him to be in a heavier weight class, and — until this moment — if I had encountered it used to signify “he’s out of his depth” I would have flagged it as an error.

  30. Not necessarily succeeding, but certainly putting in a creditable showing. Deserving of a place on the canvas despite his size.

  31. My default reading of “punch above one’s weight” is the negative one, but I realized reading this thread that the positive reading seems quite natural to me too when that’s the one that’s obviously intended. Am I the only one there?

  32. Harley Cahen says:

    Thanks everyone! Quite a helpful set of comments. I’m glad to learn that most posters understand “punching above one’s weight” the way I do. I am also chastened to learn that a healthy minority take it the opposite way. It joins the list of phrases that I will henceforth use only with caution.

    Comparison to the phrase “steep learning curve” is apt. People mean two opposite things by this, The use that is more faithful to the mathematics of learning curves is counterintuitive. Ascending something steep does sound as though it ought to be slow and arduous.

  33. La Horde Listener says:

    Scoring: positive. Stepping up: genuinely positive. Punching above one’s weight: gratuitously positive.

  34. Seems like either Anatoly tried to mislead you or he had been banned by google: “Doesn’t seem to appear before the 20th century as you also no doubt noticed.”

    One of the first search results is a Russian wiktionary entry, where we find the following example:

    Хлеба — ешь не хочу, брага не переводится, а хоть сыты живут, да всласть не едят, не то что по вашим местам. П. И. Мельников-Печерский, «В лесах», 1871—1874 г.

  35. The negative sense of “punching above one’s weight” is unfamiliar to me.

  36. I’m never sure about “downhill”. If a situation is “going downhill”, then (to me) it’s definitely deteriorating, and while I’ve often heard “It’s downhill all the way (from here)” in a similarly negative sense, and understand it unproblematically, I can use it either negatively or positively (“it’s easy from here on”, as though from a cyclist’s point of view).

  37. Stefan Holm says:

    Idioms are what they are and people use them without any letter by letter analysis. ‘Sour grapes’ is from Aesop’s fable about the fox, who couldn’t get the grapes he wanted because they grew too high up for him to reach. Rationalizing his failure he said: they were unripe or sour anyway.

    In Swedish this is rendered as surt, sa räven om rönnbären ‘sour, said the fox about the rowanberries’. But since rowanberries actually are sour or bitter the whole point of the story is lost. Still no Swedes reflect upon this lack of logic but use the phrase in exactly the same sense as once Aesop.

  38. That’s really funny!

  39. Jongseong Park says:

    I’ve only ever seen ‘punching above one’s weight’ used in the positive sense. It’s reasonably common in sports reporting.

  40. Mollymooly: I think the essence of fair fight is not the external circumstances, though it may be reduced to that in bad cases. It’s the attitude that the person you fight with is an adversary, but not an enemy: that you fight to prove yourself better, not to destroy your opponent at all costs and by all means. The novelist Eric Flint explicitly compared American politics to a series of boxing matches (excluding the Civil War, obviously), with the precedent set in 1800 with the first entirely peaceful transition of power. The term is also applied to a style of managing marital conflicts, where certain tactics are ruled off-limits because they tend to do harm disproportionate to the immediate cause of the conflict.

  41. For me, punching above one’s weight is a compliment. It means that someone is succeeding (or at least not failing) when the chances of success appear to be slim. There is a touch of the negative though in that any success is likely fleeting because eventually circumstances will overwhelm ability.

  42. I’m In the negative minority, but then I might have been influenced by Hat’s DFW post.

  43. 1. “punching above one’s weight” – have only seen it used with a positive connotation

    2. “Живи ― не хочу” – i’m with Sashura, usually deals with plentifulness of material things. Can be either used by person boasting about his situation or, more often, ironically with the sense that the abundance is not making one happy. btw, “гуляй не хочу” does not address strolling but rather partying meaning of гуляй. also, Tatiana’s dialogue interpretation of this, does not seem correct to me.

  44. don’t know how to edit comment but “Живи ― не хочу” can also be used ironically to suggest abundance of material things when in actuality one has very little.

  45. As a native Russian speaker I always understood “Живи – не хочу” or “ешь – не хочу” as an opportunity to have smth as much as you wish just until you don’t want it anymore (“не хочу”).

  46. J. W. Brewer says:

    Another vote for “punching above weight” being solely positive. If you’d said something like Wallace was “trying to punch above his weight,” you could have gotten the implication of likelihood of failure in there, but you didn’t so (to my ear) you didn’t.

    I don’t know that I even get the implicit undertow of “likelihood of eventual failure” from the phrase if reflected on more than one necessarily would typically reflect on a fixed phrase. Observing that someone is doing better at activity X than standard metric Y would predict doesn’t necessarily mean that they are temporarily beating the odds but eventually the odds will reassert themselves. It can just be an observation that standard metric Y is not 100% accurate in predicting success at X, as shown by the counterexample at hand.

  47. Strictly speaking, though, the idiom doesn’t say that the subject is doing better at activity X (punching) than metric Y (their weight class) would predict. Just that they’re taking on a greater challenge, as measured by metric Y, than expected.

    (Unless “punching” itself is taken to mean “punching successfully” — but this begs the question, since it makes the positive implication inalienable to one of the idiom’s constituent words, and therefore opaque to this sort of analysis.)

  48. I don’t know that I even get the implicit undertow of “likelihood of eventual failure” from the phrase if reflected on more than one necessarily would typically reflect on a fixed phrase.

    Yeah, but the whole point about idioms is that they needn’t, and often don’t, make sense when analyzed. Compare the Russian example, or Stefan Holm’s “sour, said the fox about the rowanberries.”

  49. I don’t know about success or failure, but the concept of going for more than expected, or wise, perhaps. The little guy starting a bar fight with the huge bouncer, not a good bet, but impressive if he holds his own. Or the schlub asking out the supermodel, unlikely, but good on him if she gives him the time of day.

    Funny, came across this phrase in an article on mites, which definitely implies success.

    “In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that mites alter the world. They can make soil turn over faster or slower, decomposition speed up or slow down, crops grow sick or healthy. Their little limbs punch far above their weight.”

    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/02/mites/dunn-text

  50. Re: “punching above one’s weight”: Am I the only one who wasn’t familiar with this expression in either sense? (I mean, I must have come across it before, if only in that I’d previously read Hat’s post about David Foster Wallace, but it doesn’t ring a bell at all.)

    Re: “steep learning curve”: Definitely negative. I take it to mean that you can’t really make any headway with the software/product/whatever until you’ve learned a great deal. (Whereas a “gentle learning curve” would imply that you can start making productive use of it almost immediately, after knowing only a little.) Hence the large number of Google-hits for phrases like “powerful, but a steep learning curve”.

  51. Trond Engen says:

    Stefan Holm: surt, sa räven om rönnbären ‘sour, said the fox about the rowanberries’

    In Norwegian there’s another twist: Høyt henger de og sure er de, sa reven (om rognebæra)). “High they hang and sour they are, said the fox (of the rowanberries)”. The part about the rowanberries is usually dropped. Often even the reference to the fox. It’s used to describe arrogance from someone in a position of superiority.

  52. Stefan Holm says:

    Good to know, Trond, so I won’t make a fool of myself in contact with Norwegians. The meaning in Swedish is closer to the original, i.e. commenting upon anybody’s failure after having had too far-reaching ambitions. And just like on the west side of the keel it’s abbreviated (to surt sa räven ‘sour said the fox’).

  53. I heard someone on the radio this morning use the phrase “punching below its weightclass” (referring to a train station.) It wasn’t entirely clear what he meant, possibly that it wasn’t as good as it should or could be?

  54. Re dating “живи не хочу”. Hemnitser, who Anatoly quotes, lived in mid 18 Century, he died in 1784. So the phrase goes a long way back.

  55. Well, “Ешь не хочу всего, чего душа желает” isn’t quite the phrase, but it gives an idea of where it comes from.

  56. Not only would I only use “punching above one’s weight” positively, I find myself mildly vexed that anyone could possibly think otherwise and thereby render “ambiguous” a useful idiom.

    English already has many other idioms that mean “attempting what one is incapable of”: “biting off more than one can chew”; “being out of one’s depth”; “being in over one’s head”; “being out of one’s league.” On the other hand, “punching above one’s weight” is the only idiom that pop’s to mind for being “more successful than expected.”

  57. David Marjanović says:

    Hemnitser

    What a round-trip! That name must be derived from Chemnitz in eastern Germany, Karl-Marx-Stadt for a while. The fun part is that it’s pronounced with /k/, and comes from a kamenica, “Stony Brook”, by way of umlaut.

  58. Ha! So he should have been Kamenitsyn.

  59. Harley Cahen says:

    I’d like to share a very fresh example of a variant of “punching above one’s weight” from a sport other than boxing. This Bangladeshi batter hits with more power than would be expected of a man of his build.

    “It took a run out, Woakes hitting direct from short third man, to end Mahmadullah’s innings, but Mushfiqur began to open his shoulders. Because of his [slight] build he is always going to be a prolific cutter and carver, but he more than punches his weight off the front foot too, and by the time he skewed a slower ball from Broad to deep extra cover, he had hit eight fours and a six.”

    http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2015/mar/09/england-crash-out-cricket-world-cup-bangladesh

  60. Excellent quote, not least for the juxtaposition of the names Woakes and Mushfiqur.

  61. A late addition: This article on Graywolf Press — http://www.vulture.com/2015/08/how-graywolf-press-became-a-big-player.html — makes something of a mess employing ‘punching above’ phrases in what seems to me a weird juxtaposition of contrary usage:

    That hardly puts Graywolf in league with Penguin Random House, but neither is it just a scrappy little press punching above its weight.

    and, a mere 15 lines below that,

    Graywolf’s poet-critics are punching above every weight class.

  62. Great heavens! I think I’ll just avoid using it, to be on the safe side.

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