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?
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.