Anatoly Vorobey’s latest post provides an excellent illustration of the mind’s way with language. There’s a poem by Bella Akhmadulina called Прощание (“Farewell” or “Parting”), with a musical setting by Andrei Petrov (you can hear it sung here by Valentina Ponomaryova), whose first stanza is:
А напоследок я скажу:
прощай, любить не обязуйся.
С ума схожу. Иль восхожу
к высокой степени безумства.
[And finally I’ll say:
farewell, don’t oblige yourself to love (me).
I’m going out of my mind. Or I’m rising
to a high degree of madness.]
Now, the expression “С ума схожу,” which I’ve translated idiomatically as “I’m going out of my mind,” literally means “I’m coming down from (my) mind,” so that “С ума схожу. Иль восхожу/ к высокой степени безумства” is a nice play on words: “I’m coming down from my mind/ or going up to a high degree of madness.” (You could try to reproduce the effect in English by saying “I’m going out of my mind or into a high degree of madness,” but it would sound forced.) But Anatoly—an extremely good reader who frequently ponders questions of language—just realized this; for many years, he says, he was irritated by the “or” in the third line: “I’m going crazy or I’m becoming mad,” what sense does that make? He writes “I completely failed to get [the play on words], because I took сходить с ума as an idiom and didn’t hear in it the literal sense of сходить [i.e., to go/come down, descend].” I imagine we’ve all had similar experiences.