The British love eccentrics. Perhaps it is a result of the emphasis British society has always put on individualism, or maybe it’s just the weather, but there has always been a special kind of respect and admiration paid to people who follow their own idiosyncratic path through life.
Whatever the reason, there are many idiomatic phrases used in the British Isles to describe someone who sees things a bit differently, and most of them are charmingly representative of the country. Crucially, however, these expressions and adjectives are far from interchangable, and most refer to quite a specific mode of craziness, on a scale that runs from harmlessly eccentric to worryingly deranged.To call someone a fruitcake, or say they are loopy, would suggest affection and harmlessness; an old unmarried uncle, for example, or a charismatic English teacher. Someone who is away with the fairies is probably in a similar condition.
A belfry is the top of the tower of a small church where the bells are hung. To have bats in the belfry is the next step up from loopy, but still a less severe condition than to be one sandwich short of a picnic. The British enthusiasm for understatement should suggest that if you say someone is not all there you really mean there is very little there at all.
Then we have mad as a hatter, which is one step short of being a total lunatic. The origin of this expression is rather interesting: in the nineteenth century, hatters, or hat makers, were proverbial for being mad, because the glue used in millinery was highly toxic.
A charmingly expressive euphemism is mad as a March hare, which suggests the uncontrolled and joyous energy of a hare in early Spring.
But my favourite is doolally, usually used in conjunction with qualifier like ‘totally’ or ‘absolutely’. Now, Deolali is a town near Mumbai in India which was the site of a large British army camp during the days of colonisation. Any soldier who had completed his tour of duty was obliged to spend time at Deolali before being shipped home; understandably, these men experienced frustration both at the delay to their homecoming and the enforced lack of activity, causing the anglicised version of the town’s name to come to mean a sort of repressed, nervous craziness.
The challenge for translators is to strike the right note when translating terms such as these. To hit on an incorrect equivalent could be disastrous; if I say that my grandmother ‘is a bit loopy’, I absolutely do not mean that she is mad, or even mentally unstable. In a future blog we will look at a few equally representative idiomatic phrases from other cultures.