Sorry if I mislead you with the title, but this is not an erotic or romantic post, just a rambling rumination on weird idioms, metaphors, similes and other types of wordplay that make English so much fun to teach. Think about this simile: “Happy as a clam.”
When I tried it out on one of my students, I was rewarded with a look of utter bafflement.
“Clams are happy?” Well, we can never know, can we, since clams cannot really tell us for sure. If clams could talk, what would they say? I think Johnny Hart had a talking clam in his comic strip B.C., but I can’t imagine them doing anything more than incomprehensible muttering or murmuring. But to my student, I tried to explain that the point was they appeared to live in a state of ever silent, contented obliviousness…until someone or something yanks them out of the mud, smashes open their shells and devours them. Who is truly happy as a clam? Perhaps a monastic. I’m sure Thomas Merton had his happy clam days, and also the days when he felt like he was being forced through the shucker.
Certain phrasal verbs can also lead to trouble. Never mind a certain four-letter verb beginning with ‘f’ that can be combined with “off,” “up,” and a remarkable number of other prepositions. We were talking about the term, to pick up. Pick up your clothes, pick up your theatre tickets, pick yourself up and move on with life. Play a game of pick-up basketball.
“And also, pick up girls in bars!” said my student, a little too eagerly. Whereupon, I sternly reminded him he was a married man, and did not need to familiarize himself with that particular shade of meaning.
Which brings us to my story about burning lips, a true story, and not a metaphor. In an act of wanton vanity, I picked up a new tube of lipstick at the supermarket, enchanted by the shade, a deep shade of antique rose. I put it on for the first time, and of course on me it looked a bit more like a rose in mud, maybe the shade a lady clam would wear (if clams could talk, of course) but, contentedly oblivious, I went off to a liturgical service. Where I was asked to read aloud a passage from the New Testament.
It was the tale of Mary, Martha and dead Lazarus. And just as I got to the part where Jesus summons Lazarus from his tomb, my lips began to tingle in an ominous way. My first reaction: Hope this isn’t a stroke… But I kept reading, and suddenly my lips were prickly hot and burning, and I was even starting to have a little trouble forming the words. And I actually thought—yes, this idea actually flickered through my cynical old brain–was this some kind of mystical or spiritual phenomenon? Some kind of message, from the Divine? Burning bush, why not burning lips? But I got through the passage, and later on, when I checked myself out in the bathroom mirror, saw that my lips were a bit swollen, in an antique-rose kind of way. I then checked out the label on the lipstick, and saw that I had bought the ‘lip-plumping’ formula, which was full of all kinds of nasty little agents designed to “pump up your pucker power to the max!” Hence the burning lips, not a mystical experience in the least.
Still, there does seem something poetic to me about having your lips tingle while reading the word of God. And my lips looked pretty good while doing it, too.