LINGUIST List 13.521

Mon Feb 25 2002

Qs: English Idioms, English "to be"/Present Perfect

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  1. Beate Waffenschmidt, idioms
  2. John R Te Velde/forlang/cas/Okstate, English 'to be'

Message 1: idioms

Date: Fri, 22 Feb 2002 19:45:14 +0100
From: Beate Waffenschmidt <>
Subject: idioms

Dear linguists,

our applied linguistics dept. at T�bignen / Germany is currently
working on a series of business English learning modules based on
videos produced for business training. The plot is a detective story
about a murder mystery in the London financial business, but the
detective is Irish. In the video, there are two expressions that are
obscure even to our native speakers - perhaps someone can help with
the meaning of these?

1. to whistle dixie

context: a friend explains the detective (who doesn't know about
finance) how to read accounts to find a clue to a man's suicide, he
doesn't understand a word, she says, "you have to work out a few
ratios, analyse liquidity etc.", to which replies (probably
ironically). "Now you're whistling dixie!"

>Could this mean something like: "Oh, great idea!" or "Things are
totally clear to me now!" (each ironical) ??

2. Better than a bent canary on payday

context: the detective thinks he's found an explanation for the
suicide in the accounts, and says: "Too good to be true! Better than a
bent canary on pay day! The guy obviously had a weak heart and a
nervous disposition. I figured a man in his condition could have
keeled over at the sight of something wrong in those accounts".

>The illocution seems clear to me (better than nothing), but what
exactly does the phrase mean? I found "canary" as informer, "bent" as
"open to bribery or unfaithful", hence an informer who refuses to give
evidence when the case is solved (i.e. the detective's payday). Maybe
this is an over-interpretation - does anybody know if the canary thing
is an idiom or a proverb?

Looking forward to your help.
Thanks in advance + best regards, Beate Waffenschmidt

PS: I'll post a summary if there's interest.

Beate Waffenschmidt
T�bingen University - Applied Engl. Linguistics
Wilhelmstrasse 50
D-72074 T�bingen
Fax. ++49 7071 295079
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Message 2: English 'to be'

Date: Fri, 22 Feb 2002 12:57:27 -0600
From: John R Te Velde/forlang/cas/Okstate <>
Subject: English 'to be'

Does someone have examples from published texts of the use of 'to be'
as a helper for the present perfect in English, as in the German
Perfekt? Examples from German would be:

Erika ist gestern Abend ins Kino gegangen
Wir sind im Sommer nach Berlin geflogen

I seem to recall that there are, for example, lines in children's
poetry like:

"...and the cow IS gone up to the moon"

I can't seem to find texts with this usage, however. If someone knows
how far back this goes in the history of English, that would also be
helpful. Thanks!

John te Velde
Assoc. Prof. of German
Oklahoma State University
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