port of marseilles is shown with water in foreground and boats, buildings around harbor

Like most writers, I am something of a magpie. I find shiny bits of language, offering them as gifts to my readers … in exchange for peanuts… um, maybe this metaphor is too real. The point is that I’m always noting snatches of interesting dialog or curious sayings. These days, it’s in my Notes app but in previous eras, I’d scratch them into Moleskin notebooks that resided in my back pocket seven days a week, or on paper napkins, old envelopes, the margins of unrelated documents; whatever I could find. I would research their meaning, or simply wonder at the filigree of our language and how we make meaning from such strangeness. Here are three delightful sayings I loved at first sight, as well as their equally enthralling backstories.

I’m not hanging noodles on your ears

The etymology of this Russian saying is uncertain but it is understood to mean “I’m not lying to you” or “I’m telling the truth.” Dating back to the Russian Empire (the 18th to the 20th centuries), one theory is that it refers to street informants who were called ears and noodles being a rope you could be tied up with. In 2014, Ukrainian protesters threw cooked spaghetti on the Russian Consulate in Odesa to imply Russia’s propaganda could not be trusted.

Side note: The English equivalent “I’m not pulling your leg” refers to someone pulling on or trying to trip someone up while walking, making them look foolish. For this and more leg-itimately nerdy inquiry, dip your toe in this OUP blog about the etymology of the word leg.

We’re not here to fuck spiders

About once a year, one of my American friends will text me out of the blue and ask: How and why would one fuck a spider? After I spend five or six texts breathlessly telling them all the amazing actual spider sex facts I know, it’s time to answer their question: The phrase “We’re not here to fuck spiders” is an exclamation of exasperation meaning we’re not here to waste time or mess around. I have heard it a couple of times in my life but before it was made semi-famous by Margot Robbie and Ru Paul’s Drag Race contestant Art Simone but in my experience, it’s less common than the less coarse and far more quaint “piss-farting around.”

The sardine that choked the harbor

As soon as I heard this phrase for the first time, I knew I needed to know more. Like many idioms, the sardine that choked the port of Marseilles seems to rely on a pun or perhaps an innocent mishearing as news traveled of a real event. The French ship HMS Sartine, named for the Minister for the Navy, grounded at the entrance to the port of Marseilles in 1780, blocking the harbor for other ships. While the ship seems to have been cleared without fuss, the expression is used by people from other French towns to describe the preponderance of people from Marseilles to exaggerate. But what a delightful thing to imagine a tiny sardine blocking a world-class port!

Main image: Georges Seguin (Okki), CC.