What have you done with God's ear?
Back on 23 September I surveyed
some items on the fringes of Snowclonia, among them
God's Ear: From X's lips/mouth to God's
Body Snatcher: Who are you and what have you done with X?
Time for an update.
. What I said
... I just noticed "from X's lips/mouth
to God's ear" in a posting of Geoff Pullum's: "From [Stanley] Fish's
mouth to God's ear." Substantial number of hits, but it's not at
all clear what people are using the figure to convey: there are some
occurrences of "from your lips to God's ear" that seem to convey
nothing more than that God hears everything you say, but in most
occurrences of the figure something more complex is going on.
Almost immediately, Mank Mandel supplied a lead:
"From your lips to God's ear" is common
among at least some Jews as a reply to an expression of hope or good
wishes. I speculate that it may be a translation of a common Yiddish
(Also appearing in English as "from your mouth to God's ear".)
That is, what's conveyed is 'may God hear your words', contextualized
as polite receipt of praise. The expression has clearly been
extended for some speakers of English (many of them not Jewish) to a
wider set of contexts.
And at some point people varied the expression by allowing possessives
other than your
, to convey
'may God hear X's words'. That would be the snowcloning moment
(but see below).
Ben Sadock then supplied a Yiddish original:
dayn moyl in gots oyern. 'From your mouth to God's ears.'
Some versions have the expanded in
gots oyern arayn
The ones I've found all have moyl
'mouth'. Most have the plural oyern
rather than the singular oyer
and the second-person possessive
, but other versions have been
your mouth to God's ear
(or ... to
the Gates of Heaven
). May God hear what I/you say and act
upon it. Or, as defined in The
Taste of Yiddish
by Lillian Merwin Feinsilver (1970): 'Fun zayn moyl, in Gots oyer
Lit, From his mouth into God's ear. May God hear what he has said
(and fulfil it)!' The 'Gates of Heaven' may be an Arab version.
... The first expression my stem from Psalm 130:2: 'Lord, hear my
voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my
supplications'. The phrase also appears in the orthodox Jewish
is the best movie in the series since Diamonds
Are Forever ... I told him I thought it would take $30 million
in its opening weekend, to which he replied: 'From your lips to God's
ears.' Evening Standard
(London) (4 October 1995)
(Nigel Rees, Cassell's Dictionary of
Word and Phrase Origins
(2002), p. 90)
No doubt there are other variants in Yiddish.
In English, the raw Google webhits favor lips
and show a favoring of
concordance in number between the two nouns: lips ... ears
(9,100) over lips ... ear
(3,360), and mouth ... ear
(2,330) over mouth ... ears
Now, is this a snowclone -- or an idiom with an open slot in it?
In principle, a similar question arises for every putative snowclone
that has only one open slot, for instance:
What is this X of which you speak?
That's why they call it X.
We are all X now.
X is hard; let's go shopping!
X, call your office.
The once and future X.
Stupid X tricks.
Most of these are full sentences, though some are NPs. Now, most
expressions traditionally labeled "idioms" are on a smaller scale, but
many of them have open slots in them. Here are a few such VP
idioms with make
make something seem like a picnic
make someone sit up and take notice
make someone's skin crawl
make someone's day
(Note that the last two have a possessive open slot, just like the
God's Ear formula. There's a huge number of idioms with
possessive open slots in them. Please don't write me about
further examples of open-slotted idioms; idiom dictionaries are packed
Formulaic expressions that are full sentences are traditionally labeled
"proverbs" rather than idioms, and they are nearly completely fixed,
with no open slots in them (though ANY
available for the occasional playful variation, of course):
A fool and his money are soon parted.
Fools rush in (where angels fear to tread).
A stitch in time saves nine.
He who pays the piper calls the tune.
So one way to think of God's Ear is as a cross between an idiom with an
open slot in it and a proverb -- that is, as a big idiom (a sequence of
two PPs conveying a proposition) or as an open-slotted proverb (of
relatively recent invention). Indeed, snowclones in general might
be seen this way.
. What I
... over on ADS-L I recently started a
discussion of "Who are you and what have you done with X?", which I'd
contemplated using in a recent posting that mentioned my
granddaughter's alarm at being confronted by her mother speaking
German: "Who are you and what have you done with my mother?" The
figure is canonically used in situations where the speaker is
confronting someone who appears to be X but observes that this person
lacks some property or properties historically characteristic of X;
think Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Things are a bit tricky, though, because there are perfectly
straightforward uses of such expressions, as sequences of ordinary
questions. In any case, everybody seems to think that the figure
originated in a specific quotation (not in IBS, so far as I can tell), but so
far no one has a good candidate. And there are lots of instances
In what follows, I'll refer to the literal understanding of the two
questions in sequence as the "at face" interpretation and the
figurative understanding as the "impostor" interpretation.
The ensuing ADS-L discussion (and e-mail following up on my September
Language Log posting) went in many directions.
First, no one has found the figure, or anything like it, in any version
of Invasions of the Body Snatchers
is there, but not any formula.
Second, lots of people suggested some influence from the famous James
Thurber cartoon, with the caption "What have you done with Dr. Millmoss?":
But the question in the cartoon is entirely literal; there's no
suggestion that the hippopotamus is trying to pass itself off as Dr.
Millmoss (and every suggestion that the hippopotamus has eaten Dr.
M.). The Thurber cartoon, wonderful as it is, is a red herring.
Next, a similar digression that turns on mere similarity in form: Linda
Wilkinson citing the 1971 movie
title Who Is Harry Kellerman and
Why Is He Saying Those
Terrible Things About Me?
Though there might be the
beginning of another formula here.
Meanwhile, the hounds of ADS-L were on the antedating trail, trying to
find earlier and earlier instances of the impostor use of the
[Side note: antedating and sourcing can be fascinating, but for a
variety of reasons they're mostly not my thing. Establishing that
some usage is in fact current for some group of speakers shouldn't
commit you to a study of where, when, and why it originated and how it
spread. Not that these aren't interesting questions.]
This search into the (recent) past pulled up an awful lot of examples
that could be seen as at-face uses of Body Snatcher. That's what
happens when you search on strings. But several landmarks
Chris Waigl noted that there was a small flurry of impostor cites in
1997/8, possibly based on its appearance in the the film Ever After
(1998). From the imdb
Henry: Mother, Father, I want to build
a University, with the largest library on the continent, where anyone
can study, no matter their station!
King Francis: All right... Who are you... and what have you done with
Henry: [laughs] Oh, and I want to invite the gypsies to the ball!
Chris and I supposed that this was a secondary spread of an existing
snowclone. And there are earlier impostor cites. A few,
going back in time:
Who are you, and what have you done
with the real Jessica? (Deadly
Voyage by Francine Pascal, 1995, found by Jeff Prucher)
WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH NOT AL CRAWFORD? ("A.
Jing Hippy" responding to "Not Al Crawford" on alt.peeves, 1991, found
by Ben Zimmer)
Who are you really ? And what have you done with Ross Alexander ?
(on rec.motorcycles, 1990, found by Towse)
... when I took 500 mg. of diphetocaine which made me alert at bedtime
when Joey discussed his day at the office -- after which I
took 750 mg. of osculavenol and slept soundly through the night. This
morning I work up, dragged myself to the bathroom -- and found that I
was out of everything. When Joey came down for breakfast he screamed:
'Who are you and what have you done with Dorothy?' (Hold Me! by Jules Feiffer, 1977,
found by Towse)
Somewhere along the line, I noted that there was no particular reason
for the expression I started with to be the sole way of conveying the
impostor idea. Had it really become formulaic?
This turned out to be a hard question to answer. One thing
quickly became clear: other ways of expressing the impostor idea were
are you, and where is
my husband? I came home from work today
and the house was sparkling clean... What do I check to make sure
he hasn't become a pod person? (link
I'm pretty sure there isn't a chapter in a parenting book as to what to
do when your daughter wakes up one morning and says "I'm not eating
those ribs and please remove the pork fat and back from my collards.
Thanks." My father would look at me like, who are you and what happened to
daughter who could suck down a plate of ribs? (link
I have no easy way of determining how often one formulation is used
versus others. It might well be that the variant I started with
is the most common. But it's beginning to look like this is not
so much a figure of speech, tied to particular wording, as a figure of
thought -- much like systems of metaphor.
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 16, 2007 09:37 PM