Why do we say "It goes in one ear and out the other.

Well-Known Expressions

It goes in one ear and out the other

Meaning:

It is forgotten immediately; it makes no impression.

Background:

The first recorded use of this expression is in Geoffrey Chaucer's epic poem Troilus and Criseyde (c.1385), which re-tells the tragic story of two lovers set against the backdrop of the seige of Troy. A couple of centuries later around 1602, Shakespeare would give us his own rendition, titled Troilus and Cressida.

Thise wordes seyde he for the nones alle,
To helpe his freend, lest he for sorwe deyde.
For douteles, to doon his wo to falle,
He roughte not what unthrift that he seyde.
But Troilus, that neigh for sorwe deyde,
Tok litel hede of al that ever he mente;
Oon ere it herde, at the other out it wente:

You can probably get the gist of this without need of translation. The trick is to read it aloud, or at least aloud in your head, and you'll find that many of the strange looking words actually make sense. But, just in case, here is William Walter Skeat's 1900 translation of the same verse.

These words he said for the moment all
to help his friend, lest he for sorrow died:
doubtless to cause his woe to fall,
he cared not what nonsense he replied.
But Troilus, who nigh for sorrow died,
took little heed of anything he meant:
one ear heard it, at the other out it went:

And if you need help with the translation of this version, you're on your own!

I find it fascinating to see how much the English language has evolved from the Middle English of Chaucer's time, to Skeat's turn of the 20th century version, to how it would be translated today. Some say that the difference between the English and the Americans is an Englishman thinks 100 miles is a long way while the American thinks 100 years is a long time. You can probably guess what side of the Atlantic I was born on when I say that 1900 seems very tangible to me, and 1600 really doesn't feel all that long ago at all.

If it feels like a long time to you, try thinking of it this way: Let's assume that there's an average of 20 to 25 years between generations. That means that there are 4 to 5 generations in a century. If you knew your grandparents and they were able to tell you stories of their grandparents, you've got first hand experience going back 5+ generations. Is it so much of a stretch to think back, say, 30 generations to Chaucer's time; or 50, to the time of William the Conqueror; or how about 100 generations back to Pontius Pilate washing his hands of that troublesome Jesus affair?

Or, if you prefer, think of the oldest person you know and then think of the birth date of the oldest person they might have known when they were, say, 10 years old - and it's not a stretch to find you've traveled back 150 years in just two steps.

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