It was 1995, and I’d just started my new job writing SpeakUp Movies: booklets designed to make original-version commercial movies comprehensible to Spanish-speaking students of English. A large part of the work involved writing an English-Spanish glossary to the screenplay. This glossary was to include notes on anything that we thought needed explanation or clarification: jokes, puns, non-standard grammar, difficult sentences, idioms, regionialisms, slang, cultural references, and so on.
My first assignment was ‘The Remains of the Day’. I started to draw up the bilingual word list, not quite sure what needed explanation and what didn’t. Then one of the characters mentioned a ‘pop-up toaster’. The bilingual dictionary translated this as tostadora automática, and I could simply have copied this into the glossary and left it at that, since the toaster wasn’t relevant to the plot. But even though I hadn’t taught English for fifteen years, I could almost hear the chorus of puzzled voices: “What means pop-up? Why? ¿Por qué?”
Back I went to the dictionary. (I’d better add here that this was just before the advent of the Internet, before the pop-up became an everyday irritant to millions across the world). For ‘pop-up book’ it suggested libro móbil, (mobile book) or libro mecánico (mechanical book) or the definition libro con ilustraciones en relieve (book with illustrations in relief).
And that was the moment when the germ of the idea for a book provisionally called Love Your English, well, popped into being.
While ‘automatic’ or ‘mechanical’ obviously referred to the function of the toaster, the word ‘popup’ evoked a whole bunch of vivid visual and auditory impressions. A pop-up toaster is one from which the toast pops up (and, all too often, out and onto your messy counter or even the floor – or doesn’t, and proceeds to belch black smoke, setting off the spine-chilling squawking of the smoke alarm.)
Back in ‘95, I wrote: “To pop up is a good example of the kind of vivid phrasal verb English is so fond of. Pop (reventar, disparar) conveys the idea of rapid motion. The toast therefore pops up (sube disparado) from the toaster. Here the verb has been turned into an adjective.”
It’s clear that ‘pop-up’ in itself is an incredibly concise and vivid way of qualifying a toaster. But what I realised was particularly fascinating was where it came from and how: the dynamics of English word formation.
‘Pop’, the root, the original word, is from Middle English ‘poppen’, which is of imitative origin: it obviously expresses a small explosion, a bursting, a fast movement. Pop goes the weasel. Snap, crackle and pop. Balloons pop – or we pop them. In its fast movement sense, we pop in and out of rooms, houses and shops, we pop up and down the stairs, we pop around to our sick neighbour, we pop over to the park or the pub. We can do it to stuff, too: we pop pills, pop lunch in the microwave and the baby in its cot. Ideas or words or bits of music pop into our heads, our eyes pop out of our heads…
The lines between noun, verb and adjective get blurry. Popcorn is corn that pops. Popeye the sailor man. A popover is a roll made from an egg batter which swells or pops over the top of the muffin tin while baking. A pop-under is an ad that opens in a separate browser window hidden under your current browser window .
Native English speakers take all this for granted, but when you try to put over the nuances and sensory impressions and the spirit of these words in translation, you begin to appreciate just how concise, expressive, lively, vivid, creative, supple and versatile English is.
As the Pringles slogan goes: ‘Once you pop, the fun doesn’t stop.’