I’ve been contacted recently by a company wanting to know if I could help one of their clients train their writers to produce copy which would be accessible to non-native speakers. I responded mentioning the recent experience of a client of mine, whose Russian client was sounding off about the absurdities of English: “‘Washing up.’ Why ‘up’? What is up?” Beyond trying to develop an ear for such ‘literal traps’, avoiding obvious localisms and keeping it simple, I said, what other advice could one offer?
I’m still not sure what the answer to that might be, but by happy coincidence, I ran a short time later across a good example of an ‘obvious localism’:
I’ve often heard and used the expression “mad as a hatter”, but never knew where it came from till today’s visit to the light house on the White Cliffs of Dover. The guide explained that the light rotated on a bed of mercury, but was quite safe. As compared with hat makers, who used to work with heated mercury in their process, which gave rise to poisonous vapours which over time could lead to insanity. Hence “mad as a hatter”.