Some time back, I sent a WhatsApp message to the office of a top government official to ask if the official would come to my TV show. The reply I got was “don’t hold your breath”. I smiled to myself and replied I won’t “hold my breath”. When I told friends and colleagues about the reply, they gave me a blank stare. It turned out most of them did not understand the meaning of “don’t hold your breath”. It’s a common expression which fluent English speakers often use. I was surprised so many of my friends didn’t know its meaning.
The expression has a simple meaning but the words that make it up can be confusing to people who are not fluent English speakers. If you “hold your breath”, it means to stop breathing. It is, of course, almost impossible for people to hold their breath until they die. It is natural for people to breathe again when they can no longer hold their breath. Professional divers can hold their breath for a long time but they still need to surface to breathe. The expression “don’t hold your breath” means don’t wait for something to happen when it is very unlikely it will happen. In other words, don’t stop breathing to wait for something to happen when there is very little possibility it will happen.
When the office of the official I invited to my show told me “don’t hold your breath”, he meant the official will not come, so don’t stop breathing to wait for the official to come. If people give you a “blank stare”, it means they have a plain facial expression that shows they don’t understand what you have said. I have a blank stare every time Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor insists the national security law has not affected free speech. Now that I have explained the meaning of “don’t hold your breath”, I am sure people will not give me a blank stare when I use it.
不久前，我給一位政府高官的辦公室傳了一個WhatsApp短訊，問那位官員可否上來我的電視節目。我收到的回覆是“don’t hold your breath”。我暗自微笑，回覆道我不會“hold my breath”。當我跟我的朋友和同事談起這個回覆時，他們都給我一個茫然的眼神（blank stare），原來他們大多不知道“don’t hold your breath”的意思。這是一個很常見的習語，操流利英語的人很常使用。我很驚訝我有那麼多朋友不知道它的意思。
這個習語的意思非常簡單，但其組成的字詞可能會令那些英語不甚流利的人相當困惑。若你“hold your breath”，意即屏息靜氣、停止呼吸；那當然，除非人死了，否則幾乎不可能會有人可以一直閉氣（hold their breath）。當人不能再閉氣（hold their breath），很自然就會回復呼吸。專業的潛水員可以長時間閉氣（hold their breath），但他們仍然需要回到水面呼吸。習語“don’t hold your breath”意即不要等待某事了，因為那事不大可能會發生。換句話說，當某事發生的可能性微乎其微，就別屏息凝氣靜待它會發生了。
當我邀請的那位官員的辦公室跟我說“don’t hold your breath”，他的意思是那位官員不會來的了，所以別屏息凝氣靜候那位官員到來了。若人們給你一個“blank stare”，意即他們木無表情、很茫然的沒有反應，因為不明白你在說甚麼。每一次特首林鄭月娥堅持《國安法》並未影響言論自由，我都是一臉茫然（blank stare）。現在我已解釋了“don’t hold your breath”的意思，相信我再用這個習語之時，人們不會再給我一個茫然的神情（blank stare）了吧！中譯：七刻
Michael Chugani 褚簡寧