25

There is a Hungarian idiom "cataract-smith" (hályogkovács) which means a person who is instinctively very good at a complex task, without formal learning, being successful either because of being good at self-learning or having a good instinct. However, if someone tried to teach that person in a formal way, it would actually hinder, not help. This last issue is also an important part of the idiom.

The source is a story of a common village blacksmith from the 19th century, who, despite never having studied medicine, was very good at operating on cataracts. He got so famous among the common village folk that they went to him instead of real doctors for eye surgeries. Once some famous eye-surgeon heard about his story and was curious to test him (or, in a different version, there was a patient in a condition even the most experienced surgeon didn't see any chance for a successful operation). So, the smith came up to the patient, witnessed by experienced eye surgeons, he took out a rusty pocket knife, and removed a very difficult cataract (regarded as impossible by the doctors) very easily in just a few quick hand movements.

One of the doctors was horrified by this, and got angry how careless the blacksmith was, and started to explain how delicate the eye is, showed pictures of the interior of the eye, showed where the nerves are, explained how sensitive they are, how just the slightest mistake can make the patient permanently blind, showed what kind of fine, delicate scalpels the real doctors are working with (instead of a dull, rusty pocket knife), and scolded him for how reckless he was. The blacksmith, who've never seen such magnified images of the interior of the eye before, was mesmerized by it. He then tried to proceed with the other eye of the patient, which had a very mild cataract, so simple even a beginner surgeon could easily remove it, but his hands were trembling so much he didn't dare starting the operation, and he never touched a cataract ever again.

Edit: I've been thinking about its more common usage today, and it usually implies doing a risky job without any formal training, and succeeding while others are doubting success.

  • 3
    I think the closest thing in English is an analogy: it's like thinking about breathing. – G. Ann - SonarSource Team Aug 12 '16 at 14:22
  • With a God-given talent (power) – V.V. Aug 12 '16 at 15:42
  • Now that I've read your story, I would be inclined to perfectly understand the idiom "cataract-smith" if someone were to use it in conversation. The closest comparison in present English that I can think of is beginner's luck but it unfortunately implies that the success only occurs once. – MonkeyZeus Aug 12 '16 at 18:52
  • After thinking about it more, I offer you hack-job – MonkeyZeus Aug 12 '16 at 18:56
18

There is a fairly well-known fable about a centipede who was asked how he could keep his hundred legs moving in the correct order when he walked - and as soon as he thought about it, quite lost the ability to walk. This blog post is one of many retellings of the story I found on a quick internet search. That's a close parallel to the Hungarian story about the smith.

So you could refer to "the centipede who forgot how to walk when someone asked him how he did it". However the centipede story is not so famous that it has given rise to an idiom of its own in the way that "cataract-smith" has become an idiom in Hungarian. I can't think of a one or two word translation for "cataract-smith"; you would have to explain a little more.


After writing the above I did another internet search and found out that there is a quick way of referring to this story: according to this Wikipedia entry it is known as "The Centipede's Dilemma", and the story originated with a particular poem published in the 1870s rather than being an old folk tale as I had thought. But I must say that I had not heard the specific phrase "The Centipede's Dilemma" before today.

  • That is very cool! +1 – anongoodnurse Aug 12 '16 at 21:57
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    Ditto. I was familiar with the centipede story, and I was about to mention it (as another illustration of the "Too much analysis leads to paralysis" adage, like Wile E. Coyote) when I saw your post.  But I didn't know that it was called "The Centipede's Dilemma" either. – Scott Aug 12 '16 at 22:14
  • I'd never heard of the centipede story before now myself! – Wayne Werner Aug 13 '16 at 13:31
17

It sounds like the smith was a natural:

(Of a person) born with a particular skill, quality, or ability; A person regarded as having an innate gift or talent for a particular task or activity. - OED

I don't think there's a counterpart on the ability lost.

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    An extreme example, for the ability lost, from English-speaking culture would be the coyote from the roadrunner cartoons: he is able to walk off a cliff and walk on thin air, but when he looks down, he falls. – vsz Aug 12 '16 at 9:20
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    Actually, Medica, I believe the cataract-smith was terrified by the doctors' admonitions and thus panicked when trying to operate on the second eye. However, while he was blissfully ignorant of the dangers of operating on the eye, his natural talent saw him through. – Omnidisciplinarianist Aug 12 '16 at 21:16
  • @Omnidisciplinarianist - Yep. I don't have a word that encompasses the sudden fear and loss of confidence that the new knowledge brings. – anongoodnurse Aug 12 '16 at 21:56
7

There is no direct translation of this idiom into English.

A close analogy might be Savant (previously 'Idiot Savant', now correctly deemed offensive to people with the condition.) This refers to someone who has keen skills, usually untrained, in one specific area but is otherwise not academically accomplished. It is part of the autism spectrum. (Savant syndrome, on Wikipedia)

Taking the example rather than the strict definition for guidance, the Cataract Smith was suffering from what we might call 'Stage Fright' - that is to say, nervousness and self-doubt caused by performing in front of a shrewd audience.

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    Hi @Ash, welcome to ELU. We prefer answers to have references to back them up, see medica's and Saturana's answers to this question. I looked "Savant" up on dictionary.com where the only definition is "a man of great/extensive learning". Can you find any source which supports your claim that it means "someone with keen skills but no training". I've only ever heard it in respect to knowledge (including with "Idiot Savants") and not skills. – AndyT Aug 12 '16 at 10:22
  • @AndyT, it looks to me as if Ash intended the definition "someone who has keen skills, usually untrained, in one specific area but is otherwise not academically accomplished" to apply to the entire phrase "idiot savant", not just to the word "savant" on its own. – Lostinfrance Aug 12 '16 at 13:38
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    That said, I believe the usual meaning of the phrase "idiot savant" is that it describes a person who, with the exception of one area of exceptional competence, is actually mentally disabled. The cataract-smith was meant to be uneducated but of normal intelligence. – Lostinfrance Aug 12 '16 at 13:43
6

It doesn't exactly match but you could call it getting the yips which is usually associated with golfers who, having once been very proficient putters, develop an involuntary wrist spasm causing them to badly lose form.

Wikipedia describes it as a loss of fine motor skills in athletes. The condition occurs most often in sports which athletes are required to perform a single precise and well-timed action such as golf and darts. Some can recover but many are forced to abandon their sport at the highest level.

But I think outside of sport it can be used as a general term for performance anxiety, particularly where it causes a loss of fine motor skills and potentially, as per the question, from some dawning realisation of the consequences of one's actions.

"It was easy juggling with eggs but when I found out they were priceless Faberge eggs I got the yips and dropped them all" - best example I could think of I'm afraid.

protected by tchrist Sep 10 '16 at 0:29

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