A teacher, novelist, poet and the co-author with his wife of over fifty books dealing with idioms, John Bell Smithback's interest in words and word origins began when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Southern California in the United States where he majored in English and Comparative Literature. He began his teaching career in Mexico, and it was while instructing English as a Foreign Language that he became aware of the important role idioms play in the understanding of a language, and particularly in English. It was at that time that he began writing down and recording these remarkable terms, words and phrases, a practice that would ultimately occupy his life and become his profession. His first four books on the subject of idioms were published by The Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1981, illustrated by his wife, Ching Yee. They met in one of his advanced English classes while she was taking courses at the University in preparation for future studies abroad. She had recently graduated with a degree in Nursing but felt, she said, that her English "needed some brushing up."
Their initial books -- entitled IDIOM-MAGIC 西 洋 妙 語 -- met with immediate success and changed the course of their lives. They soon created a daily newspaper column designed to explain English idioms to readers in Asia. Aimed principally at students who were learning English as a Second Language, it wasn't long before the column was of interest to nearly everyone - including native speakers - curious to know more about these odd and sometimes curious constructions within our language. They may have been attracted by Ching Yee's clever illustrations. "She does the hard work," John says. "All I have to do is write one humorous short story 365 days of the year to accompany her drawings."
Today the column is 25 years old and appears daily in a number of major newspapers and magazines in a dozen or more countries in Asia and Europe. From the work, they have produced more than fifty illustrated books and learning cards that have been published in Sweden, France, Germany, Spain, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, China and the United States. John and Ching Yee estimate they have illustrated and defined close to 5,000 English idioms, proverbs, catch-phrases and slang terms. To this, they have added new collections entitled FUN WITH VERBS, THE BOOK OF ENGLISH - POP AND SLANG, and MODERN COLLOQUIAL ENGLISH. They have also produced several books entitled FUN WITH CHINESE IDIOMS which define and explain Chinese idioms for English speakers.
Describing themselves as "literary gypsies" they have lived in various countries - Hong Kong, Portugal, Singapore and France - while producing their column and books. Until recently,
they resided in England where they lived close to
Shakespeare's birthplace at Stratford-upon-Avon.