If you are, or have ever been, a learner of a foreign language, it is likely that there have been occasions when the language you’re attempting to pick up has pulled a fast one on you. Welcome to the whimsical world of idioms! Just when you think you’ve grasped the intricacies of the German language, you’ll hear someone say that they ‘think they’ve been kissed by a moose’1. You will start to believe you can converse with the Polish family of your significant other, until their grandmother tells you that learning Polish is ‘a roll with butter’2. You might feel like you’ve just about mastered French, and next thing you know your friend tells you that she’s ‘becoming a goat’3.
Idioms are arguably the most colourful aspect of any language. Some are funny, some are shocking, others make no sense whatsoever and leave you in a puddle of confused tears. When learning a foreign language, or indeed performing a translation, understanding idioms is key if you want to avoid barking up the wrong tree. The topic of idioms could easily fill the pages of countless books, but here is a little taster of just how imaginative languages can be…
Tomatoes on your eyes: food-related idioms
Food and drink is a theme often found in idioms. A Spanish person who is in good health is said to be ‘healthier than a pear’ (estar más sano que una pera), while a person who is hopping mad is one that ‘is made of chilli’ (estar hecho un ají). A Romanian will not lie to you, he will ‘sell you doughnuts’ (vinde gogoși), which as a result may ‘take you out of your watermelons’ (Îl scoți din pepeni) – drive you nuts. A Romanian who complains about something will say that it is ‘cabbage’ – his life is ‘cabbage’, his work is ‘cabbage’, his house is ‘cabbage’ (varză). Russians don’t lie to you, either – they hang noodles on your ears (вешать лапшу на уши). To describe someone who has not had to put much effort to achieve what they have, a Swede will say that person has ‘slid in on a shrimp sandwich’ (Att glida in på en räkmacka). Instead of ‘What has that got to do with anything?!’, a confused Pole might instead say, ‘What has gingerbread got to do with a windmill?’ (Co ma piernik do wiatraka?). A Pole who has caused trouble is said to have ‘brewed some beer’ (nawarzyć piwa), while one who daydreams can be described as one who is ‘thinking about blue almonds’ (myśleć o niebieskich migdałach). The French may or may not like to ‘take care of their own onions’ (s’occuper de ses oignons) – mind their own business. They probably don’t like to ‘fall into the apples’ (tomber dans les pommes) – faint, and most of them probably like to have a fat morning (faire la grasse matinée) – to sleep in. It is no secret that Germans like their wurst, and their love for sausages has seeped into the language. A German who ‘asks for an extra sausage’ (eine Extrawurst verlangen) is asking for special treatment (granted, in some cases they may actually be asking for an extra sausage). A German who is in a huff is said to be ‘playing the insulted sausage’ (die beleidigte Leberwurst spielen). Have you been oblivious to all these wonderful turns of phrase? The Germans would say that you have had ‘tomatoes on your eyes’ (Tomaten auf den Augen haben) – to be oblivious to what is going on.
Little monkeys inside your head: animal-related idioms
Looking at idioms in many languages, it is clear that animals are also a frequent source of inspiration all around the world. If a French person has been stood up, their no-show friend has ‘put up a rabbit’ for them (poser un lapin). This may cause the abandoned Frenchman to ‘have a cockroach’ – be depressed (avoir le cafard). If a Frenchman ‘jumps from the chicken to the donkey’ (sauter du coq à l’âne), he is jumping from one subject to the next, and he might well be told: ‘Let’s return to our sheep’ (revenons à nos moutons), or – let’s get back to the topic at hand. The Portuguese may comment on the above examples that the French ‘have little monkeys inside their heads’ (ter macaquinhos na cabeça), or simply put – strange ideas. Their own ideas about animals and language may be considered just as strange, however – Portuguese people do not give up, they ‘take their little horse away from the rain’ (tirar o cavalinho da chuva), and they are not suspicious, but instead they ‘have a flea behind their ear’ (Estar com a pulga atrás da orelha). Russians don’t exaggerate – they make an elephant out of a fly (делать из мухи слона). Instead of asking children why they are crying, Hungarians ask them why they are ‘giving drinks to the mice’ (Miért itatod az egereket?). The Germans seem linguistically fond of pigs: people who ‘have a pig’ (Schwein haben) are lucky, while those who are surprised ‘think their pig whistles’ (Ich glaub mein Schwein pfeift). Other species also feature in the idioms of Deutschland: to bamboozle someone is to ‘tie a bear on someone’ (Jemandem einen Bären aufbinden), a German who feels taken advantage of will say that they ‘are not a cow to be milked’ (Ich bin keine Kuh, die man melken kann), and the promise of a smashing party is a promise of ‘a bear dancing there’ (Da steppt der Bär). Cats are a recurring feature in Japanese idioms, where pretending to be harmless is ‘to wear a cat on one’s head’ (猫をかぶる), a tiny space is a ‘cat’s forehead’ (猫の額), and to be so busy that you’re willing to accept help from anyone is ‘to be willing to borrow a cat’s paws’ (猫の手も借りたい). Thai offers an animal-inspired and amusingly apt linguistic metaphor for two people knowing each other’s secrets: ไก่เห็นตีนงู งูเห็นนมไก่, which means ‘the hen sees the snake’s feet and the snake sees the hen’s boobs’.
Curly minds: anything-related idioms
Finally, I would like to share a few amusing examples that escape attempts at categorisation. A Frenchman who drinks excessively will ‘drink like a hole’ (boire comme un trou), and will undoubtedly ‘have a wooden face’ (avoir la geule de bois), or have a hangover, the next day. The Finns, rather patriotically, do not think that someone is crazy, but instead they doubt whether that person ‘has all the Moomins in the valley’ (olla kaikki muumit laaksoss). Angry Finns don’t threaten to kill you, they offer to ‘take you behind the sauna’ (viedä saunan taakse). A German does not talk someone’s ear off, but – somewhat more graphically – he ‘chews’ someone’s ear off (ein Ohr abkauen). A Polish person who is angry with you will not tell you to go to hell, he will tell you to ‘stuff yourself with hay’ (wypchać się sianem). A Portuguese does not cause problems, he ‘breaks all the dishes’ (partir a loiça toda), while a Romanian does not have strange and unusual ideas, he has a ‘curly mind’ (minte creață).
Looking at all the examples mentioned here, I think we all have curly minds – not matter what part of the world we come from.
1. Ich glaub mich knutscht ein Elch (lit. I think I have been kissed by a moose) – a phrase to express surprise.
2. Bułka z masłem (lit. a roll with butter) – a piece of cake.
3. Devenir chèvre (lit. to become a goat) – to become angry.