13 Ways to Express Common English Idioms in Other Languages

Palto, iStock / Getty Images Plus
Palto, iStock / Getty Images Plus

For native speakers of a language, idioms can capture just the right nuance of a particular situation. But for those who aren't intimately familiar with that language and culture, idioms often sound like a bunch of randomly thrown together words. If you were to ask students learning English for the first time to "think outside the box," for instance, they might wonder, "What box? Could you describe the box?"

Since idioms often describe a universal experience, similar idioms crop up in many languages. However, the variations in how cultures phrase these observations reflect differences in folklore, attitudes, and superstitions across the world. Here are 13 foreign analogs to familiar English-language idioms.

1. It's a Spanish Village to me. // Czech

English Equivalent: It's all Greek to me.

Whether muttered over laser printer manuals or calculus equations, it's all Greek to me conveys total confusion by referring to an “exotic” language. In fact, in addition to English, several other languages—including Swedish and Norwegian—call out the Greek language for being inscrutable [PDF]. But many Slavic languages—such as Czech, Slovak, Croatian, and Serbian—instead evoke the idea of the apparently unpronounceable names of Spanish towns. Czech speakers, for instance, convey their confusion by saying "je to pro mě španělská vesnice," or "it's a Spanish village to me."

2. To Belch Smoke From the Seven Orifices of the Head // Chinese

English Equivalent: For one's blood to boil

Most cultures have their jerks, bad drivers, and slow internet days, which is why most languages also have lots of colorful idioms for anger. While an English speaker’s blood boils, in China, the expression is 七窍生烟, or to belch smoke from the seven orifices of the head (referring to the ears, eyes, nostrils, and mouth). The element of air (Qi) is seen in Chinese philosophy as the Earth’s essential element, while in Western philosophy, water has often been considered the essential element. That's why, according to scholar Peilei Chen, Chinese idioms tend to refer to anger as something in the air—in this case, smoke—while English idioms tend to refer to it as something liquid, like boiling blood [PDF].

3. The Noonday Demon // French

English Equivalent: A midlife crisis

It’s only natural that different cultures employ phrases to define the bout of restlessness that often occurs in middle age. Rather than calling it a crisis, the French call it a demon: le démon de midi. Originally used in a religious context, this idiom with biblical roots [PDF] referred to the restlessness or depression felt in the middle of the day. Now used in the secular sense to refer to the restlessness associated with aging, this impish midday demon supposedly rouses the excitement of the condition’s sufferer and causes them to do foolish things—say, grow a ponytail, date a 20-year-old, or buy a Mazda MX-5.

4. To Give Someone Pumpkins // Spanish

English Equivalent: To shoot someone down

If you have a crush on someone, you do not want to be on the business end of the Spanish-language idiom dar calabazas, meaning to give someone pumpkins. The connection between pumpkins and rejecting advances is an old one in Spanish, and originally, seemingly literal—a turn-of-the-century American magazine called The Churchman explained in a 1902 issue that in Spain, “the suitor may be rejected by the gift of a pumpkin” at any time during a courtship.

5. The hen sees the snake’s feet and the snake sees the hen’s boobs. // Thai

English equivalent: To know where the bodies are buried

Though they're very similar, the Thai idiom ไก่เห็นตีนงู งูเห็นนมไก่ differs slightly its rough English equivalent, to know where the bodies are buried. The English idiom suggests that one person knows another’s secrets and somehow benefits. By giving the secret-knower a secret of his own, the Thai version adds a juicy dimension of intrigue.

6. Reheated Cabbage // Italian

English Equivalent: To rekindle an old flame

English speakers use heat to describe relationships and romance: Someone attractive is called "hot" or even "smoking hot," relationships are said to "heat up" or "fizzle," and people say they "carry a torch" for their exes—and perhaps seek to rekindle an old flame. Italians refer to a rekindled romance with a more unpleasant-sounding idiom. They call it "cavolo riscaldato," or "reheated cabbage." (Some also use minestra riscaldata, or reheated soup, instead.) Now that we think of it, the idea of reheated cabbage sounds pretty true to how the situation normally turns out—messy and ultimately disappointing.

7. The staircase wit // French

English Equivalent: Escalator wit

Though the idea of staircase wit (sometimes called stairway or escalator wit)—that terrible situation when the perfect retort comes to you a moment too late—isn't used very often in English, the French idiom l'esprit de l'escalier, or the staircase wit, is its more common Francophone counterpart. The idea is that its sufferer finds his or herself in a stairwell after the end of an argument, where they are granted witty inspiration just a few frustrating (maybe even smoke-belching) minutes too late to respond to their opponent.

8. One Afternoon in Your Next Reincarnation // Thai

English equivalent: When pigs fly

An adynaton is a hyperbolic statement meant to exaggerate impossibility, which many languages do by granting powers to animals. Anglophone pigs fly, Russian crayfish sing from mountaintops, and French hens grow teeth. But in the largely Buddhist Thai culture, things aren’t impossible; they just might not happen in this life. That's why Thai speakers say something might happen ชาติหน้าตอนบ่าย ๆ, or one afternoon in your next reincarnation.

9. To Throw Georges // Finnish

English equivalent: To blow chunks

Say the term “blow chunks” and many shudder with vague memories of ill-advised tequila shooters. Many Finns have similar associations with the phrase heittää Yrjöt, or throw Georges, which means to throw up. However, the etymology of this term is difficult to track down. One explanation seems to be an endemic distaste for the name Yrjö (George), while another chalks it up to onomatopoeia.

10. To Play Gooseberry // British English

American equivalent: To be a third wheel

Nothing is more annoying than a third wheel. The British term may be related to gooseberry picker, which may sound like a Cap’n Crunch variant, but was in fact a 19th-century term for a chaperone. In the case of this idiom, the chaperone would ostensibly busy themselves picking gooseberries while the two lovers enjoyed shenanigans behind their back.

11. A dog covered in feces scolds a dog covered in grain. // Korean

English equivalent: Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

Even though it’s essentially sacrilegious to show disdain for dogs these days in American culture, our revered best buddies of the animal kingdom have historically served as metaphors for dirty or unsavory behavior. And there’s something about being both judgmental and covered in poop that just screams “unsavory," which is why we love the Korean idiom 똥 묻은 개가 겨 묻은 개 나무란다. In English, those who live in glass houses should not throw stones traces its origins back to (at least) Chaucer and is probably related to Jesus’s Biblical admonishment about being sinful and casting stones. While the Anglophone world throws things at people they shouldn’t criticize, in Korea, the poop-covered dog criticizes one above his social rank and is therefore stepping out of line socially. A big no-no.

12. Pay the Duck // Portuguese

English equivalent: Take the fall (for something)

The Portuguese idiom pagar o pato is said to come from an old fable where a poor wife tried to pay a duck vendor with sexual favors. A dispute broke out concerning the cost of the duck, during which time the husband arrived home and paid for the duck. By doing so, he took the fall, the wife was off the hook, and the vendor got pretty much everything he could possibly want.

13. To Wear a Cat on One’s Head // Japanese

English equivalent: A wolf in sheep’s clothing

Cats do in idioms what cats do in life—which is anything they want, ungoverned by laws of nature. They die via curiosity, live multiple lives, get our tongues, and come out of bags to reveal our secrets. The Japanese adore cats (the country is home to Cat Island, after all), so hiding beneath one—猫をかぶる, or to wear a cat on one's head—implies that you're shamefully using a lovable furball to hide your dangerous nature, à la the English expression a wolf in sheep's clothing.

13 Words That Changed From Negative to Positive Meanings (or Vice Versa)

grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images
grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images

One of the main reasons for the existence of slang is to keep the outsiders from understanding the insiders. Making up new words is one way to achieve this, but it’s not the only one. A favorite trick for the young to play on the old is to take an established word and completely change its connotations from bad to good. In recent decades we’ve seen sick, wicked, ill, and bad recruited to the “hearty positive endorsement” side. While some would lament the decline of language suggested by such wanton disregard for word meaning, this kind of meaning switch is nothing new. Here are 13 fine, upstanding words that long ago switched from negative to positive (or vice versa).

1. Fun

Fun was first a verb meaning "to cheat or hoax." It came from fon, an old word for "fool." It still retains some of that sense in “make fun of,” but now also means "a merry good time."

2. Fond

Fond also goes back to fon, and it once meant "foolish and weak-minded." It came to then mean over-affectionate in a negative, cloying way. Now it’s positive, but at root, being fond of something is basically being a fool for it.

3. Terrific

The root of terrific is terror, and it first meant terror-inducing. It then became an exaggerated intensifier (“terrifically good!” = so good it’s terrifying) and then a positive term all on its own.

4. Tremendous

Like terrific, tremendous has its roots in fear. Something tremendous was so terrible it caused trembling or shaking. It also became an intensifier (“tremendously good!”) before it went all the way positive.

5. Awe

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, awe originally referred to “immediate and active fear.” It then became associated with religious, reverential fear, and then to a feeling of being humbled at the sublime. While awful retains the negative sense, awesome took on the positive one.

6. Grin

To grin was to bare the teeth in a threatening display of anger or pain. It then became the term for a forced, fake smile, before settling into an expression of happiness.

7. Smart

Smart was first used in Old English to describe things that cause pain. Weapons, nails, and darts were smart. Shakespeare’s Henry VI has the phrase “as smart as lizards’ stings.” It took on connotations of sharpness, quickness, intensity, and, through smart, pain-causing words or wit came to stand for quick intelligence and fashionableness.

8. Egregious

Egregious was a positive word that turned negative. It used to mean "eminent and distinguished," but because people started using it sarcastically, it came to mean "bad and offensive."

9. Sad

Sad started with the meaning of "satisfied or sated," also sometimes "steadfast" or "firm." It then went from meaning "serious," to "grave," to "sorrowful."

10. Smug

Smug first meant "crisp, tidy, and presentable." A well-dressed person was smug in this way, and it later came to mean "self-satisfied and conceited."

11. Devious

Devious comes from de via, "off the way." It once meant "distant" or "off the road." It took on the meaning of wandering—there were devious comets, devious minnows—and, because to do wrong was to stray from the right path, it eventually came to mean "scheming and deceitful."

12. Facetious

To be facetious was once to have elegant, gracious, high style, and to be jokey and witty. It came from a Latin term for playful humorousness. It is still connected with a type of humor, but with an unproductive or annoying connotation.

13. Bully

Bully used to be a term of endearment for men or women. A bully could be a good friend or a sweetheart. It then came to stand for a swaggering braggart and than a coward who picks on others.

This list was first published in 2015 and republished in 2019.

22 Weird Jobs From 100 Years Ago

Metal Floss via YouTube
Metal Floss via YouTube

Before everyone started working in tech, people actually had their choice of eclectic and strange vocations that put food on their old-timey tables. Discover what lamplighters, lectores, and knocker-uppers did back in the day as Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy runs down 22 Weird Old Jobs from 100 Years Ago.

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