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.

The Ohio State University Is Trying to Trademark the ‘The’ in Its Name

As any good Ohioan knows, there’s a big difference between an Ohio state university and The Ohio State University. But with countless other public colleges across the state, including the similarly named Ohio University, it’s not hard for out-of-towners or prospective students to get confused. To further distinguish themselves from other institutions (and to capitalize on merchandise opportunities, no doubt), The Ohio State University is pursuing a trademark for the The in its name.

According to Smithsonian.com, trademark lawyer Josh Gerben first broke the news on Twitter, where he shared a short video that included the trademark application itself, as well as examples of how the university plans to use the word on apparel. One is a white hat emblazoned with a red THE, and the other is a red scoop-necked T-shirt with a white THE and the Ohio State logo beneath it. Gerben predicts that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will initially deny the trademark request on the basis that those examples aren’t sufficient trademark use, but the university would have an opportunity to try again.

The Columbus Dispatch reports that university spokesperson Chris Davey confirmed the trademark application, saying that “Ohio State works to vigorously protect the university’s brand and trademarks.” He’s not exaggerating; the university has secured trademarks for legendary coaches Urban Meyer and Woody Hayes, plus more than 150 trademarks and pending applications across an impressive 17 countries.

The school's 2017 request to trademark the initials "OSU" provoked an objection from Oklahoma State University, which is also known as OSU, but the two schools eventually decided that they could both use it, as long as each refrained from producing clothing or content that could cause confusion about which school was being referenced.

The Ohio State University, perhaps most famous for its marching band, public research endeavors, and legendary athletic teams, is not impervious to social media mockery, however.

Ohio University responded with this:

And the University of Michigan, OSU’s longtime sports rival, suggested that it should trademark of:

However bizarre this trademark may seem, it's far from the weirdest request th Patent and Trademark Office has ever received. Check out these colors and scents that are also trademarked.

[h/t Smithsonian.com]

Where Did the Term Brownie Points Come From?

bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

In a Los Angeles Times column published on March 15, 1951, writer Marvin Miles observed a peculiar phrase spreading throughout his circle of friends and the social scene at large. While standing in an elevator, he overheard the man next to him lamenting “lost brownie points.” Later, in a bar, a friend of Miles's who had stayed out too late said he would never “catch up” on his brownie points.

Miles was perplexed. “What esoteric cult was this that immersed men in pixie mathematics?” he wrote. It was, his colleagues explained, a way of keeping “score” with their spouses, of tallying the goodwill they had accrued with the “little woman.”

Over the decades, the phrase brownie points has become synonymous with currying favor, often with authority figures such as teachers or employers. So where exactly did the term come from, and what happens when you “earn” them?

The most pervasive explanation is that the phrase originated with the Brownies, a subsect of the Girl Scouts who were encouraged to perform good deeds in their communities. The Brownies were often too young to be official Girl Scouts and were sometimes the siblings of older members. Originally called Rosebuds in the UK, they were renamed Brownies when the first troops were being organized in 1916. Sir Robert Baden-Powell, who had formed the Boy Scouts and was asked to name this new Girl Scout division, dubbed them Brownies after the magical creatures of Scottish folklore that materialized to selflessly help with household chores.

But the Brownies are not the only potential source. In the 1930s, kids who signed up to deliver magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal from Curtis Publishing were eligible for vouchers labeled greenies and brownies that they could redeem for merchandise. They were not explicitly dubbed brownie points, but it’s not hard to imagine kids applying a points system to the brownies they earned.

The term could also have been the result of wartime rationing in the 1940s, where red and brown ration points could be redeemed for meats.

The phrase didn’t really seem to pick up steam until Miles's column was published. In this context, the married men speaking to Miles believed brownie points could be collected by husbands who remembered birthdays and anniversaries, stopped to pick up the dry cleaning, mailed letters, and didn’t spend long nights in pubs speaking to newspaper columnists. The goal, these husbands explained, was never to get ahead; they merely wanted to be considered somewhat respectable in the eyes of their wives.

Later, possibly as a result of its usage in print, grade school students took the phrase to mean an unnecessary devotion to teachers in order to win them over. At a family and faculty meeting at Leon High in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1956, earning brownie points was said to be a serious problem. Also called apple polishing, it prompted other students in class to shame their peers for being friendly to teachers. As a result, some were “reluctant to be civil” for fear they would be harassed for sucking up.

In the decades since that time, the idiom has become attached to any act where goodwill can be expected in return, particularly if it’s from someone in a position to reward the act with good grades or a promotion. As for Miles: the columnist declared his understanding of brownie points came only after a long night of investigation. Arriving home late, he said, rendered him “pointless.”

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