An idiom is an expression that has the curious affectation of not making sense, strictly speaking. The meaning of an idiom can’t be derived from what the words in it say. In other words, the literal meaning is different from how it’s commonly used. For instance, if computer coding is easy for you, you might say it’s a piece of cake. To someone who had never heard that idiom they’d have no idea what coding has to do with baked goods. The literal meaning is nonsense but those of us aware of the idiom understand its idiomatic meaning.
English has thousands of idioms that range from cliches like “you can’t judge a book by its cover” to turns of phrase like “hit the sack.” But there are just as many idioms from other lands and languages that are delightful enough you might want to find a way to fit them into your everyday vernacular.
10. Nearly Every Language Has its Own Version of “It’s All Greek to Me”
If you don’t understand something you might use the idiom “it’s all Greek to me” to drive that point home. The meaning derived from this is that, whatever you’re referencing, may as well be written in another language because you just don’t get it. This makes sense for English-speaking people because many of them don’t actually speak Greek.
So what happens if you are Greek? The idiom certainly loses something in translation. Or how about if you speak a language known to be more difficult to master, something like Mandarin? You could argue Greek is easier to understand and therefore the idiom would have the opposite meaning.
Turns out nearly every language has its own version of this idiom and while some stick with Greek, many do not. If you speak Cantonese you’d say “it’s all chicken intestines” or ghost script while in Mandarin you’d bring up alien or heavenly languages.One Dutch version swaps Greek to Chinese. Finnish might use Hebrew. Someone speaking Korean might say “they’re speaking like dogs.”
9. “Wei Jie Died of Stares” is a Chinese Idiom About Celebrities and Fans
China has all manner of fun and unusual idioms that lose a bit of meaning when translated to English, but that’s to be expected sometimes. One of their most unusual yet oddly appropriate for the modern world is the saying “Wei Jie died of stares.”
Wei Jie was said to be a historical figure from China who worked as a court official in the 3rd or 4th century.He was also supposed to be stunningly good looking. So good looking, in fact, that everyone stared at him all the time and even when he arrived in a new city, the people couldn’t take their eyes off of him. According to the legend, he was in ill health and the people blocked the street to stare until finally he simply died under their watchful gazes. Thus, Wei Jie died of stares.
Today, the saying is something like “death by staring” and the meaning relates to something who is greatly admired or has a lot of adoring fans, something arguably appropriate for the social media age.
8. In China You Can Expel Smoke From Seven Orifices
We have a handful of popular idioms that can indicate or describe anger in English from “seeing red” to “biting someone’s head off.” Chinese offers up the remarkably unique idiom “qi qiao sheng yan” which has a literal translation of “spouting smoke through the seven orifices.”
You can see where the saying comes from to some degree, at least insofar as the imagery goes. Cartoons had a long tradition of showing a character getting angry by depicting them getting steamy around the collar or even having steam come out of their ears. So someone blowing smoke seems to be in the ballpark.
In English, the literal language sounds a little risque as well, but the seven orifices in question can all be found on the head – two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and one mouth.
7. “Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys” Comes from Poland
This unique phrase has actually crossed the cultural divide and has made its way to English, including in variant forms. The saying “not my circus, not my monkeys” is a colorful way to say something isn’t your problem. The Canadian show Letterkenny has used the variant “not my pig, not my farm” in an episode or two as well.
The original version seems to come from Poland, not traditionally known for their monkeys. The original wording is “Nie moj cyrk, nie moje malpy.” Pop that into Google translate and there’s no discrepancy at all, it literally means “not my circus, not my monkeys.
6. In Iceland, “I Took Him To The Bakery” Means to Dominate
There are a number of fun ways to express your power and dominance in word form. One popular and brief way that’s enjoyed in the modern world is to simply say you owned something. In fact, you can break that down to the single word “owned” and still convey the idiomatic meaning in context.
If you were in Iceland, you might say “Ég tók hann í bakaríið.” That translates to “I took him to the bakery.” In Icelandic the idiom is used often in a sporting context. So if you square off against an opponent in a game and win, you didn’t just defeat them, you took them to the bakery.
Someone attempted to discern the origin of the phrase online back in 2010 and was able to trace the origins to a 1982 slang dictionary in Iceland. The speculation was that the word bake was related to making or causing, as in causing trouble or causing damage but that’s just a guess.
5. In Sweden, “Pooping The Blue Cupboard” Means Doing Something Wrong
We said at the beginning that an idiom’s literal meaning is not the same as that idiomatic meaning and you probably can’t guess what the meaning of the term is based on the literal meanings. Sweden took this to heart with the idiom “to poop in the blue cupboard.”
On its own the phrase literally means, well… you can see what it means. But the figurative meaning is that you messed up. You took things too far, you made a fool of yourself, you got in trouble; something like that. The point is, you did something wrong. And, in that context, sure, pooping in the blue cupboard does seem like you messed up.
4. “The Last Coca-Cola in the Desert” Comes From Spanish Speaking Countries
If someone ever calls you the last Coca-Cola in the desert, they’re not paying you a compliment. The saying seems to be common in many Spanish speaking nations and you can find reference to it in Cuba and Venezuela and Mexico.
The saying means you’re a bit full of yourself or conceited, which you could arguably imagine might be the attitude of the last Coke in the desert since everyone would probably want it. Your best bet for using it in casual conversation is to shoot a dig at someone being arrogant by saying “you really think you’re the last Coke in the desert, don’t you?” or something along those lines.
3. “Horse Horse Tiger Tiger” Has a Curious History
Most idioms may not make sense in context but they tend to have some discernible meaning. Not so for the Chinese idiom “horse horse tiger tiger.” You can’t really clean much from two repeated words.
The saying actually means something akin to “it is what it is” or “so so” and it stands as a warning against carelessness as it refers to someone who’s been foolish. That’s definitely not a meaning you’d get from the words as presented.
There’s a story behind the idiom and it’s that, once upon a time an artist was drawing a tiger when someone requested he do a horse instead. So he put a horse’s body on the tiger’s head. Later, one of his sons saw it and asked what it was and the artist said it was a tiger. But when his younger son asked he said it was a horse.
One day, the eldest son was out and ran across a horse but, thinking it was a tiger, he killed it and thus the artist had to pay the horse’s owner for the loss. Meanwhile, the younger son ran across a tiger and thought it was a horse so he tried to ride it and died. That’s a whoops.
From then on, horse horse tiger tiger referred to someone being careless or something that was so so or, you know, not really good.
2. “May the Cat Eat You and May the Devil Eat The Cat” is an Irish Gaelic Curse
“Cat got your tongue” and “look what the cat dragged in” are some popular feline related idioms that you might run across in English but all the world loves a cat so it’s no surprise there are some other kitty quips out there. One of the oldest and most colorful comes to us from Irish Gaelic and it’s a full on curse.
If you have it in for someone and want to insult them, you could say “Go n-ithe an cat thu is go n-ithe an diabhal an cat” which translates to “may the cat eat you and may the devil eat the cat.”
The gist of the saying is that you should get screwed and then screwed again, but it’s a little more colorful than all that
1. Jack’s Infamous Typed Pages in “The Shining” Were Swapped with Other Translations Internationally
Stephen King’s “The Shining” is one of his most popular works thanks in no small part to Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation. And one of the most memorable scenes in that movie was when Shelley Duvall’s Wendy checks on the work that her husband Jack, played by Jack Nicholson, has been doing while the family has been isolated in the Overlook Hotel. Jack, a writer, has been typing up a novel only every typed page features the phrase “all work, and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over again. It’s when she fully realizes Jack has basically gone off the deep end.
Kubrick was known as an extremely meticulous filmmaker. He made actors do takes dozens upon dozens of times to get them right. He made Nicholson chop through a bathroom door with an ax at least 60 times. When it came to that typed page, he knew that the fil;m would be shown to non-English audiences and that meant people wouldn’t understand what was written on the page. To save audiences all over the world from having to read subtitles, Kubrick had the scene filmed several times with different papers typed in different languages.
The Italian version read “Il mattino ha l’oro in bocca” which means “the morning has gold in its mouth.” Germans got “was du heute kannst besorgen, das verschiebe nicht auf morgen” meaning “never put off until tomorrow what can be done today.”
The reference to Jack is lost but each phrase, and others in French and Spanish, were all quirky enough that knowing Jack Nicholson was maniacally typing them out over and over would have likely been off-putting to audiences in other countries.