Posted on Friday, December 11, 2009
Category: Etymology, Languages
You probably use idioms in your language every day without thinking – but the meanings of those idioms can be mystifying for non-native speakers.
Idioms are fixed expressions whose meanings aren’t easily derived from their surface elements, so translating them word-for-word or without human translators can lead to puzzling results.
Although many of their meanings are shared across cultures, idioms vary from language to language in fascinating ways that can speak volumes.
Do any of these idioms sound familiar?
1. De yu wang quan. (“Forget the trap as soon as the fish is caught.”)
This Chinese expression might sound similar to one of the idioms in the English language. The direct Chinese translation suggests that the end result is all that matters, just like in “the ends justify the means.”
2. An xia hu lu fu qi piao. (“Just as one gourd has been pushed under water, another bobs up.”)
Even though idioms in another language may sound unusual, they often have a familiar meaning. This phrase reminds us how solving one problem often creates one more. In other words, if it’s not one thing, it’s another.
3. Wachten tot je een ons weegt. (“Wait until you weigh an ounce.”)
Idioms in another language might seem confusing at first – but there’s a similar expression in English. When you’re waiting for something that will never happen, you’ll be “waiting until the cows come home.”
4. “Een huishouden van Jan Steen” (“A household by Jan Steen”)
The famous Dutch artist Jan Steen’s painting of a messy room serves as inspiration for this expression. It’s another version of the idioms in many languages that describe a total mess – a “pigsty” in English.
5. Avoir d’autres chats à fouetter (“Have other cats to whip”)
English speakers might be familiar with a similar violent idiom in their own language. If you have other things to handle, you have “other fish to fry.”
6. Tomber de Charybde en Scylla (“Fall from Charybdis to Scylla”)
This idiom from another language might be familiar to fans of Odysseus. The French version of “out of the frying pan and into the fire” refers to the two mythical monsters that sailors had to pass to get to safety. Unlucky travelers often avoided one, only to fall prey to another.
7. Wie ein Murmeltier schlafen (“Sleep like a marmot.”)
In similar idioms in the English language, “sleep like a log” and “sleep like a dog” indicate that you have had a good night’s rest. In German, referencing a marmot means you’ve gotten your sleep.
8. Ich will Dir keinen Baeren aufbinden. (“I don’t fasten a bear to you.”)
Another of the idioms in the German language about furry creatures, this is another way of saying that I’m not “pulling your leg.”
9. A toro pasado (“By the bull gone past”)
There are idioms in every language about taking a new view of past events. This Spanish idiom refers to seeing something “in hindsight.”
10. Andar como burro sin mecate (“Walk like a donkey without a leash”)
A donkey with free rein must be pretty wild to have inspired these idioms. In the Spanish language, this popular phrase describes someone who is out of control.