What's in an Idiom?: 10 Idioms from different cultures.

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The Key to Really Being Fluent in a Language is the Mastery of its Idioms

What's an idiom, you ask? It's effectively a  figure of speech that's native to that culture and is commonly used. The show Archer explains it pretty well. These phrases explore a sentiment, rather than its literal meaning, and often hark back to a strain of pop culture, lore or history that is generally expected to be understood by everyone in that culture. 

As per the Archer example 'lend me your ears' is a fundamentally English phrase that obviously doesn't mean you should hack your ears off, but instead expresses the sentiment that you should be paid attention to as a leader. It also has subliminal emotive resonances of power, class, dignity and high-standing (even pompousness) due to the origin of the line being from Julius Ceasar by William Shakespeare. Not only is Shakespeare a well respected writer, but Julius Ceasar is the most famous Roman in Western history and the two have has a long history of being glorified in the English education system of the classics. Even the way Western cultures approach history is very much based on these classical figures because of the worship of classical culture in the formative Renaissance and how this dribbled across into modern education. Basically, one little phrase can tell you a huge amount about the cultural history and mindset of the people who use it, if you're willing to dig into it. Even when it's not loaded with history or literature, it can show a pretty visual and entertaining way of viewing the world.

So here are a few pretty interesting examples of non English idioms....

1) “Dağ doğura doğura bir fare doğurmuş”  - Turkish
"A Mountain tried and tried, but gave birth to a mouse."

This Turkish phrase is a particularly pretty way of effectively saying 'that's too bad' or 'what a letdown/disappointment

2) "Alimentar um burro a pão-de-ló" - Portuguese
"To feed the donkey sponge cake"

Effectively this means to give someone something positive that they don't deserve. it's an entertaining twist on the 'pearls before swine' phrase in the bible.

I...um...point made?
3) "Dar calabazas a alguien" - Spanish

"To give someone pumpkins"

This is basically another way of saying you reject someone, as in you have turned them down. In ancient greece pumpkins were seen as an anti-aphrodisiac, so you could say that if you're 'friendzoned' someone, you've saddled them with a pumpkin.

4) "马马虎虎(mǎmǎhūhū)" - Mandarin (Chinese)

"Horse Horse Tiger Tiger"

This Mandarin Chinese phrase is effectively another way of saying, "eh..so-so." when someone asks how you are or how something was. It's nothing special. This comes from a story about a painter who decided to paint something that was half a horse and half a tiger (presumably trying to capitalise on widening his audience). because they were neither one nor the other he alienated both potential audiences and nobody bought the painting.

5) "Juosten kustu" - Finnish

"Like pissing while running"

This is a Finnish way of saying that something was poorly thought out or was just generally a very bad idea. You can rather visualise the logic behind this and it does somewhat emphasise why you don't want to be following the guy with that bright idea.

6) "Ich will dir keinen baeren aufbinden" - German

"I don't fasten a bear to you"

The equivalent English idiom is 'I'm not pulling your leg'. In other words they're not fooling you or lying to you.

7) "Göra en höna av en fjäder" - Finnish

"To make a hen out of a feather"

Effectively to over-exaggerate. The equivalent of the English 'to make a mountain out of a molehill'.

8) 喉から手が出る (nodo kara te ga deru) - Japanese
"My hand is coming out of my throat"

I have to admit that I really like this expression. It effectively means that you're desperate to have something. presumably this may have been from a need for food and the idea of a hand rising up through your throat from your stomach to snatch out and grab something, but nowadays it can apply to anything you feel a real physical need for, even if it's something frivolous.

9) "Ég sel það ekki dýrara en keypti það" - Icelandic

"I won't sell it more expensive than I bought it."

I'm rather fond of this idiom as well. This basically means that you absolve yourself of all blame when passing on gossip if said gossip turns out not to be true. Basically you're just repeating what you heard, so take it or leave it. 

10) "جههگارهتōبوکهورام" (Jeegaretō bokhoram) -Farsi (Iranian)

"I will eat your liver."

Surprisingly this isn't a threat, but rather a term of endearment between two people who are very close, usually in the romantic sense. It quite literally means "I love you". I suppose there is something similar in the English phrase 'ooh i could eat you up', though that indicates something cute whereas this is for a more meaningful connection.

And Finally....

I hope that you enjoyed these idioms - check my source list below to find plenty more. Most importantly, happy new year! I hope you all have a cracking start to your 2016.


-Idioms of the world

-The Life of the Linguistically deficient: idioms are a tough nut to crack (Turkish Idioms)
-Chinese Language and Culture: Horse Horse Tiger Tiger
-Foreign idiom quiz
- 8 Filthy Foreign Phrases the English Language Needs
-Popular idioms in other languages
-Fun Swedish Idioms
-Japanese expressions that sound delightfully strange when translated.
-15 peculiar icelandic phrases
-10 Farsi phrases that I wish we had in English

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