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Awesome Idioms From Around the World

The other day, my Dutch friend Wesley was chatting about something or other, and he suddenly busted out with the Dutch idiom, “Don’t tie a cat to a piece of bacon.” It means, more or less, to not put temptation so close to someone that they can’t resist. Isn’t that awesome? So when I saw these idioms from around the world, I couldn’t help sharing.

Then I was trying to think of American sayings but was coming up blank. But obviously we have so many! Here’s a long list, if you’re curious.

P.S. 11 untranslatable words from other countries, and parenting around the world.

(By Hotel Club)

  1. Love these!

    In Brazil, they have a saying “mão da vaca”, which translates as “hand of the cow”.
    Basically someone who won’t spend money….hooves can’t get a wallet out of their pockets! My favourite!

  2. Oh Joanna, I love all your posts that have to do with the quirks of language! We have SO MANY of these idioms in Arabic, my mom spews them out at me over almost every phone conversation we have :) Some of my favourites are “put your hand in cold water” which basically means “don’t worry”. Then there are REALLY typical Arab ones that relate to one’s family/tribe/ancestors etc like “his back is supported” which means “he is backed up” in terms of family or friends who have his back. And then the opposite of that one is “he is cut off from a tree” which means “he has no relatives”. Here are five great ones if you like!
    http://www.barakabits.com/2014/08/5-arabic-idioms-dont-exist-english

    And just so you know, you have a huge fan in me, all the way from Abu Dhabi :)

    – Hala (www.halakhalaf.com)

  3. I am Brazilian and the Portuguese idiom is definetly not correct. Fun post, though

  4. M. says...

    My Louisianian MIL uses the expression “too much sugar for a dime” in reference to people who overly ingratiates themselves or for someone who is excessively needy/taskmaster-y. It is such an effective idiomatic expression:

    “Oh, Mrs. Smith called *again* with more instructions for watering her plants while she’s at the beach. This is really becoming too much sugar for a dime.”

  5. these are awesome. My official goal this week is to use “Not my circus, not my monkeys” in context at work.

  6. I love in Thailand that they say
    Same Same but Different

  7. i speak fluent (mx) spanish, but my mom’s roots from mexico city just continues to amaze me as if it was the first time i heard them. and each time she says them with exquisite timing -you know, such a MOM thing- she has a gazillion, but these are mi faves:

    “del plato a la boca, se cae la sopa”
    from the plate to your mouth, the soup spills – anything can happen before you consider it done

    “más sabe el diablo por viejo, que por diablo”
    the devil is wise from age, not from being a little devil

    “al buen entendedor, pocas palabras”
    few words if you/they are good or sharp at ‘getting it’

    “the best wine is the one drank with friends, and the best coffee is the one I drink with my daughter”
    -this her new thing. squeeee

    :)

  8. The nuance of the Japanese one about having a wide face 「顔がひろい」is less about having a lot of friends and more about being well-known. If you’re at a party and a lot of people recognize you and greet you, it means you may have influence and importance. People might know you, but they’re not necessarily your friends.
    Julie

  9. When I first started learning Chinese, my teacher taught me 成语s, which are idioms typically made up of four characters, many of which have some kind of historical story behind it. They were so much fun to learn! Vocab and history all in one :) -Audrey | Brunch at Audrey’s

  10. My English coworker didn’t realize that “It’s like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs” was not also an American idiom (describing instructing/giving advice that someone else already knows). We work with kiddos on the autism spectrum and one of our clients got in trouble at school for trying to use that one!

    My handsome (also Dutch) hubby is “One of Many” here in Denver! Fun connection.

  11. My favorite Dutch one, literally translated: now the monkey comes out of the sleeve! Which means that someone hasn’t been completely honest but now the truth is finally out.

  12. Hi Jo – great post and I love sayings! In Portugal we have loads – LOADS! – but I’m afraid to say that the one you describe is actually wrong… The saying is ‘ feed sponge cake to a donkey” meaning that something is expensive/ not worth for someone :)

  13. there is a similar saying in chinese to the feeding donkey spongecake…but it goes like ” it’s like feeding wheat to a turtle” My dad kept saying this when we were looking at modern art (about himself).

    I love the idiom about saying something between cheese and dessert is bad timing! It’s so funny you can feel the cultural values demonstrated by language, to know a language is more than a bunch of vocabulary.

  14. I’m Danish, and I have to correct the Danish idiom. “To have a stick in the ear” actually meals to be really drunk :) It’s probably originally a word play connected to the Danish word for “hangover”…

  15. My favorite French phrase is “tenir la chandelle,” which means “to be a third wheel,” but which literally translates to “to hold the candle.”

  16. I’m Danish, and I have to correct the Danish idiom. “To have a stick in the ear” actually meals to be really drunk :) It’s probably originally a word play connected to the Danish word for “hangover”…

  17. These are really interesting. I used to think that idioms and other linguistic differences reveal how people think differently in other languages, but really, they’re examples of how people think in the same ways across different languages.

  18. My French father-in-law always says to us “cats don’t breed dogs” which is very similar to the english idiom “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” It makes me giggle when he says it because it is always when our daughter has done something particularly spirited or funny.

  19. My favourite Chinese idiom: “More saliva than tea” = someone who’s talkative (usually in the bad sense!)

  20. Some funny Danish ones are:
    There is no cow on the ice – everything is alright, nothing to worry about
    You can’t blow and have flour in your mouth – you can’t have your cake and eat it
    To step in the spinach (in Swedish it’s in the piano!) – to make a mistake, to really screw up

    I think it’s so funny how you notice idioms in foreign languages rather than your mother tongue – they become more visible when you realize that a certain expression is not meant literally. My favorite (still in Danish) is “to have the need for a grandpa” which means to want to take a nap. It’s so cute – and spot on!

  21. I love teaching this French one to my American friends:” Don’t push grandma in the ivy bush” (ne pousses pas mémé dans les orties) which means “Don’t push your boundaries haha

  22. One of my favourites is “fill your boots”. It’s heard a lot in the Canadian Maritimes and means to help yourself or to go ahead.
    Q:”May I have another cookie?”

    A: “Fill yer boots!”

  23. The Portuguese one is actually incorrect :) At least, where I’m from, in North-Center Portugal, it’s more commonly used when someone wants to eat a lot (and I mean A LOT!) or something is really expensive. In that case, people say “I would rather feed a donkey sponge cake!”, as in “sponge cake is cheaper than that!”, even though it’s worth mentioning that the Portuguese kind of sponge cake is really well known and liked, thus making it somewhat expensive :)

    We also have one that if we translate it it becomes “You’re giving me thong!”, and it means “You’re trying to fool me” ahahah
    Also, if you want to learn more funny Portuguese sayings, you can visit their facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/PortugueseSayings?fref=ts

  24. Think they must have gotten the danish one wrong, I have only heard it said about people who are way too drunk. And I am danish and have been living here my whole life 😊 but they are definitely funny!

  25. Also – hunger is the best sauce

    May the road rise to meet you

    It’s often that a persons mouth broke their nose

    A friends eye is a good mirror

  26. Some Irish ones:

    A goose never voted for an early Christmas

    Don’t be breaking your shin on a stool that’s not in your way

    An old broom knows the dirty corners best

    As rare as hens teeth

    Jam on your egg (wishful thinking)

  27. My mother always uses the phrase, “Not my circus, not my monkeys”!

    Usually, it’s in a situation having to do with my (hilariously) borderline senile grandfather when his wife calls from Florida to complain about something he did.

  28. Ohh, and another:
    You want the pig, the 20 piglets and the machine to make the sausages! (you are greedy)

  29. My family loves the books “A Chocolate Moose for Dinner” and “The King Who Rained,” which are both collections of idioms with literal illustrations. Hilarious to kids and adults alike!

  30. In spanish we have:

    – You stuck your foot (you made a mistake)
    – To feed daisies to the pigs (try to, unsuccessfully, make somebody to understand or to do something)
    – Go to sing to Gardel (stop bugging me)
    – I hope it rains softly over you (go f*** yourself)
    – Get down from the stirrup (calm down or else)
    – A scoundrel doesn’t shriek (accept the consequences from your acts)
    – God gives bread to the ones without teeth (when a good thing happens to people who doesn’t appreciate it)
    – Were the devil lost the poncho (VERY far away)
    – The one who borns to be a whistle, is never going to be a cornet (don’t try to be something that you are not)
    – To have a parade coming from the other direction (to have a difficult time with something)

  31. cool! and I love the graphics too!

  32. haha this is great! My South African mom always says ” It’s a monkey’s wedding!” when it is raining and sunny at the same time.

  33. These are too cute- I love “to feed a donkey sponge cake”. I will definitely use this next time my husband feeds our (overweight, spoiled) dog parts of our human dinners! Hooray!

  34. “That really gets my goat” is one of my favorites.

  35. Hahaha! I love ” To feed the donkey spongecake.”

    Thanks for my Tuesday laugh, Joanna!

  36. another polish one “give him a finger and he will take the whole hand”
    which is equivalent to the british (american?) give him an inch and he will take a yard”

  37. “Le entra por un oido y le sale por el otro” (it comes in one ear, and out the other = to not listen)

    “Le/te toma el pelo” (s/he took/takes you by the ‘hair’ = you are being fooled)

    “Tener mas lana que un borrego” (to have more wool than a sheep = to be loaded with cash)

    “Estar bien consigo mismo”-Spanish
    “Bien dans sa peau” – French
    (to be well/feel good in one’s own skin)

    “Estar como un aji” (to be like a pepper = to be hot-pepper mad” !! lol)

  38. My colleague said one the other day I had never heard of.

    “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” which apparently means “Just be grateful for what you’ve been given!” or something similar.

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  40. Another polish one that my american husband adopted
    “Cicha rzeka brzegi rwie”
    or, “quiet river rips its banks”
    means a person that seems quiet might actually be quite the opposite.

    The American saying “six of one,a half a dozen of the other”… it’s so simple yet I always get confused and screw it up.

  41. Jo, I just have to say I have loved your blog recently. I have read it for a long time but you seem to have upped your game on an already great blog! Thank you for brightening my days.

    I love “not my circus, not my monkeys’! Although it’s a common one (at least in the UK) I have always loved the description of something going “pear-shaped” if it’s gone wrong – so visually descriptive!

    I also like “teaching your grandmother to suck eggs” as telling someone how to do something they already know. It is just so nonsensical (looking it up, no-one seems to know the origin!) but accepted as a phrase.

  42. One of my favorites: the communists are in the fun house! It’s an expression from Denmark for being on your period.

  43. I took a whole class on French idioms when I was there. All their expressions are about food :)

    “You want the butter and the money for the butter.” (have your cake and eat it too–theirs makes way more sense)

    “I have a lot of bread on the shelves.” (I have a lot of work to do.)

    “Cut the pear in half.” (to compromise)

    “Say something between the cheese and the dessert.” (say something at an inappropriate time)

    “To arrive like the hair in a soup.” (To arrive at the wrong moment)

    “To put in your grain of salt.” (To add your 2 cents)

    I love language!

  44. My coworker always says “that’s a long way to go for a ham sandwich” when things aren’t really worth the effort. Kills me.

  45. I love how you can pretty much guess where these idioms were going but they still seem creative! Here’s some of ours that I could think of…

    “Curiosity killed the cat.”

    “Never look a gift horse in the mouth.”

    “Let the cat out of the bag.”

    “To bury the hatchet.”

    “To make ends meet.”

    Which I honestly misunderstood for 28 years as “To make end’s meat.” …you know, like, a steak… I don’t know what I thought it was, but I just made it logical somehow about at the end of the day you get meat for dinner… haha…

  46. A funny one I just remembered, but I think it’s more of a Dominican idiom, not really used in general Spanish, “Eso es un cachú”, literally meaning “that’s a ketchup”, and it’s used the same as “that’s a piece of cake”.

  47. In Spanish we say “meter la mata”, which literally translates to “stick in your foot”(?), and it means that you totally ruined something.

  48. other ones from Germany:

    “you’re on the wood way” (you’re heading in the wrong direction)

    “there the dog goes crazy in the pan” (something you say, when you hear something crazy)

    “I’ve got cabbage steam” (being super hungry)

    “not having all your cups in your cupboard” (being crazy)

    “you must go where the pepper grows” (you say that when you really want somebody to leave)

    I could go on all day! :D
    imho, German is the queen of idioms.

  49. Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy;)

  50. I love ‘not my circus, not my monkeys’, I heard it for the first time recently and have used it as often as possible.

    To play devil’s advocate (!), the list of ‘American’ idioms you link to at the end, are they American though or English or a mix of both? Or doesn’t it matter?

    I think it’s interesting as there are no doubt idioms from both cultures (and different ones from other English speaking countries).

  51. not my circus, not my monkeys. amazing!!

  52. In Italian, one of my favorites is to leave somewhere with your bagpipes in your sack. “Pive nel sacco”. Most Italians don’t know what bagpipes (pive) even means (I just had to look it up in a translator). It means to be totally disappointed and to leave empty handed. It comes from leaving a battle without your war music…like a drummer boy or piccolo player.

  53. I learned the French idiom “je autres chats de fouette” from ballet (because it involves ballet terms). It is the French version of “We have other fish to fry” and it translates to “I have other cats to whip” Lol

  54. Not my monkeys. Not my zoo is totally going to be my new catch phrase at work!

  55. I love the quirks of language. So interesting!

  56. Loved the idioms, and the ilustrations are great!It’s cool to see that around thw world some idioms are similar. But I am not sure that the portuguese idiom is right though. The most commom idiom for that meaning is “feed pearls to pigs”.

  57. Language is so fun. I could read these all day. Can’t wait to come back to the comments later to see what other readers have added.

  58. in cantonese chinese:
    “in from the left ear, out from the right ear.”
    it’s used to refer to someone who doesn’t pay attention to or ignores advice! :p

  59. It’s really amazing how you can be competent in a language but not truly fluent until you learn its idioms. I have this German friend from Munich who is very advanced in English, but when I was over there I told her the trip to visit didn’t bleed me dry, which upon hearing she stared at me in horror. She had never heard that idiom before and didn’t know “bleed me dry” means that something is expensive.

    It struck me because she is someone whose English is advanced enough that she could live in the US without any problems, but nonetheless she still had never heard that idiom before. I’m learning German and I’m trying to learn their idioms so I can communicate back with her.

  60. My Dutch boyfriend loves to use the funny idiom “I’ll see that through the fingers” in order to say “I’ll let it slide this time”. It was funny because when he first said it in English it sounded completely nonsensical to me, and it took me quite a while to translate it back to Croatian (my own mother tongue) for myself and realize we have the exact same idiom with the exact same meaning!

  61. Haha Joanna, likewise my nana has been heard telling kids/grandkids to “piss or get off the pot.” :) Kind of crass, but it gets the point across!

  62. Always fun to hear idioms from other languages. However, I’m Danish and to have a stick in your ear does not mean that you don’t listen – it means that you’re drunk:-)

  63. my friend jason often says “you have to fish or cut bait,” meaning that you should make a move or just give up. it works well in romantic situations!

  64. hahaha julia i’ve heard that one too!

  65. I love these! It’s funny how you don’t think twice about using idioms until you have to explain them to a foreigner or a toddler then you realize just how strange some are.

  66. @sumslay:

    in germany we actually have a quite similar idiom: “to slap two flies with one clap”. ;)

    anyway, my all-time favourite german one is: “to talk somebody a schnitzel on his ear” – meaning: talking too much and not realizing it.

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  68. The danish one actually also means to be really drunk :)

  69. Thanks to the movie Moonstruck and Olympia Dukakis, I’ve always loved this one: “Don’t shit where you eat.” as a way to say “Don’t have romantic relationships with those you work with.” Not the most eloquent saying but it’s great advice.

  70. Our family favorite is the Hungarian phrase “As little Moritz remembers it.” (meaning: ‘yo that never happened’ or alternitavely ‘that’s a stunningly misleading retelling of an actual event’) It’s exceptionally useful in a group that tends towards hyperbole as much as we do!

    http://fivetdsisters.blogspot.com/2014/04/perverbs.html

  71. this is interesting because in most European history, the “noonday demon” defines a state similar to depression, not midlife crisis. it seems the french have taken it up and use it to describe french male mid-life lust. so, not just a midlife “crisis” but a particular old, lusty french-dude kind. however, it is definitely bastardized from the original use of the phrase, which is more along the lines of: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acedia

  72. I’ll never forget the look on the German girl’s face in high school when the teacher said we were going to “kill two birds with one stone.” She probably thought, “Texans are crazy! What have I gotten myself into!” ;)

    I also enjoy “there’s more than one way to skin a cat,” although when I type that out, that seems pretty dark, haha.

  73. here’s my favorite russian one: don’t put noodles on somebody’s ears – don’t lie :)