15 Intriguing Idioms From Around the World
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Not My Circus...
Polish: Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy
Literal Translation: Not my circus, not my monkeys
Some households can certainly feel like a three-ring circus at times. It’s madness! But, that’s not what this Polish expression is all about. Rather, when you tell someone that it is not your circus and they’re not your monkeys, you’re telling them the situation is not your problem. Put another way, you’re saying the circumstances are none of your business. They don’t matter to you.
The Mouth of a Wolf
Italian: In bocca al lupo
Literal Translation: In the mouth of a wolf
Continuing with the animal-themed idioms from around the world, this Italian idiom goes back to opera houses and live theater. It’s the equivalent of telling a performer to “break a leg.” In other words, you’re wishing them good luck. The expression expands beyond live performance too. It can include other difficult or stressful events, like writing an exam.
Chinese: 加油 (Jia you in Mandarin; Ga yau in Cantonese)
Literal Translation: Add oil
This Chinese expression traces its origins back to the Macau Grand Prix during the 1960s. Meant to encourage the drivers on the track, fans and supporters would tell them to “add oil.” To use an English expression, they were telling the drivers to “step on it” or “put the pedal to the metal.” It’s the equivalent of telling someone to “push harder” and persevere. The online Oxford English Dictionary recognizes “add oil” as Hong Kong English.
Feed Sponge Cake to a Donkey
Portuguese: Alimentar um burro a pão-de-ló
Literal Translation: Feeding a donkey sponge cake
We may not be able to know for certain, but donkeys probably have pretty simple needs. And they’re probably satisfied with rather simple things. If you feed a fancy sponge cake to a donkey, it’s probably not going to appreciate it any more than if you fed it a humbler food. This Portuguese idiom illustrates this hypothetical scenario. Feeding sponge cake to a donkey is like treating someone especially well when they neither need or deserve it.
Release the Frog
Finnish: Päästää sammakko suusta
Literal Translation: To release the frog from the mouth
In English, you might say that someone put their foot in their mouth. As it turns out, many world idioms express a similar sentiment. In Finland, the expression is to let the frog out from your mouth. That’s when you say something embarrassing or inappropriate. It can also include when people say something ignorant or offensive. Torben really released the frog from his mouth when he exclaimed his love for bacon at the vegan convention.
Understand the Train Station
German: Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof
Literal Translation: I only understand the train station
Everybody can’t know everything. You can’t be an expert on every subject. So, when someone starts talking about something completely unfamiliar to you, you might say in German that you only understand the train station. In other words, you’re confused, you don’t follow, or you don’t care to understand what is being said. Some say the idiom started with weary soldiers eager to return home.
In the Next Life
Thai: ชาติหน้าตอนบ่าย ๆ (Châat nâa dton-bàai)
Literal Translation: One afternoon in your next life
Many people in Thailand believe in some form of reincarnation. Even so, when they tell you that something might happen “one afternoon in your next life,” they’re not exactly filling you with confidence. It’s the exact opposite, actually, telling you that this event is not going to happen. No way. Equivalent English idioms include saying “when pigs fly” or “don’t hold your breath.”
Wear a Cat on Your Head
Japanese: 猫をかぶる (Neko o kaburu)
Literal Translation: To wear a cat, or to put a cat on one’s head
Foreign idioms often can’t be translated literally. This one from Japan is no exception. As kawaii (or cute) as it might be to put a kitty atop your head, that’s not what this expression means. The meaning is much more nefarious than that. Someone who is wearing a cat is only pretending to be nice or friendly. They’re hiding their claws. In English, “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” or saying someone is “two-faced” has a similar connotation.
Tamil: தண்ணீர் காட்டுதல் (Thanneer kaattuthal)
Literal Translation: Showing water or to show water to someone
The Tamil language is spoken primarily in the southern part of India, as well as in places like Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Fiji. In such warm climates, you would think that “showing water” to someone would be a positive thing. They must be thirsty, right? As it turns out, “showing water” means that you are someone’s archnemesis or enemy. This is no friendly encounter!
Give Drinks to the Mice
Hungarian: Miért itatod az egereket
Literal Translation: Why are you giving drinks to the mice?
Sometimes, you can best understand idioms from around the world as metaphors. They conjure up an image in your mind, and then you can interpret that image figuratively. In Hungary, asking why someone is giving drinks to mice is to ask why they are crying. Most commonly said to young kids, the Hungarian idiom implies that the mice will drink the children’s tears. That’s one sad, salty beverage.
The Monkey Comes Out
Dutch: Nu komt de aap uit de mouw
Literal Translation: Now the monkey comes out of the sleeve
One thing that idioms in other languages share with English is the sudden appearance of animals. It’s rather noteworthy when some creature pops up unexpectedly. In English, you might say that the “cat is out of the bag.” In Dutch, you’d say the monkey has come out of the sleeve. In other words, the true meaning of a situation is revealed. The phrase derives from magicians pulling monkeys out of their sleeves, like rabbits out of a hat.
Stretch Your Legs
Arabic: على قد لحافك مد رجليك (Ealaa qad lahafk mad rujalayk)
Literal Translation: Stretch your legs as far as your blanket extends
In English, saying you want to stretch your legs might mean you want to go for a walk. If you tell someone else to stretch their legs, you might want that person to relax. This Arabic expression is a bit different and a bit more culture-specific. When you’re reminded that you may extend your legs on your mat, you’re being told to live within your means. You wouldn’t want to dangle your toes beyond your blanket.
Where Crayfish Hibernate
Russian: де раки зимуют (gde raki zimuyut)
Literal Translation: Where crayfish hibernate
You can draw your own connections to the criminal underworld. The Mob might talk about “swimming with the fishes” as a euphemism for murder. There’s a similar Russian idiom that talks about going where the crayfish hibernate. Or crawfish, if you prefer. While it may or may not result in someone’s death, the phrase means to teach someone a lesson or to punish them. Rich landlords once sent peasants and criminals to catch crayfish in frozen waters, a treacherous task for sure.
Take Care of Your Onions
French: Occupe-toi de tes oignons (informal); Occupez-vous de vos oignons (formal)
Literal Translation: Take care of your onions
Food analogies add local flavor to many world idioms. French cuisine is renowned the world over. In regards to this saying, you’ll want to keep to your own ingredients. If someone tells you to take care of your onions, they’re telling you to mind your own business. They’ve got their mise en place for their recipe, and you’ve got your own onions to slice and peel. In English, you might tell someone to “mind their own beeswax.”
Not Enough Walnuts
Spanish: Mucho ruido y pocas nueces
Literal Translation: A lot of noise and too few walnuts
Hop across the border from France to Spain to find another food-related saying. Also the translation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, this idiom has a couple related interpretations. The phrase derives from the noise a nutcracker makes. With one interpretation, the person is all talk and no walk. They make big promises, but don’t live up to their boastful claims. Another interpretation is to describe someone making a big fuss over something small.
Foreign Idioms in Other Languages
Idioms from around the world can be a fascinating study indeed. When you can’t translate foreign idioms on a literal level, you have to dig a little deeper to extract their true meaning. Continue your exploration of global dialects with a look into critically endangered languages. Did you know there are over 600 critically endangered languages around the world?
Michael Kwan is a professional writer and editor with over 15 years of experience. Fueled by caffeine and WiFi, he's no stranger to word games and dad jokes.