Feature: Idioms From Around the Globe

By Greg Luti

Idioms are one of the few universal principles in language that unites us all. In different countries around the world, it is idioms that we all use as a way to understand our world and communicate with each other. Why do we do this? Can’t we just say we are tired instead of saying we had a long night or that we woke up on the wrong side of the bed? There is no such thing as a long night since every night is the same number of hours, and you can’t actually have a good or bad side of a bed. It’s not like the bed has feelings. We all know that, taken literally, idioms are not as fun or creative. Can you really be better late than never? No, Tame Impala, you can’t. You can’t really call it a day because there is no phone number to call the sun to let it know you want the day to end. We could do view idioms as literal phrases and be a pain in the butt, but that is kind of boring and can become increasingly frustrating if you are that guy. Not appreciating idioms is not appreciating ourselves. We are, as idioms suggest, all poets at heart, using our words, not only to describe our world but to make it a little bit more interesting too.

Here is a list of idioms from around the world that you may not be familiar with.

England – Taking the mickey.

The English have this saying when they make fun of each other. If you said this in America, you’d have a few blank stares coming your way. Some would think that you are talking of the famous mouse that bears the same name. No one would think you are making fun of them.

Stop taking the mickey out of him.

American equivalent – Stop being a downer.

England – Biting more than you can chew

This one is quite popular over here on the American side of the world too. Unfortunately, this is never used in a good situation, though. It’s not like you are bragging about taking the biggest bite at the dinner table (although I don’t know why you would do that); you are saying that you did too much and are now in a bad spot. If you want to avoid the idiom comparison altogether, you could just say you are quoting Frank Sinatra and act like that bad spot you are in was all a part of your plan.

American equivalent – We use this one in America quite a lot. Hopefully, not too much.

Of the two British ones, I like the one that I actually have used before. Yeah, I still say that taking the mickey sounds weird and offensive. I’m not sure who is going to be offended by that, but I am sure that someone will.

French – Coûter les yeux de la tête – costs the eyes in your head

Gruesome imagery aside, this French idiom means that an item is too much money. 

If I said this in a store, people would be confused. First off, they don’t speak French, and neither do I, so the whole situation would be uncomfortable. Then I’d claim that the item that I want would cost the eyes in my head. My luck, the store clerk would assume I have on my contacts and think nothing of my rejection of their item.

American equivalent – It costs an arm and a leg. 

I wonder if there is an idiom for an item even more expensive than the eye item. Like you would say, “this costs the eyes in my head and an arm and a leg.” The thing is so expensive you needed to say two idioms to get your point across—basically, college loans.

French – Ne rien savoir-faire de ses dix doigts – not knowing how to do anything with ten fingers

This French phrase means that somebody is completely useless, which if you are like me, you don’t have to think too hard to name that person. You only have ten fingers, so if you can’t do anything with them, you are out of luck. An American equivalent would be to call someone a Butterfinger. A Butterfinger is a person who drops everything. It isn’t exact, but it is pretty close. Of course, if you really wanted to make a point with someone, you can call them a Butterfinger who can’t do anything with their fingers. That seems harsh, though.

American equivalent – Butterfinger

I gotta say that the last one was my favorite phrase so far. I like describing someone useless as bad with their hands. It comes across as an idiom you could say to the useless person, and they wouldn’t know that you are talking about them.

Germany – Die Daumen drücken – press the thumbs

When I heard this, I looked at my thumbs and wondered why I would ever want to press them. That’s strange. However, this option is much better than the last one where I was talking about my eyes in my head. I will never say this in German or English because no one would know what I was talking about. I wouldn’t even get suggestions either, like with the other options.

American equivalent – Cross your fingers.

I didn’t notice how many idioms involved the human body. I am running out of body parts here.

German – Lügen haben kurze Beine – lies have short legs

I like this one. This has a good ring to it, in English, that I could find myself saying this to someone when I feel that they have lied to my face. It is short, no pun intended, succinct and easily understood. I am actually upset that this one is not more common in America.

American equivalent – We could say this phrase in America. I haven’t heard many say it, though.

China – bù jīng yī shì, bù zhǎng yī zhì – wisdom comes from experience

This is actually one that I can use if I were to sound smart and wise. My friends would look at me and shake their heads because I said another cheesy wisdom line that is not relevant to anything. If you think this sounds like something from a fortune cookie, then you’re right because I got this in my cookie with my dinner earlier. Also, my lucky numbers are 3, 8, 44, 57, 61. Doesn’t wisdom come from, you know wisdom? I’m just saying I know a bunch of old dudes with a bunch of time on their hands, and they don’t know much.

American equivalent – You would say this in English if you are a shaman, a Wiseman, or just a regular person trying to help someone out.

Chinese – jiǎo tà shí dì – to step on solid ground.

This Chinese phrase means to stay focused on the basics and fundamentals to proceed with a task. It is very useful advice for people who want to sound smart. Then you realize that the person never spoke of the basics or the fundamentals, and you are screwed. We wouldn’t say this in America, although we do agree with the general principle of pushing through a task using the basic ideas that got you there. My best examples are trust the process or stay the course. Both stress that the individual doesn’t stray too far from their original plan.

American equivalent – trust the process or stay the course.

I couldn’t include a list of idioms without the guy who practically spoke in them, Shakespeare. Can you imagine him trying to order some fast food? He’d confuse the knucklehead at the drive-through with his meter.

William Shakespeare – wear your heart on your sleeve 

We all know that one person who says this line proudly as if it is an honor to have such sleeves. They act like this is a part of who they are, and you, or anyone else, can’t stop them from living their life as they want. Run, if anyone says this line to you as a way to describe themselves.

And last but not least, let’s give books a little love here too. Here is a famous idiom from a book that is more known as an idiom than anything related in the book.

Jekyll And Hyde – From Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

You would call someone Jekyll and Hyde when they act like two different people. I have heard this phrase used so many times in many instances that the book’s story has been lost, but the idea of a dual personality has not. Many understand this idiom without ever even reading Stephenson’s novel, which is quite impressive for him and us.

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Article originally Published in the October / November 2021 Issue “Read Global”

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