Say What?



By Louise Ure


I’m not touring and teaching like Alex this week, nor have I been at a high-powered writers’ workshop like Pari, or out striking big TV deals like Rob.

What I’ve been doing is falling in love with words. Again. As usual.

In my last post I wrote about my gelatophobia, one of those top-drawer words that does not mean at all what it sounds like. Others on my “I don’t think so” list would be: enervate, choleric, pulchritude, necromancy, fungible and my newest favorite, gongoozler. “Choleric” has nothing to do with cholera, “pulchritude” is actually a good thing, and a “gongoozler” is an idle speculator, especially one who stares for a long time at nothing.

That’s me today.

And that idle staring has taken me on a detour through idioms today. An idiom is an expression that usually can’t be translated literally. Its meaning is often quite different from the specific word-for-word translation. They’re the worst kind of clichés if we dare to use them in our writing. In dialogue, they connote a lazy-thinker or someone from Hicksville.

“I’m not pulling your leg.”

“It’s no good crying over spilt milk.”

“I’m living the life of Riley.”

They’ve become such comfortable, worn out moccasins of phrase that we don’t even think about them any more. But they jump up like a soliloquy on stage when you hear them in another language.

“I’m not hanging noodles on your ears” (Russian) and “I’m not pulling the hair out of your nostrils” (Japanese) = Not pulling your leg.

“Biting the elbow” (German) = Crying over spilt milk.

“To fart into silk” (French) and “live like a maggot in bacon” (German) = Live the life of Riley

In Spain, if you feel like a fish out of water you’re “like an octopus in a garage,” and if two things are well suited for each other they’re “like fingernails and dirt.”

A “mouse milker” in German is a detailed-oriented person, but an “ant milker” in Arabic is a miser or a tightwad. In Spanish, that same tightwad would be someone who “walks with his elbows.”

In English, you could be “in a jam” or “in a pickle.” In Latvian, you’d be “up a stovepipe.”

We make a mountain out of a molehill, but the Poles “make a fork out of a needle.”

We think of ourselves as “the third wheel” – the unnecessary one – on a date, but the Portuguese would say they were “holding a candle.” Yep, someone just standing there, lighting the scene so the two lovers could see each other.

When the Japanese dine with a foreigner, they’re having “a sideways meal.” (Since the Japanese write vertically and most westerners write sideways, talking to a foreigner is “speaking sideways” and lunching with one becomes equally horizontal.)

When the French stand someone up for an appointment, they “donner le lapin” (give a rabbit.) For the Spanish, it’s “give a pumpkin.” Which would probably leave their Russian date “looking like September” (looking miserable).

If an Italian woman decided to “reheat cabbage” (rekindle an old romance), her Chinese husband might be accused of “having a pretty green hat” (having a cheating wife).

A window-shopper in France is “window-licking” and to attempt the impossible would be like “biting the moon” (French) or “climbing a tree to catch a fish” (Chinese). That would be nothing more than “making tea with your navel” (laughable, in Japanese).

Clearly, you should always look before you leap for, as the French say, “in candlelight, a goat looks like a lady.”

I know I’ll never be able to use this linguistic exercise in my work. I don’t want to write in trite idioms nor do I often like characters who speak that way. But it’s fun. And it gets my mind working.

And maybe, just maybe, it helps me come up with new metaphors on my own.

Whatcha’ think, Rati? Do you have any favorite idioms (English or otherwise) that I’ve missed? Or would you like to create a new one to confound all future students of English As A Second Language?





27 thoughts on “Say What?

  1. Alafair Burke

    My siblings and I are notoriously incompetent with idioms, and we blame it on our Chinese mother. Although her English is perfect in almost every way (and in fact she has a Master’s in it), she never quite mastered the idioms. And yet for some reason insists on using them. "This is for the pits" was a favorite of mine.

  2. JD Rhoades

    My favorite French idiom is used to describe a lady who’s very buxom and translates as "there’s a crowd on the balcony." The Germans have an expression: "no master has yet fallen from the sky" which basically means if you want to get good at something you have to work at it. Another great German expression is "don’t praise the day until the night" which is their version of "don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched."

  3. Jake Nantz

    Well, I’m from the South, where I’m sure Dusty can attest to the fact that the summer months often get "Hotter than a June bug sittin’ on a firecracker, in the middle of JU-ly."

  4. Karen in Ohio

    When I was taking high school French in the 60’s a classmate shared what her native French mother used to say when exasperated: "You’re breaking my feet." As in, you’re driving me crazy. I never knew if that was a French saying or a corruption of an English one.

    A Lebanese friend was trying to say that someone was pouring salt on the wounds. Her interpretation: "Pouring salt on dead soldiers." That still cracks me up. Sounds like something Ziva on NCIS would say, doesn’t it?

  5. Dana King

    I used to know a woman, a native born speaker of American English, who, when referring to a bad cut, would say the injured party "bled like a stuffed pig." She disagreed enthusiastically when I corrected her, right up until I showed how what she said made no sense, while my version ("Bled like a stuck pig") did.

    I once showed a character wasn’t as hip and groovy as he thought he was by having him (a prosecutor) refer to a suspect on the lam as being "in like Flynn," when he meant "in the wind."

  6. Louise Ure

    Alafair, I love your mother’s version of the saying. My mother was more of a Ms. Malaprop, combining every adage she’s ever heard into one. "Greater love hath no child than to turn and bite the hand of the snake who feeds him."

    Dusty, the German "no master has yet fallen from the sky" is too cool. And accurate.

    Jake, poor Junebug! But the JU-ly part sounds right enough.

  7. Louise Ure

    Karen, now I’ve got to look up the derivation of both of those. They sound oddly weird enough to be true and yet the images they convey! Yeow.

    Oh, Dana, those almost-right idioms. Those sound-alikes that mean nothing, the way my cousin used to refer to The Baby Cheeses in the manger.

  8. Melanie

    Ha, I love this! My husband speaks English as a second language and while he’s fluent in English, he’s been studying his grammar lately and our house is suddenly full of idioms. The most common (which I’m not even sure if it’s considered an idiom) is "right under the bus", as in, he threw me under the bus. My husband thinks it’s funny to use it out of context just to drive me crazy. 🙂

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    What a wonderful collections! I have a few of my own to add. The grandmother of a friend used to mix her metaphors, just like your mother. Two of my favourites are "it’s just the thin end of the iceberg" and "they’re all daubed with the same stick" while two particularly northern UK phrases are "wind yer neck in" or even "I’ll wind me neck in, then" for shut up/I’ll shut up then and "I’ll go to the foot of our stairs" to indicate surprise.

    And finally, to describe a difficult or near impossible task – "like trying to fight a lion in a phone box (booth)"

  10. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Louise…you MUST write a non-fiction book about this. I absolutely love books about the history of words and phrases and cliches, and this–using idioms from different languages–is "right up my alley!" It’s fascinating and funny all at once. How the hell did you learn this stuff?
    Some of my favorite mis-idioms come from my wife’s lips, who somehow always gets them wrong. She says things like "It’s a walk in the cake" (combining "It’s a walk in the park" with "It’s a piece of cake.") She has no idea that she’s doing this. I had a character (Charlie) in BOULEVARD making these mistakes all the time, but my editor told me there was "no room for humor" in my book, so I had to take them out. One still remains, when Charlie says, "It sticks in my claw" and Hayden counters, "Sticks in your CLAW, Charlie? Like you’re a fucking bird of prey?"

  11. Louise Ure

    Zoë, I’m going to swipe "like trying to fight a lion in a phone box." So much more colorful than "trying to herd cats."

    Stephen, I’ve collected these idioms for years, but there’s a terrific new book out ("I’m Not Hanging Noodles From Your Ears," by Jag Bhalla, June 2009) that added a few more for me.

    And "sticks in my claw" is so much better than the original. Like the elderly German client of mine who used to say, "I’m going out on a LIMP when I tell you this …"

    Hi Sylvia! I’m an idiot FOR idioms. And analogies. And metaphors. And similes. Heck, I’ll swoon for a good definition.

  12. Rae

    Fabulous post, I adore idioms – here are a few of my faves:

    Jumping around like a one-legged man at a fanny-kicking
    Nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rockers
    Dumber than a box of rocks
    Jumping around like a flea on a hot griddle
    Like a fart in a whirlwind
    A couple of bubbles off plumb

    I could go on 😉

  13. pari noskin taichert

    This is the kind of post that makes me just giddy! I loved it.

    While I don’t have any idiomatic phrases on the top of my head (or the bottom or side), I love what a person can learn about world view through the study of "foreign" languages. (I hope I’m making sense here.)

    For example, in Cantonese there’s a phrase that you can say: Mah mah day — that’s a phonetic version — that means "not quite so-so." So if you’re having a crappy day, but it’s not totally in the pits, you’d use that.

    Oh! I just thought of another one: ma ma hu hu
    literal translation: horse horse, tiger tiger
    but it means "so-so."

  14. Sandy

    A thoroughly enjoyable post and comment section! Thanks so much. Here’s one from German heritage: " Makes me no never mind," which means "It doesn’t make any difference to me." I had a principal once who spoke of a "mouse of a different stripe."

  15. Louise Ure

    Sandy, I do love that "mouse of a different stripe." My cousin and I used to draw a distinction between ourselves as one being the "country mouse" and one being the "city mouse." But stripes are far, far more accurate!

  16. Jemi Fraser

    Wonderful post!!! I loved it 🙂 I have a few students who speak English as a 2nd laguage, and they have such a hard time with our idioms. We have a lot of fun when we take them apart and study them. Um, the idioms, not the students…

  17. omega-3

    Dana, those almost-right idioms. Those sound-alike that mean nothing, the way my cousin used to refer to The Baby Cheeses in the manger.I want to know suggestion from others as it shows different values and colors of the life.I agree with the “To fart into silk” (French) and “live like a maggot in bacon” (German) = Live the life of Riley.Often big deals are not successful for the lifetime.


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