25 Foreign Words With Hilarious Literal Meanings

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Anyone who has ever studied a foreign language knows that translator apps, while helpful, aren’t always reliable. It's easy to tell when text has been fed through an online translator because certain words and phrases tend to get jumbled up in the process, as evidenced by the many mistranslations posted online every day. (See: The Iraqi hotel whose buffet sign misidentified meatballs as “Paul is dead.”)

On the other hand, when done correctly, word-for-word translations—also known as literal or direct translations—can help language learners understand a word’s origin while also providing interesting insight into how different cultures perceive ordinary objects. In this spirit, we’ve selected 25 of our favorite foreign words and their weird and wonderful literal translations.

1. CHUỘT TÚI// RAT POCKET

Meaning: Kangaroo
Language: Vietnamese

Many of the Vietnamese words for animals sound as if a group of comedians went to a zoo and started roasting every creature they saw. A shark is a “fat fish,” a skunk is a “stink fox,” and a baboon is a “monkey head dog,” which sounds like a terrifying mythical creature you wouldn’t want to cross paths with.

2. STROZZAPRETI // PRIEST STRANGLER

Meaning: A kind of pasta
Language: Italian

The legend of how this noodle got its name is just as twisted as the pasta itself. It allegedly stems from greedy priests who, upon receiving the dish from locals, scarfed it down so quickly that they choked, according to BBC Good Food.

3. SYUT GWAIH // SNOW CUPBOARD

Meaning: Refrigerator
Language: Chinese (Cantonese)

There's some crossover between Mandarin and Cantonese, two of the main languages spoken in China, but this term is solely used among Cantonese speakers, particularly in Hong Kong.

4. AMUSE-BOUCHE // MOUTH AMUSER

Meaning: A kind of appetizer
Language: French

This one doesn’t translate perfectly into English because the French truly have a monopoly on food terminology, but an amuse-bouche is basically a bite-sized hors d’oeuvre (appetizer, but literally “outside of work”). It’s also sometimes called amuse-gueule, meaning the same thing.

5. DEDOS DO PE // FOOT FINGERS

Meaning: Toes
Language: Portuguese

Why invent a new word when toes are basically the fingers of the feet? At least that seems to be the logic behind the conjoining of these two words in Portuguese, French, Arabic, and a number of other languages.

6. BRUSTWARZEN // BREAST WARTS

Meaning: Nipples
Language: German

While this may sound slightly off-putting to English speakers, many Germanic languages use the same word for “warts” and “nipples,” according to The Economist.

7. SMÖRGÅS // BUTTER GOOSE

Meaning: Sandwich
Language: Swedish

The word gås literally translates to goose, but the Online Etymology Dictionary notes that it also carries a second meaning: a clump (of butter). (Smör also means butter, making smörgås mean either "butter goose" or "butter butter.") Smörgås is taken to mean “bread and butter,” and thus a sandwich. Smorgasbord, which has been adopted into English, starts to make a little more sense when it's interpreted as a sandwich table, or more generally, a buffet offering various dishes. Are you following all this?

8. PAPIER VAMPIER // PAPER VAMPIRE

Meaning: Stapler
Language: Afrikaans

As The South African notes, there are several Afrikaans words that simply sound funny when they’re translated directly into English. Popcorn is “jumping corn,” a chameleon is “step softly,” and a weed is “look around tobacco.”

9. SURTAN ALBAHR // CANCER OF THE SEA

Meaning: Lobster
Language: Arabic

“Cancer of the sea” seems like a harsh moniker for a humble crustacean, but this appears to be another case of multiple meanings. According to the Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic [PDF], the Arabic word for cancer stems from a root word meaning “to grab/to swallow,” which yielded the word for lobster.

10. NACKTSCHNECK // NAKED SNAIL

Meaning: Slug
Language: German

Itchy Feet, a travel and language comic by Malachi Ray Rempen, illustrates some of the amusing results when German is translated word for word into English. There’s “glowing pear” for light bulb, “go wheel” for bicycle, and “into-the-groundening” for funeral.

11. DIAN NAO // ELECTRIC BRAIN

Meaning: Computer
Language: Chinese (Mandarin)

Chinese can seem quite poetic to non-native speakers. This is partly because it's a logogram-based language, meaning that a character represents a word. Instead of inventing a new character to represent computer, pre-existing characters are combined to yield an entirely new concept. Hence, electric brain.

12. BERGMAL // ROCK LANGUAGE

Meaning: Echo
Language: Icelandic

As Iceland Naturally explained, this translation is fitting “because an echo typically is bouncing off surrounding rocks or walls, as if it were their way of communicating.” If only someone could translate what they’re saying…

13. TOILETBRIL // TOILET GLASSES

Meaning: Toilet seat
Language: Dutch

Alternate definition we're proposing: the figurative glasses you wear when you're half-asleep at 3 a.m., feeling your way through the darkness in search of the bathroom.

14. JOULUPUKKI // CHRISTMAS GOAT

Meaning: Santa Claus
Language: Finnish

Translating to Christmas Goat or Yule Goat, joulupukki was historically a very different character: a “troll who used to threaten children who were naughty,” The New York Times reports. Over the years, the idea evolved and became conflated with Santa Claus, but the term stuck.

15. SCHLAGZEUG // HIT STUFF

Meaning: Drums
Language: German

According to Your Daily German, the word zeug ("stuff") originally meant “pulling something to you” in order to use it—or in other words, a tool. It’s used to describe a number of things, including an airplane (flugzeug, or “flight stuff”), lighter (feuerzeug, or “fire stuff”), and toy (spielzeug, or “play stuff”).

16. MONTAÑA RUSA // RUSSIAN MOUNTAINS

Meaning: Rollercoaster
Language: Spanish

Rollercoasters are called “Russian mountains” in Spanish and several other Romance languages because the early predecessor to the ride—a slide placed on an ice-covered hill—was invented in present-day Russia in the 15th century. In other languages, a rollercoaster is a “train of death” (Croatian), “wavy iron road” (Hungarian), and “American hills” (Russian).

17. SPOOKASEM // GHOST BREATH

Meaning: Cotton candy
Language: Afrikaans

To be fair, the English phrases “cotton candy,” “fairy floss” (Australia), and “candy floss” (UK) don’t make perfect sense, either. But ghost breath? It gets points for originality, at least.

18. GAESALAPPIR // GOOSE FEET

Meaning: Quotation marks
Language: Icelandic

Icelandic is notoriously hard to learn, and a look at some of its words seems to show why. A comic strip series on Bored Panda highlights some of the odder literal translations of the language, such as “animal garden” for zoo, “womb cake” for placenta, and “bride to buy” for wedding.

19. AIN HTAUNG // HOUSE PRISON

Meaning: Marriage
Language: Burmese

Speaking of marriage, Icelanders aren’t the only ones to take a dim view of the institution—linguistically speaking, at least. Used as a verb, the Burmese word ain htaung can be understood as “fall into marriage” and is used in the same way as htaung kya, or “fall into prison.”

20. NIU ZAI KU // COWBOY PANTS

Meaning: Jeans
Language: Chinese (Mandarin)

Chinese isn’t the only language to associate blue jeans with American culture and the Wild West. In Spanish, they’re called vaqueros ("cowboys") or tejanos ("Texans"), and in Danish they’re cowboybukser, also meaning "cowboy pants,” according to the Denim and Trousers ebook by Marquis Schaefer [PDF].

21. HABLEÁNY // FOAM GIRL

Meaning: Mermaid
Language: Hungarian

Haven't you ever seen The Little Foam Girl? It's a Disney classic!

22. KANTH LANGOT // LARYNX LOINCLOTH

Meaning: Tie
Language: Hindi

According to the book Chutnefying English, many Hindi words were introduced to push back against English terms that had been standardized under British colonialism:

“The admission of loanwords into the active lexicon of Hindi speakers has been patchy, with some of the more absurd formulations (such as lauh-path gaamini or 'iron-path traveller' for 'train,' and kanth-langot or 'larynx loincloth' for ‘necktie’) the butt of well-earned mockery.”

23. STOFZUIGER // DUST SUCKER

Meaning: Vacuum cleaner
Language: Dutch

Laura Frame, an illustrator from Glasgow, Scotland, created the “Amusing Dutch Words” series to share some of her favorite literal translations of Dutch, including “mirror egg” for fried egg, “garden snake” for hose, and “wash bear” for raccoon.

24. JAGUCHI // SNAKE MOUTH

Meaning: Water faucet
Language: Japanese

This creative interpretation isn’t too much of a stretch—a faucet does look a bit like a snake’s mouth, if you use your imagination.

25. GAVISTI // DESIRE FOR CATTLE

Meaning: War
Language: Sanskrit

Popularized by a scene in the 2016 sci-fi thriller Arrival, audiences learned that one of the Sanskrit words for war (there are a few) has a peculiar literal translation. This dates back to the early Aryans, who sometimes carried out attacks against aborigines “for the purpose of getting cattle,” according to an article published in The American Journal of Theology.

The 11 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Wilson Webb/Netflix

With thousands of titles available, browsing your Netflix menu can feel like a full-time job. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, take a look at our picks for the 11 best movies on Netflix right now.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man may be in the middle of a Disney and Sony power struggle, but that didn't stop this ambitious animated film from winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Using a variety of visual style choices, the film tracks the adventures of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who discovers he's not the only Spider-Man in town.

2. Hell or High Water (2016)

Taylor Sheridan's Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water follows two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who take to bank robberies in an effort to save their family ranch from foreclosure; Jeff Bridges is the drawling, laconic lawman on their tail.

3. Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro takes on the life of pugilist Jake LaMotta in a landmark and Oscar-winning film from Martin Scorsese that frames LaMotta's violent career in stark black and white. Joe Pesci co-stars.

4. Marriage Story (2019)

Director Noah Bambauch drew raves for this deeply emotional drama about a couple (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) whose uncoupling takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll on their family.

5. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy ended a brief sabbatical from filmmaking following a mixed reception to 2016's Mr. Church with this winning biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, a flailing comedian who finds success when he reinvents himself as Dolemite, a wisecracking pimp. When the character takes off, Moore produces a big-screen feature with a crew of inept collaborators.

6. The Lobster (2015)

Colin Farrell stars in this black comedy that feels reminiscent of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work: A slump-shouldered loner (Farrell) has just 45 days to find a life partner before he's turned into an animal. Can he make it work with Rachel Weisz, or is he doomed to a life on all fours? By turns absurd and provocative, The Lobster isn't a conventional date movie, but it might have more to say about relationships than a pile of Nicholas Sparks paperbacks.

7. Flash of Genius (2008)

Greg Kinnear stars in this drama based on a true story about inventor Robert Kearns, who revolutionized automobiles with his intermittent windshield wiper. Instead of getting rich, Kearns is ripped off by the automotive industry and engages in a years-long battle for recognition.

8. Locke (2013)

The camera rarely wavers from Tom Hardy in this existential thriller, which takes place entirely in Hardy's vehicle. A construction foreman trying to make sure an important job is executed well, Hardy's Ivan Locke grapples with some surprising news from a mistress and the demands of his family. It's a one-act, one-man play, with Hardy making the repeated act of conversing on his cell phone as tense and compelling as if he were driving with a bomb in the trunk.

9. Cop Car (2015)

When two kids decide to take a police cruiser for a joyride, the driver (Kevin Bacon) begins a dogged pursuit. No good cop, he's got plenty to hide.

10. Taxi Driver (1976)

Another De Niro and Scorsese collaboration hits the mark, as Taxi Driver is regularly cited as one of the greatest American films ever made. De Niro is a potently single-minded Travis Bickle, a cabbie in a seedy '70s New York who wants to be an avenging angel for victims of crime. The mercurial Bickle, however, is just as unhinged as those he targets.

11. Sweet Virginia (2017)

Jon Bernthal lumbers through this thriller as a former rodeo star whose career has left him physically broken. Now managing a hotel in small-town Alaska, he stumbles onto a plot involving a murderer-for-hire (Christopher Abbott), upending his quiet existence and forcing him to take action.

11 Unusual Christmas Traditions Around the World

A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
A Mari Lwyd—a ghostly horse figure brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales
R. fiend, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

We all know about the typical trappings of Christmas—Santa, the tree, eggnog and carols, turkey and ham, that fruitcake that’s made three trips around the country and counting. But what about traditions that are generally less well-known in America—the ones that might take place halfway around the world? Traditions like the Swedes watching the same Donald Duck cartoon each year, the Japanese devouring KFC, or Austria’s “bad Santa,” Krampus? Allow us to take you on a journey with the international Christmas traditions below.

1. Sweden // Watching Donald Duck on Television

Every year at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve, around half of Sweden sits down to watch the 1958 Walt Disney TV special “From All of Us to All of You.” Known in Swedish as Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul, the title translates to “Donald Duck and His Friends Wish You a Merry Christmas.” But, really, it’s usually known as Kalle Anka. Since 1959, the show has been airing without commercial interruption at the same time every December 24 on TV1, Sweden’s main public television channel. According to Slate, it’s one of the three most popular TV events each year, and lines of the cartoon’s dialogue have become common Swedish parlance.

Slate’s Jeremy Stahl, who remembers his first Christmas visiting Sweden with his soon-to-be-wife, observes, “I was taken aback not only by the datedness of the clips (and the somewhat random dubbing) but also by how seriously my adoptive Swedish family took the show. Nobody talked, except to recite favorite lines along with the characters." Stahl notes that for many Swedes, other Christmas Eve festivities revolve around watching the show—what time they eat the Christmas meal, for example—and that, although the tradition may seem strange, it also makes some sense: “For many Swedes, there is something comforting about knowing that every year there is one hour, on one day, when you sit down with everyone in your family and just be together.”

2. Venezuela // Roller Skating to Christmas Eve Mass

Roller skates on a wooden background
xavigm/iStock via Getty Images

In the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, it’s a long-established tradition to strap on your skates and roll on over to morning Christmas mass. According to Metro.co.uk, legend has it that children go to bed with a piece of string tied to their toes, with the other end dangling out the window. As the skaters glide by early the next morning, they give the strings a firm tug to let the children know it’s time to wake up and put on their skates. Firecrackers accompany the sound of the church bells, and when mass is finished, everyone gathers for food, music, and dance. The custom continues today.

3. Japan // Eating KFC on Christmas Eve

A KFC in Japan at Christmas
A KFC in Japan at Christmas
Robert Sanzalone, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Christmas isn't a widely celebrated holiday in Japan—a mere 1 percent of Japanese people are estimated to be Christian—and yet a bucket of KFC “Christmas Chicken” is the popular meal on December 24. According to the BBC, 3.6 million families celebrated this way in 2016.

It all began with a 1974 marketing campaign—“Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii” (Kentucky for Christmas). According to Smithsonian, when a group of foreigners couldn’t find Christmas turkey and opted for KFC instead, the company saw it as a fabulous marketing opportunity and advertised its first Christmas meal—chicken and wine for the equivalent of $10, which, Smithsonian notes, was rather pricey for the mid-'70s. These days, the Christmas dinner includes cake and champagne, and costs roughly $40. Many people order their meals far in advance to avoid lines; those who forget can end up waiting for as long as two hours.

4. Ukraine // Decorating the Tree with (Fake) Spiders and Webs

A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
A Ukrainian spider web Christmas tree ornament
Marty Gabel, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

According to Ukrainian folklore, there was a poor family with a widowed single mother who couldn’t afford to decorate their Christmas tree. One night, as they all slept, a wonderful Christmas spider decorated the tree with a beautiful, sparkly web. The rays of the sun touched the web, turning it to silver and gold, and from that day on the family wanted for nothing. Ukrainian families decorate their trees with glittering spiders and their webs in honor of the tale.

5. Guatemala // La Quema del Diablo, “Burning the Devil”

Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Bonfires in Guatemala on La Quema del Diablo
Conred Guatemala, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Every December 7, beginning at 6 p.m. sharp, Guatemalans build bonfires to “burn the devil” and kick off their Christmas season. The tradition has particular significance in Guatemala City, according to National Geographic, due to its association with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which honors the city’s patron saint. The tradition evolved from simply lighting bonfires during colonial times to burning a devil figure to clear the way for a celebration of the Virgin Mary. In recent years, devil piñatas have been added to the festivities, too. These days, an estimated 500,000 bonfires burn in the course of an hour on the holiday, and fireworks explode across the smoky sky.

6. Catalonia // Caganer, the Pooping Christmas Figurine

A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
A caganer figure at a Barcelona Christmas market
J2R/iStock via Getty Images

A regular figure in Catalonian nativity scenes, the caganer is a bare-bottomed man with his pants around his knees as he bends over to poop. He typically wears a white shirt and a barretina, a traditional Catalan hat. The caganer most likely first appeared in nativity scenes in the early 18th century; nativity scenes in the region typically represent pastoral scenes with depictions of rural life. The caganer often appears crouched behind a tree or a building in a corner of the nativity. Caganer literally means “pooper” in Catalan, and no one is certain of his significance, though one theory is that he represents good luck and the wish for a prosperous new year, since the pooping could be construed as the fertilization of the earth. Another theory is that he represents the mischief that resides in all of us. Yet another theory: he could merely represent humility and humanity. After all, everyone poops.

7. Wales // Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare”

Mari Lwyd, or “Gray Mare,” is the name given to the ghostly looking horse figure often brought door-to-door between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Wales. Typically constructed of a horse skull, a white sheet, and adorned with colorful ribbons and bells, the Mari Lwyd is carried around Welsh towns by singing revelers who challenge their neighbors to a battle of wits through poetry. Atlas Obscura explains that despite often being associated with Christmas, Mari Lwyd is actually a pre-Christian practice, and some Welsh towns choose instead to parade their horse skulls on other days, such as Halloween or May Day. However, the Christmas season is the most popular time for Mari Lwyd, and the practice often includes wassailing, which involves the drinking of a boozy, sugared-and-spiced ale.

8. Austria and German-speaking Alpine region // Krampus, the Christmas Devil

Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day
Krampus characters parade on St Nicholas' day in Italy
dario_tommaseo/iStock via Getty Images

While well-behaved children in Austria and elsewhere look forward to St. Nicholas rewarding them with presents and sweets, those on the naughty list live in fear of Krampus. Part demon and part goat, Krampus is a “bad Santa” devil-like figure with origins in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Later, Krampus became a part of Christian traditions alongside the celebrating of St. Nick. During Krampusnacht, or “Krampus night,” right before St. Nicholas Day, adults dress up as Krampus, and Krampus might also be seen on a Krampuslauf—literally a “Krampus run.” He also appears on Christmas cards throughout Austria, and enjoys a long-held place in the country’s holiday traditions, as well as in other German-speaking areas near the Alps.

9. Iceland // The Yule Cat

Iceland has its own frightening Christmas figure, the Yule cat, which lurks in the snow and waits to devour anyone who has not received new clothes to wear for Christmas. National Geographic did some digging into the origins of this tradition, and notes that in Icelandic rural societies employers often rewarded members of their households with new clothes and sheepskin shoes each year as a way to encourage everyone to work hard in the lead-up to Christmas. “To this day Icelanders still find it important to wear new clothes on Christmas Eve when the celebrations begin,” the website writes. So, basically, the Yule cat punishes the lazy by devouring them, though, as National Geographic observes, “According to some tales, the Yule Cat only eats their food and presents, not the actual people.” Whew!

10. Greenland // Whale Blubber Dinner

Although women around the world have often traditionally prepared the Christmas meal, in Greenland the men serve the women. The main dish is mattak, strips of whale blubber, as well as kiviak, flesh from auks buried in sealskin for several months and then served once it begins to decompose. Dessert is a little more familiar: Christmas porridge garnished with butter, cinnamon, and sugar.

11. Italy // Befana, the Christmas Witch

Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
Befana, the Christmas witch of Italy
corradobarattaphotos, iStock via Getty Images

Like Austria’s Krampus, Italy’s Christmas witch, Befana, is scary-looking—she has the warts and the sharp nose of the typical witch depiction—and yet every January 5 she leaves gifts and sweets for the good children. Of course, she also leaves coal for the naughty ones. According to legend, she swoops up the particularly bad children and brings them home to her child-eating husband. According to Vice, Italy honors Befana with festivals each year, complete with market stalls, raffles, games, and prizes. Children also write letters to Befana just as they do to Santa Claus.

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