13 Ways to Express Common English Idioms in Other Languages

Palto, iStock / Getty Images Plus
Palto, iStock / Getty Images Plus

For native speakers of a language, idioms can capture just the right nuance of a particular situation. But for those who aren't intimately familiar with that language and culture, idioms often sound like a bunch of randomly thrown together words. If you were to ask students learning English for the first time to "think outside the box," for instance, they might wonder, "What box? Could you describe the box?"

Since idioms often describe a universal experience, similar idioms crop up in many languages. However, the variations in how cultures phrase these observations reflect differences in folklore, attitudes, and superstitions across the world. Here are 13 foreign analogs to familiar English-language idioms.

1. It's a Spanish Village to me. // Czech

English Equivalent: It's all Greek to me.

Whether muttered over laser printer manuals or calculus equations, it's all Greek to me conveys total confusion by referring to an “exotic” language. In fact, in addition to English, several other languages—including Swedish and Norwegian—call out the Greek language for being inscrutable [PDF]. But many Slavic languages—such as Czech, Slovak, Croatian, and Serbian—instead evoke the idea of the apparently unpronounceable names of Spanish towns. Czech speakers, for instance, convey their confusion by saying "je to pro mě španělská vesnice," or "it's a Spanish village to me."

2. To Belch Smoke From the Seven Orifices of the Head // Chinese

English Equivalent: For one's blood to boil

Most cultures have their jerks, bad drivers, and slow internet days, which is why most languages also have lots of colorful idioms for anger. While an English speaker’s blood boils, in China, the expression is 七窍生烟, or to belch smoke from the seven orifices of the head (referring to the ears, eyes, nostrils, and mouth). The element of air (Qi) is seen in Chinese philosophy as the Earth’s essential element, while in Western philosophy, water has often been considered the essential element. That's why, according to scholar Peilei Chen, Chinese idioms tend to refer to anger as something in the air—in this case, smoke—while English idioms tend to refer to it as something liquid, like boiling blood [PDF].

3. The Noonday Demon // French

English Equivalent: A midlife crisis

It’s only natural that different cultures employ phrases to define the bout of restlessness that often occurs in middle age. Rather than calling it a crisis, the French call it a demon: le démon de midi. Originally used in a religious context, this idiom with biblical roots [PDF] referred to the restlessness or depression felt in the middle of the day. Now used in the secular sense to refer to the restlessness associated with aging, this impish midday demon supposedly rouses the excitement of the condition’s sufferer and causes them to do foolish things—say, grow a ponytail, date a 20-year-old, or buy a Mazda MX-5.

4. To Give Someone Pumpkins // Spanish

English Equivalent: To shoot someone down

If you have a crush on someone, you do not want to be on the business end of the Spanish-language idiom dar calabazas, meaning to give someone pumpkins. The connection between pumpkins and rejecting advances is an old one in Spanish, and originally, seemingly literal—a turn-of-the-century American magazine called The Churchman explained in a 1902 issue that in Spain, “the suitor may be rejected by the gift of a pumpkin” at any time during a courtship.

5. The hen sees the snake’s feet and the snake sees the hen’s boobs. // Thai

English equivalent: To know where the bodies are buried

Though they're very similar, the Thai idiom ไก่เห็นตีนงู งูเห็นนมไก่ differs slightly its rough English equivalent, to know where the bodies are buried. The English idiom suggests that one person knows another’s secrets and somehow benefits. By giving the secret-knower a secret of his own, the Thai version adds a juicy dimension of intrigue.

6. Reheated Cabbage // Italian

English Equivalent: To rekindle an old flame

English speakers use heat to describe relationships and romance: Someone attractive is called "hot" or even "smoking hot," relationships are said to "heat up" or "fizzle," and people say they "carry a torch" for their exes—and perhaps seek to rekindle an old flame. Italians refer to a rekindled romance with a more unpleasant-sounding idiom. They call it "cavolo riscaldato," or "reheated cabbage." (Some also use minestra riscaldata, or reheated soup, instead.) Now that we think of it, the idea of reheated cabbage sounds pretty true to how the situation normally turns out—messy and ultimately disappointing.

7. The staircase wit // French

English Equivalent: Escalator wit

Though the idea of staircase wit (sometimes called stairway or escalator wit)—that terrible situation when the perfect retort comes to you a moment too late—isn't used very often in English, the French idiom l'esprit de l'escalier, or the staircase wit, is its more common Francophone counterpart. The idea is that its sufferer finds his or herself in a stairwell after the end of an argument, where they are granted witty inspiration just a few frustrating (maybe even smoke-belching) minutes too late to respond to their opponent.

8. One Afternoon in Your Next Reincarnation // Thai

English equivalent: When pigs fly

An adynaton is a hyperbolic statement meant to exaggerate impossibility, which many languages do by granting powers to animals. Anglophone pigs fly, Russian crayfish sing from mountaintops, and French hens grow teeth. But in the largely Buddhist Thai culture, things aren’t impossible; they just might not happen in this life. That's why Thai speakers say something might happen ชาติหน้าตอนบ่าย ๆ, or one afternoon in your next reincarnation.

9. To Throw Georges // Finnish

English equivalent: To blow chunks

Say the term “blow chunks” and many shudder with vague memories of ill-advised tequila shooters. Many Finns have similar associations with the phrase heittää Yrjöt, or throw Georges, which means to throw up. However, the etymology of this term is difficult to track down. One explanation seems to be an endemic distaste for the name Yrjö (George), while another chalks it up to onomatopoeia.

10. To Play Gooseberry // British English

American equivalent: To be a third wheel

Nothing is more annoying than a third wheel. The British term may be related to gooseberry picker, which may sound like a Cap’n Crunch variant, but was in fact a 19th-century term for a chaperone. In the case of this idiom, the chaperone would ostensibly busy themselves picking gooseberries while the two lovers enjoyed shenanigans behind their back.

11. A dog covered in feces scolds a dog covered in grain. // Korean

English equivalent: Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

Even though it’s essentially sacrilegious to show disdain for dogs these days in American culture, our revered best buddies of the animal kingdom have historically served as metaphors for dirty or unsavory behavior. And there’s something about being both judgmental and covered in poop that just screams “unsavory," which is why we love the Korean idiom 똥 묻은 개가 겨 묻은 개 나무란다. In English, those who live in glass houses should not throw stones traces its origins back to (at least) Chaucer and is probably related to Jesus’s Biblical admonishment about being sinful and casting stones. While the Anglophone world throws things at people they shouldn’t criticize, in Korea, the poop-covered dog criticizes one above his social rank and is therefore stepping out of line socially. A big no-no.

12. Pay the Duck // Portuguese

English equivalent: Take the fall (for something)

The Portuguese idiom pagar o pato is said to come from an old fable where a poor wife tried to pay a duck vendor with sexual favors. A dispute broke out concerning the cost of the duck, during which time the husband arrived home and paid for the duck. By doing so, he took the fall, the wife was off the hook, and the vendor got pretty much everything he could possibly want.

13. To Wear a Cat on One’s Head // Japanese

English equivalent: A wolf in sheep’s clothing

Cats do in idioms what cats do in life—which is anything they want, ungoverned by laws of nature. They die via curiosity, live multiple lives, get our tongues, and come out of bags to reveal our secrets. The Japanese adore cats (the country is home to Cat Island, after all), so hiding beneath one—猫をかぶる, or to wear a cat on one's head—implies that you're shamefully using a lovable furball to hide your dangerous nature, à la the English expression a wolf in sheep's clothing.

What’s the Difference Between Forests, Woods, and Jungles?

Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images
Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images

If you're an English speaker, there’s a good chance you often use the words woods, forest, and jungle correctly without even thinking about it. Even if a patch of trees takes up a significant portion of your backyard, you probably wouldn’t consider it a forest; and you wouldn’t talk about the beautiful fall foliage in New England’s jungles. Based on those examples, it seems like woods are smaller than forests, and jungles aren’t found in colder climates. This isn’t wrong—but there's more to it than that.

According to Merriam-Webster, a forest is “a dense growth of trees and underbrush covering a large tract,” while woods are “a dense growth of trees usually greater in extent than a grove and smaller than a forest.” The reason we consider forests to be larger than woods dates back to the Norman rule of Great Britain in 1066, when a forest was a plot of land owned by the Crown that was large enough to accommodate game for royal hunting parties. Whether that land contained trees or not was essentially irrelevant.

These days, scientists and land managers definitely consider the presence of trees necessary for land to be classified as a forest. To set it apart from woods, or woodland, it usually has to meet certain density qualifications, which are different depending on whom you ask.

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), a forest must cover about 1.24 acres of land, and its canopy cover—the amount of land covered by the treetops—must exceed 10 percent of the acreage [PDF]. “Other wooded land” must also span about 1.24 acres, but its canopy cover is between 5 and 10 percent. In a nutshell, the FAO thinks forests and woods are the same size, but forests are more dense than woods. Australia, on the other hand, employs plant ecologist Raymond Specht’s classification system for its vegetation, in which any tree-populated land with less than 30 percent canopy cover is a woodland, and anything more dense than that is a forest.

Unlike forests, jungles don’t have specific scientific classifications, because the word jungle isn’t really used by scientists. According to Sciencing, it’s a colloquial term that usually denotes what scientists refer to as tropical forests.

Tropical forests are located around the Equator and have the highest species diversity per area in the world. Since they’re so densely populated with flora and fauna, it makes sense that both Merriam-Webster and the Encyclopedia Britannica describe jungles as “tangled” and “impenetrable.” They’re bursting with millions of plants and animals that are different from what we see in temperate and boreal forests to the north.

Because most of us aren’t in the habit of clarifying which type of forest we’re talking about in casual conversation, it’s no surprise that we often refer to the temperate forests we see in our own climate simply as forests, which we differentiate from those rich, overgrown tropical territories to the south by calling them jungles.

To summarize, forests are historically and colloquially considered to be larger than woods, and scientifically considered to be more dense. Jungles are technically forests, too, since jungle is a casual word for what scientists call a tropical forest.

And, all differences aside, it’s relaxing to spend time in any of them—here are 11 scientific reasons why that’s true.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

5 Benefits of Sarcasm, According to Science

AntonioGuillem/iStock via Getty Images
AntonioGuillem/iStock via Getty Images

Writing of her future demise, author and humorist Dorothy Parker once observed that her epitaph might read, “Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.”

Celebrated for her scathing wit and wordplay, the late Parker might agree that sarcasm held tangible benefits. Doled out with care, ironic remarks—usually defined as communication that humorously conveys your intent through language that appears to be the opposite of what you mean—can amuse friends, lighten the mood, or broadcast your wit. But there’s more to sarcasm than simply eliciting a laugh. It turns out that the perks of your caustic muttering might have some scientific support. Take a look at a few peer-reviewed consequences to your snappy comebacks.

1. Sarcasm and humor might make you appear more confident, particularly at work.

In a 2016 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers evaluated adults on their responses to some candid remarks about fictional pet food and travel companies, among other subjects. Those with zingers were perceived as having more competence and confidence. “The successful use of humor—telling jokes that are funny and appropriate—can raise your status because it makes you appear more confident and more competent,” says co-author Thomas Bitterly, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business. “Confidence and competence are two of the key traits that determine whether we give someone status. The reason for this is because we want the individuals who have influence in a group to be those who are capable of leading it.”

Humor and sarcasm work to reinforce these traits, Bitterly tells Mental Floss, because humor itself is a risk. “Before we tell a joke, especially to people we do not know well, it’s difficult to know with certainty if our audience will find it funny and appropriate. If they find it unfunny and inappropriate, they will think that we lack competence and we will lose status. Given that humor is risky, telling a joke signals confidence,” he says.

2. Sarcasm can improve creativity.

In a 2015 paper [PDF] published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, researchers (including those at Harvard and Columbia business schools) made the case for sarcasm facilitating creative thinking. In a series of experiments, participants gave or received positive, neutral, or sarcastic responses with a partner. Those in the sarcastic groups performed better at creative tasks—like problem-solving on paper—after the fact.

"This is because both sarcasm construction and sarcasm interpretation are conducive to abstract thinking, a key cognitive precursor to creative thinking," lead author Li Huang, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, tells Mental Floss. Huang points to a common sarcastic comment aimed at someone wasting time in the workplace: "Don't work too hard." The intended meaning is likely to "work harder." Both the speaker and recipient benefit, Huang says, because both need to process the underlying message. The speaker must translate the admonishment to sarcasm, and the recipient has to consider what the speaker really meant. That abstraction fosters creative thinking because creativity is needed to discern the truth and not the literal meaning of the statement.

"In this way, to construct or interpret sarcasm is to traverse the psychological distance between the stated and the intended meaning through abstract thinking," Huang says.

There is one word of caution: Sarcasm tends to have this effect when it’s lobbed between two parties who know and trust one another. With strangers, it might simply come off as rude or confusing.

3. Sarcasm can make criticism seem almost pleasant.

Want to offer some constructive commentary without feeling like a jerk? In a 2016 paper published in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, co-author Melanie Glenwright, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba, examined how adults and children interpreted sarcastic commentary. The generally agreeable reactions by adults to criticism indicates it can be wrapped in an amusing remark that reduces the chance for the listener to feel offended.

“The use of indirect language allows the speaker to criticize the addressee indirectly which is perceived as more polite than a direct, literal insult,” Glenwright tells Mental Floss. "Speakers may use sarcasm to deliver insults in professional or social settings where they want to criticize another person in a less-harsh manner.”

4. Sarcasm can make for better social bonding.

When we pass along a humorous observation and someone agrees with it, we’re strengthening our bond with that individual, according to Glenwright. “[Sarcasm] improves social bonding between the speaker and the addressee,” she says. “Sarcasm can also be used to convey humor and jocularity which can improve mood both in the speaker and addressee.”

5. Sarcasm might make you appear more intelligent.

Sarcasm and humor alike share a common trait: They require creative thinking that’s rapidly deployed to analyze a situation. Depending on the company, Bitterly says that a clever retort could potentially have people thinking more highly of you. “Saying something that is funny and appropriate is difficult,” he says. “It requires being able to recognize an opportunity for humor—'did someone just say something I know a funny response for'—[and] being able to quickly generate or recall a funny response and being able to predict how the audience is going to respond. On top of those things, delivery and timing also matter …. We tend to view people who manage to successfully pull off all of these things as being more intelligent, and we see that reflected in the way we refer to them.”

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