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.