20 Delightful Idioms From Around the World

Idioms like Mandarin’s ‘take your pants off to fart’ make no sense to English speakers—at least, not to English speakers who haven’t read this list.
Languages around the world have their own strange idioms.
Languages around the world have their own strange idioms. / bubaone/Digital Vision Vectors/Getty Images

Idioms are by definition non-literal, but native speakers of a language rarely think about just how nonsensical these sayings can sometimes be. For instance, using the cat’s pajamas—a phrase popularized by flappers during the Roaring Twenties—to describe something as amazing doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But English isn’t alone in having idioms that sound delightfully bizarre; here are 20 examples from languages around the word.

1. To slide in on a shrimp sandwich // Swedish

illustration of a shrimp sandwich
In Sweden, one popular idiom references a shrimp sandwich. / bortonia/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

Meatballs are probably Sweden’s best-known cuisine around the globe (thanks, IKEA!), but this Swedish expression involves a slightly higher-class food. Att glida in på en räkmacka is used to describe someone who hasn’t worked hard for the things they have or what they’ve accomplished. So, for example, some nepo babies could be said to have slid in on a shrimp sandwich.

2. Thinking about the immortality of the crab // Spanish

Illustration of a crab
In Spanish, one idiom considers a crab’s lifespan. / Redlio Designs/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

In Spanish, pensando en la inmortalidad del cangrejo is a poetic way to say that someone is daydreaming. Crabs aren’t immortal, of course, which simply adds to the whimsical quality of the phrase. Other languages have their own versions of this mind-wandering idiom: In Polish, the expression is myśleć o niebieskich migdałach, which means “you are thinking about blue almonds.”

3. Take your pants off to fart // Mandarin

Illustration of a boy pulling pants down and farting
One Mandarin idiom references flatulence. / borisz/Digital Vision Vectors/Getty Images

Although this Chinese idiom about flatulence is probably best left unsaid in polite company, it’s a hilariously evocative way to describe someone doing something pointlessly over the top. Tuō kùzi fangpì (脱裤子放屁) is what’s known as a xiehouyu (歇后语), a shortened witticism. There are two parts to the saying, with the first being idiomatic and the second providing an explanation. In the case of taking your pants off to fart, the rationale is that it’s an unnecessary action, which in Mandarin is duōcǐyījǔ (多此一举). As with English equivalents—for example, speak of the devil and he shall appear—it’s usually not necessary to say the second part.

4. In the whale’s ass // Italian

Illustration of a whale's tail above the water
An Italian idiom considers a whale’s posterior. / Malte Mueller/fStop/Getty Images

Another butt-related idiom that comes in two parts is Italy’s in culo alla balena, which literally translates to “in the whale’s ass” and is comparable to saying “break a leg” in English to wish someone good luck. The respondent must then reply “speriamo che non caghi,” “let’s hope it doesn’t shit”—otherwise it’s bad luck. A less vulgar alternative is in bocca al lupo, “into the wolf’s mouth,” which is most commonly answered with crepi, “may it die.”

5. No one becomes an unbeaten bishop // Icelandic

Looking to say “no pain, no gain” the Icelandic way? You’ll want to use enginn verður óbarinn biskup, which means “no one becomes an unbeaten bishop.” This idiom is supposedly a reference to the medieval-era Icelandic Bishop Guðmundur Arason, who is said to have faced a lot of hardship on the road to his religious position.

6. One’s shoes are thrown to the rooftop // Turkish

illustration of a sneaker on a yellow background
One Turkish idiom involves shoes on a roof. / bortonia/Digital Vision Vectors/Getty Images

If you want to say that someone has fallen out of favor in Turkish, use the idiom pabucu dama atılmak. The story goes that during the Ottoman Empire, if a shoemaker was judged to have crafted an inferior product, the shoes they had made would be thrown onto the roof of their shop to serve as a warning sign to other potential customers—hence the connection between declining popularity and shoes on roofs.

7. Don’t push granny into the nettles // French

Depending on the context, faut pas pousser mémé dans les orties either means “don’t exaggerate” or “don’t push it.” For instance, say you offer to bring a bottle of expensive champagne to a party—when the host asks if you can bring three instead, you’d be justified in saying “don’t push granny into the nettles!”

8. You don’t know the letter ‘giyeok’ even after putting down a sickle // Korean

A colorful way to call someone “foolish” in Korean is nat noko giyeokjado moreunda (낫놓고기역자도모른다). Although this idiom may seem nonsensical in translation, to anyone familiar with Hangul, the Korean alphabet, it makes perfect sense. The first letter in the alphabet is giyeok (ㄱ), so it’s considered the most basic letter because it’s the first one that children learn. It also happens to be shaped like a sickle, so if someone doesn’t know giyeok, even when looking at the blade, then they aren’t the sharpest tool in the shed.

9. Scare with a puff of peas // Afrikaans

Illustration of peas and a pod.
Peas are part of an Afrikaans idiom. / JakeOlimb/Digital Vision Viectors/Getty Images

In English, people who scare easily—like Scooby-Doo and Shaggy, for instance—are said to be “afraid of their own shadow.” In Afrikaans, the expression is jy kan hom met ń blaas ertjies die skrik op die lyf jag, or that you can “scare them with a puff of peas”—as in, with a pea-shooter, which is not exactly a frightening weapon. That’s not the only Afrikaans idiom to describe scaredy-cats; another is skrik vir koue pampoen, which means they’re “afraid of cold pumpkin.”

10. There are owls in the bog // Danish

illustration of an owl on a yellow background
Owls are a part of one Danish idiom. / bubaone/Digital Vision Vectors/Getty Images

The Danish idiom for describing something as suspicious or fishy, der er ugler i mosen, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, likely thanks to a corruption of the original phrase. It’s thought that this expression started out with a reference to ulve, “wolves,” but that at some point the Jutlandic dialect of this word, uller, was misunderstood as ugler, meaning “owls.” To be fair, although there’s more reason to be cautious of wolves than owls, the canines were actually extinct in Denmark between 1813 and 2012. This phrase has also crossed over into Swedish (att ana ugglor i mossen, “owls in the moss”) and Norwegian (which is the same as in Danish).

11. Lid shut, monkey dead // German

To say “end of story” in German, simply use the idiom klappe zu, affe tot, meaning “lid shut, monkey dead.” Although klappe can also be slang for “shut up,” in the context of this phrase it means “the story is done” or “that’s that,” rather than being a rude way of telling someone to stop speaking.

12. Throw your rifle in the rye // Czech

Rocky Balboa would never give up and throw in the towel—a phrase that came from the boxing convention of literally throwing a towel into the ring to admit defeat. In Czech, the saying is hodit flintu do žita, or “throw your rifle in the rye.” The origins of the Czech version of the phrase are less clear than the English version, but Slovenians also say something similar: vržemo puško v koruzo, “throw a rifle into the corn.”

13. A handful of shit is better than a handful of fart // Thai

This proverb is along the same lines as the English saying “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” which advises being content with what you have and not risking it for more. The Thai version, kam khi di kwa kam tot (กำขี้ดีกว่ากำตด), is slightly different, asserting that it’s better to get something—even poop—than nothing. Having said that, if this adage were taken literally, most people would surly prefer a handful of fart (although there are always exceptions!).

14. Take the little horse out of the rain // Portuguese

illustration of a horse on a green background
One Portuguese idiom involves a horse in the rain. / CSA Images/Getty Images

When telling someone to give up on an idea in Portuguese, it’s common to say “tirar o cavalinho da chuva,” similar to the way “don’t hold your breath” is used in English. The origins of this phrase possibly come from when horses were the main mode of transportation. If a guest was invited to stay at their host’s house for a while, they would be told to stable their horse, rather than leaving it out in the elements. These days, the idiom is used ironically to shut people down: If a kid asks to see a scary horror movie, for example, their guardian might reply “take your little horse out of the rain!”

15. The fence is not made of sausage // Hungarian

This Hungarian idiom assumes a love of sausage, which is a staple food in Hungary. Nem kolbászból van a kerítés essentially means that something or somewhere isn’t as good as you think it is.

16. Should I sniff my nails? // Greek

Illustration of a woman's hand with nails
In Greek, asking “should I sniff my nails?” has nothing to do with actual nail smelling. / CSA Images/Getty Images

If a Greek person is asked a question that they couldn’t possibly know the answer to, they’ll reply with the expression prépi na miríso ta níhia mu (πρέπει να μυρίσω τα νύχια μου). It literally translates to “should I sniff my nails?” but it basically means “how would I know?” The idiom supposedly comes from Ancient Greek oracles dipping their fingertips into hallucinogenic oil and then sniffing them in order to enter a trance-like state that would apparently enable them to predict the future.

17. I’m neither the top of the onion nor the bottom // Persian

Persians don’t simply say that something has nothing to do with them—instead, they say that they’re man na sar-e piâzam na tah-e piâz (تو سر پیازی یا ته پیاز). Both the top of an onion (the leafy greens) and the bottom (the round bulb) are edible, hence why saying you’re neither means that you’re no use in a situation. The expression can also be turned around on someone else to tell them to stop meddling in something that isn’t their business.

18. Don’t let your daughter-in-law eat fall eggplants // Japanese

Illustration of an eggplant on an orange background
One Japanese idiom involves eggplants ... and daughters-in-law. / RobinOlimb/Digital Vision Vectors/Getty Images

One story behind the idiom akinasu wa yome ni kuwasuna (秋茄子は嫁に食わすな)—meaning “don’t allow yourself to be taken advantage of”—is that eggplants are particularly good in the fall season, and so such a delicacy shouldn’t be wasted on daughters-in-law, who historically ranked fairly low in the traditional Japanese family hierarchy. The alternative explanation is less cruel: Eggplants are thought to cool the body, which allegedly makes it harder to get pregnant.

19. You are a radish from which field? // Hindi

Don’t be fooled into thinking that the Hindi saying tuu kis khet kii muulii hai (तुमकिसखेतकीमूलीहो) is really about where a radish took root. It’s actually used as a derogatory response to someone, along the same lines as “what makes you so special?” or “who do you think you are?”

20. To show someone where the crayfish are wintering // Ukrainian

The Ukrainian way of telling someone that you’re going to teach them a lesson—in a threatening, rather than an educational, way—is показати де раки зимують. (The idiom also exists in Russia: Я тебе покажу, где раки зимуют.) The apparent reasoning behind this phrase is that catching crayfish in winter is an unpleasant job due to freezing temperatures, so anyone forced to do it sees it as a punishment.

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Correction: Because the Afrikaans word blaas can be translated as “bladder,” “blow/puff,” we originally had the translation of as “chase away fright with a bladder of peas.” Many thanks to the reader who alerted us to this issue; we regret the error.