What’s it to you?: How idioms morph around the world
In a new Wknd column, author Adam Jacot de Boinod unwraps mysteries relating to phrases of everyday use, and hunts down quirky parallels from around the world. Look out for Capital Letters every month.
One of the things I love collecting, as I trawl through the languages of the world in my research for my books, is local equivalents to English phrases. The phrases we call idioms are typically cautionary. They’re handed down through the generations. And they’re exceptionally universal. Everyone has a version of “coals to Newcastle” and “too many cooks”. But each tongue chooses to express these ideas in its own, often eyebrow-raising, culturally informative way.
“Carrying coals to Newcastle”, for instance, in Russian, becomes “going to Tula taking his own samovar”; in Hungarian, “taking water to the Danube”; in Spanish, “oranges to Valencia”, and in German, a phrase that looks further afield: “eulen nach Athen tragen (taking owls to Athens)”.
Calling someone out unjustly? That’s the pot calling the kettle black. Or, in French, the hospital that mocks charity; in Korean, “dotori kijaegi (comparing the height of acorns)”; and in Arabic the more parochial “the camel that cannot see its own hump”.
A particularly telling example deals, intriguingly, in languages. In English, we say “it’s all Greek to me”. In Spanish and Hungarian, it’s “Chinese”. In Polish, it’s “a Turkish sermon”. And for the Czechs, “a Spanish village”.
Similarly, “too many cooks spoil the broth” becomes, in Hindi, “zyada jogi math ujaad (too many saints can ruin the monastery)”. In Mongolian, “one hundred goats for sixty billy goats”; and in Mandarin, “seven hands, eight feet”.
Swahili advises you “not to curse the crocodile before you’ve crossed the river” (so, “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched”). In Turkish, it’s “don’t roll up your trouser legs before you see the stream”. In Danish, “don’t sell the fur before the bear has been shot”; and in the Kikuyu language of Kenya, land of the Nyiri Desert, “having rain clouds is not the same as having rain”.
Similarly, the idea behind “when pigs fly” exists around the world. Many cultures use unlikely animal activity to dismiss hyperbolic statements, and each one chooses its own beast. There’s the Bulgarian “in a cuckoo summer”; the French “quand les poules auront des dents (when hens have teeth)”, and the Spanish “when frogs grow hair”.
Also represented over and over is the idea of it “raining cats and dogs”. In Afrikaans, it rains “old women with clubs”; in Czech, it rains “wheelbarrows”; in Danish, for some reason, “shoemakers’ apprentices”; in Greek, “chair legs”; and in Persian, “like the tail of the horse”.
Perhaps my favourite clutch of phrases from around the world describes someone who’s not very bright. In English, there’s the scathing “sandwich short of a picnic”; in French, “he has a spider on the ceiling”; in Italy, he’s “lacking some Fridays”; and in the one that gets my personal vote, there’s the Dutch “he got a blow from the windmill”.
So many of these ideas no longer exist outside these phrases – old women with clubs; village idiots too close to the windmill. It’s part of what makes language so precious. The words of our ancestors retain clues to who we once were, and to the uniqueness each of our cultures once represented, in a far-less-homogenous world. The more of that history we lose, the more nervous I become. As jittery, they’d say in Puerto Rican Spanish, as a crocodile in a wallet factory.
(Adam Jacot de Boinod was a researcher for the BBC series QI and is the author of The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World)