As the years have passed and nations have developed, it has become a natural rite of passage that countries conjure up their own weird, wonderful and unique phrases and sayings that depict everyday happenings. These sorts of sayings are becoming increasingly common as more are choosing to travel to new parts of the world, bringing back these new-found sayings and introducing them into their own societies. One of the most exciting things about learning a new language or immersing yourself in a new culture is learning new idioms and the wonderful and unique meanings behind them.
One of the biggest quirks of any language, idioms can often get lost in translation and can commonly raise a few eyebrows for those hearing them for the first time. So, let’s find out what the world’s favourite phrases are and the real meanings behind them, so you can head off on your next cruise with a new-found bank of phrases to impress the locals and your friends.
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A dark horse in the world of idioms, Iceland is home to some fun and quirky expressions that have been used for hundreds of years. Icelandic is a North Germanic language that a minute number of the population actually speak, so it may come as quite a surprise that they have one of the largest collections of these phrases. A language that has sparsely changed since the 12th century, it can often be hard for more modern readers to understand, which in-turn has developed the use of idioms as a way of understanding confusing and somewhat dated phrases.
The raisin at the end of the hot dog
Rúsínan í Pylsuendanum
Meaning: An unexpected surprise at the end of something
The phrase ‘Raisin at the end of the hotdog’ is a common Icelandic phrase and is often used to describe an unexpected surprise at the end of something, very similar to the English phrase ‘The icing on the cake’.
Sentence: Feeding the reindeer on our trip to Iceland was the raisin at the end of the hotdog.
To bite the molar
Bíta á jaxlinn
Meaning: To pluck up the courage to face a challenge or situation
Meaning to pluck up courage or to be brave, the phrase ‘to bite the molar’ is often used when someone doesn’t want to do something. Similar to the phrase ‘To bite the bullet’, it can be used in a variety of contexts and will be a common appearance if you are planning to visit Iceland soon.
Sentence: It’s raining outside but I’m going to bite the molar and walk the dogs anyway.
The English language is often described as one of the hardest to learn, and with idioms, proverbs and expressions commonly used to describe everyday activities, it can become a minefield of expressive phrases and complicated idioms. English speakers have an idiom for almost every occasion and often, they make absolutely no sense at all, so make sure you learn these next few and impress some friends with your new-found phrases and their meanings.
A blessing in disguise
Meaning: A good thing seemed bad at first
A phrase used for something that sounded unlucky at first but turns out to be something good that happens later on. This phrase is used frequently in English speaking countries, so keep your ears peeled when you’re next wandering the streets of the UK.
Sentence: My car broke down again but maybe it was a blessing in disguise, I’ve been doing too much driving recently anyway.
Cut me some slack
Meaning: Don’t be so critical
The phrase cutting somebody some slack dates from the 1900s and its direct meaning is to loosen the sail or rope, meaning to loosen or tighten the restriction. The saying is still used to this day as a way of telling someone not to be so critical of another. The phrase is used frequently and can be used in a number of situations.
Sentence: Cut Jack some slack, he’s trying his hardest.
With rich landscapes and diverse idioms to match, Norway’s language and corresponding phrases are seemingly easy to understand in comparison to some of its native neighbours. Although very to the point, to a non-native speaker they can still be misinterpreted and unassuming. Often Norway’s idioms are direct translations of the saying, for example, ‘Du har fått en telefon’ quite literally translates to ‘you have a telephone’ meaning to make a telephone call.
To swallow some camels
For å svelge noen kameler
Meaning: To give in
A bizarre phrase, but this Norwegian saying actually means to give in to something. Commonly used when something you’re giving into is impossible or can’t be completed as you have too many camels to swallow to get there. The phrase actually comes from the words of Jesus as he depicted in the Gospel of Matthew: “Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel."
Sentence: I just couldn’t finish it, I couldn’t swallow the camels.
We spoke to Vanessa Brune, who resides in Norway and blogs about her experiences at Nordic Wanders, she told us a little more about her favourite phrases and what they mean:
All hope is outside
Alt håp er ute
“Alt håp er ute" is Norwegian and translates to "All hope is outside". The phrase has an interesting sort of double meaning as it describes the feeling of hopelessness (as in, there is no hope), but it also alludes to the outdoors. Norwegians are very glad in the nature that surrounds them and Norway certainly has plenty of wilderness to offer. Many people thus like to spend their free time outdoors, so the phrase can also be understood in the sense that the best things in life are out in nature. I think that's an interesting way to look at problem-solving - just go outside and things will get better!”
“There are a lot of funny phrases in Finnish. As even now in the modern world, Finns are forest people in their hearts, many Finnish idioms involve nature and particularly animals.” Says Varpu Pöyry from Her Finland. As Varpu says, many of the Finnish phrases are derived from nature and animals as a nod to their rich lands.
We asked Varpu for some of her favourite phrases:
- ‘Say vendance fish’: To say cheese for the camera.
- ‘Like a sign of a storm’: Someone is very disappointed.
- ‘Like a chicken's flight’: To take a nosedive and stop almost immediately.
- ‘She is ‘in a good wind’: When someone is happy.
- ‘She is ‘a bun mouse’: She likes sweet treats.
When visiting The Netherlands it may come in handy to learn some of the traditional phrases and idioms, to avoid any miscommunications or unwanted embarrassment. With there said to be over 16.99 million Dutch people in the world, you’ll come across a Dutch saying more often than you originally thought with 28 million people claiming they are from Dutch descendants.
Laura from Laure Wanders who told us all about her favourite phrases and their real meanings:
- “‘Now the monkey comes out of the sleeve’: When the truth about something is revealed.
- ‘It's raining pipe-stems’: When it's raining a lot.
- ‘To fall with the door into the house’: Getting straight to the point.
- ‘To make an elephant out of a fly’: To make something big out of nothing.
- ‘To talk about little cows and calves’: Having small talk.”
We also spoke to Tamara and Daphne who blog about their travels at Girls Wanderlust, they both live in the Netherlands and have some funny phrases that they both like to use:
- “‘To have something under the knee’: To possess in-depth knowledge of something.
- 'Talking about little cows and little calves': Chatting about nothing of importance or nothing in particular.”
As a language with tongue-twisting words and complex grammar, Polish, alongside English is regarded as one of the most difficult languages to learn. Polish idioms are also considered one of the reasons that people find it hard to pick up the language, as you can’t translate phrases into English word for word like you can languages like with Norwegian. So, if you’re planning to visit Poland soon, it may be a good idea to learn some of these common phrases, they may come in handy.
Mustard after lunch
Musztarda po obiedzie
Meaning: It's too late to do something because it has already happened
Similar to the phrase ‘that ship has sailed’, ‘mustard after lunch’ is saying that it is too late to do something because it has already happened. There can only really be one explanation for the phrase and that means that it must be a real disappointment to have lunch without mustard.
Sentence: Mustard after lunch, I’ve already submitted my project so I can’t do anything about it.
Like many of the other languages we have mentioned, Arabic has its own set of idioms that are used to describe an event or activity, however, to non-native and even native speakers, these are often difficult to understand, even for those who know the meanings behind the phrases.
Break a fast with an onion
تفطر مع البصل
Translation: Break a fast with an onion
Meaning: To get less than you were expecting
A phrase to describe being disappointed and getting less than you are expecting. Imagine being so hungry and your next meal after fasting consists only of an onion. If you want to call something disappointing, then just say ‘breaking a fast with an onion’.
Sentence: Break a fast with onion, that wasn’t what I was expecting.
You may have heard of the phrase ‘it’s all Greek to me’ when someone doesn’t understand something, the phrase is widely used as the Greek language can often be hard to understand. If you’re visiting Greece or want to find out a little more about their language and way of life, learning some of their well-used idioms will really help you when on your travels.
Caught at the leeks
πιαστηκανε στα πράσα
Meaning: To catch someone off guard
We spoke to Valentini, a Greek footwear designer and a lover of travelling who blogs at My Shoes Abroad. She told us her favourite Greek idiom:
“’Caught at the leeks’. This is a weird Greek phrase with an interesting story behind! Back in the 19th century, in Athens, there was a famous gang that couldn't be arrested for a long time despite the authorities efforts. One night they tried to steal some gold coins from the local priest's house but he woke up just on time and managed to catch the gang chief at the point where the leek crop was! When the police arrived to arrest him the priest proudly shouted: ‘I caught him at the leeks’! Since then when we use the phrase ‘We caught them at the leeks’ or ‘They have been caught at the leeks’ it means we found out what was going on exactly at the peak of the action or (when used in passive voice) that they were caught (literally or metaphorically) at the worst point possible!”
Sentence: I was looking for him for a while but I caught him at the leeks and made him jump.
German idioms are unlike any other, often they mention popular German foods like sausages and mustard. These idioms give an insight into the German culture and they are used across the country, being widely recognised, so use one of these in a sentence and you’ll fit in just right in Germany.
Live like a maggot in bacon
Leben wie die Made im Speck
Meaning: To live luxuriously
Live like a maggot in bacon means to live luxuriously with plentiful around you, describing how the maggot would feel if he had lots of bacon to eat. Phrases like this can often tell us a lot about what is important to a nation, in this case, Germans love to live life to the full with all the things they love around them.
Sentence: They had so much money he lived like a maggot in bacon.
Tamara and Daphne also told us about their favourite German saying: “Leben ist kein Ponyhof' meaning 'Life can be challenging'.”
Australia isn’t known for having lots of phrases as it is a young, English speaking country. Many Aussies are down-to-earth and have numerous slang terms for everyday phrases, but the one or two idioms they do hold are pretty whacky.
I woke up this morning at the Sparrow's fart.
Meaning: Waking up early
Jacob Cass from Just Globetrotting explained a little about his favourite Aussie saying: “As an Aussie, we have a ton of unusual phrases, but one that gets the most raised eyebrows is the Sparrow's fart! A sparrow's fart is the earliest time of the morning when all the sparrows wake up and let out a little fart signifying their awakening. As an example of how you would say it: ‘I woke up this morning at the Sparrow's fart,’
Sentence: This morning I woke up at the sparrow’s fart
Especially difficult for English speakers to learn, the Russian language is bizarre and often comprises of colourful phrases that are difficult to translate into English. To speak like a true local or to understand some of the basic Russian phrases then make sure you take note of these local idioms.
To hang noodles on the ears
Вешать лапшу на уши
Meaning: To trick someone
A phrase often used in Russia to describe someone that is easily tricked or fooled into something. The phrase to hang noodles on the ears doesn’t have a literal meaning, but in its basic form, it means that you can do something without the person knowing.
Sentence: I hung noodles on his ears and he believed me
Learning Spanish idioms can be crucial to understanding the Spanish language as they are so frequently used, it may be difficult to understand what is going on otherwise. With languages like Portuguese sounding very similar, the use of idioms will give you a head start when navigating the streets of Spain.
Give pumpkins to someone
Dar calabazas a alguien
Meaning: To reject someone
Originating from Ancient Greece, this unusual idiom derives from times when pumpkins were actually classed as anti-aphrodisiacs and were often considered very unappealing to eat in front of a potential suitor. So, if you’re visiting Spain and someone tells you they are giving you a pumpkin, you will know what they mean.
Sentence: I’m going to have to give her pumpkins.
The language of love, French idioms are relatively simple in terms of detail, but non-native speakers can still find them particularly difficult to learn. But for those who have visited France will know that they are awfully good at idioms, and English ones too! So as you’re wandering around the streets of Paris, listen out for classic English idioms as well as some quirky French ones.
The demon of midday
Le démon de midi
Meaning: A midlife crisis
It is said that the Demon comes alive at noon, terrorising its prey until they surrender. The phrase ‘The demon of midday’ is said to describe someone who is being terrorised by the demon, or in other words is having a midlife crisis.
Sentence: She wasn’t concentrating, I think it must be the demon of midday.
With all these new-found idioms to use, it’s time to start putting them into practice. Book a world cruise and start exploring a world of weird and wonderful phrases. We offer cruises across the globe, so you’re never too far away from your next adventure.