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Become a bilingual idiom expert with these worldly phrases
Published on 11 Oct 2019
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.
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.
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 an onion, that wasn’t what I was expecting.”
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.
Meaning: To wake up early.
“As an Aussie, we have a ton of unusual phrases,” Jacob from Just Globetrotting explained. “But one that gets the most raised eyebrows is the sparrow's fart. A sparrows fart is the earliest time of the morning when all the sparrows wake up and let out a little fart signifying their awakening.”
Sentence: “This morning, I woke up at the sparrow's fart.”
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.
Meaning: A good thing that 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.”
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 those who have visited France will know that they are awfully good ad 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.
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.”
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, so use one of these in a sentence and you’ll fit in just right in Germany.
Meaning: To live luxuriously.
To live like a maggot in bacon means to live luxuriously with plenty around you - it describes 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: “He had so much money, he lived like a maggot in bacon.”
You may have heard the phrase ‘it’s all Greek to me’ when someone doesn’t understand something. This 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.
Meaning: To catch someone off guard.
“This is a weird Greek phrase with an interesting story behind it,” Valentini from My Shoes Abroad told us. “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,” it means we found out what was going on exactly at the peak of the action.”
Sentence: “I was looking for him for a while but I caught him at the leeks and made him jump.”
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.
Meaning: An unexpected surprise at the end of something.
The phrase ‘raisin at the end of the hot dog’ is a very 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 cruise to Iceland was the raisin at the end of the hot dog.”
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, “Du har fått en telefon” which literally translates to, “You have a telephone.”
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.”
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 with Norwegian, for example. So, if you’re planning to visit Poland soon, it may be a good idea to learn some of these common phrases. After all, they may come in handy.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”