Let’s not beat around the bush: English is chock full of idioms and expressions that don’t make any sense if you take them literally. Idioms can be a blessing in disguise, but they’re also a dime a dozen. It’s not rocket science, but it can easily get out of hand if English isn’t your first language. To make a long story short, idioms can be hard to wrap your head around.
Of course, every language is full of its own colorful expressions — insults, jokes, wit and wisdom — that can seem odd if translated literally.
Multilingual people recently took to the internet to help us understand some of the best of these from around the world. So hang in there and don’t forget to break a leg!
45. Romanian Lessons
Romanian, reporting in. On the left — the literal translation of common Romanian phrases. On the right — what they actually mean.
“A man how it falls” – word for word in Romanian it means “a nice guy”
“Going to health” – “Making a run for it”
“A man in an ear” – “An insane man”
“A man with a chair at his head” – “A smart man” / “A wise man”
“Taken by the soul” – “Adopted”
“Man with a thick cheek” – “Jerk”
“Man with fear of God” – “Believer”
“Health!” – “Bless you!”
“Charity words” – “BS”
“To stay in someone’s ribs” – “To annoy someone”
“Screaming at the sky” – “Outrageous”
“You made it cabbage” – “You messed up”
“My butt hurts” – “I don’t care”
“You’ve found the pot of crap” – “You’re in trouble now”
“Kiss your hand” – Polite greeting towards a woman (note: no hand kissing involved, but we say it nonetheless)
“Cutting leaves to dogs” – “Doing nothing productive”
44. Italian Vino
43. Persian Compliment
In Persian: “I want to eat your liver.” It’s actually a term of endearment, generally directed at children, which means, “Ahhh you are so cute!”
42. Don’t Have A Cow
In Swedish there is an expression: “There is no cow on the ice.” Which means “there is no hurry.” I have always found that one very strange.
41. They Had To Work Sausage In Somehow…
In German, “Big toe” can be literally translated to English as “uncle.”
“I will kill you,” (joking or serious) can be literally translated as, “I will make you cold.”
“I’m stumped,” can be translated as. “I’m over asked.”
“It’s now or never,” can be translated as, “It’s a matter of the sausage.”
40. Batman Take The Wheel
This is all in Filipino-Tagalog, one of the several languages spoken in the Philippines.
Anak ng tokwa – “child of a tofu” – is a way of insulting someone. That’s our censored version of son of a b—.
Ay kabayo – “oh, horse!” – expressing surprise or alarm.
Haba ng hair ng lola mo – “your grandmother has long hair” – is a way of expressing self-adulation. Honestly don’t know how or why.
BAHALA NA SI BATMAN – means “LEAVE IT ALL TO BATMAN.” Batman is equivalent to Fate or Jesus; our version of “Jesus take the wheel.”
39. It’s All Greek To Me
In Greek, there are many phrases that sound silly when translated:
“I’ll change your lights” (“Tha sou alaxo ta fota”) – means I’ll beat the crap out of you.
“Your eyes fourteen” (“Ta matia sou dekatessera”) – means keep an eye out / watch out / be careful
“I’ll change your oil” (“Tha sou alaxo ta ladia”) – a crude way for a guy to proposition a girl
“Sit on your eggs” (“Katse sta avga sou”) – a way of saying “hold your horses” or “stay where you are”
“You’ll eat wood” (“Tha fas ksilo”) – what a parent would say to a child if they’re going to get a smack / spank for doing something bad.
“I’m writing you on my old shoes” (“Sou grafo sta palia mou ta papoutsia”) – you are in my bad books
“I’ll make you laugh” (“Tha se gelaso”) – I don’t know (seriously, it means that)
“On the deaf man’s door, knock as much as you like” (“Sto koufo tin porta, oso theleis vronta”) – Ask as much as you like, I’m still going to ignore you
And one my dad used to say to me when I was young – “What are you waiting for? Bananas?” I never knew what aspect of bananas were time critical.
38. That’s A Good One
Our version of ‘Once bitten, twice shy’ is: “Even a donkey would not bump his head twice against the same rock.”
My language is Afrikaans which is derived from Dutch — so it explains the similarities and why we share idioms and sayings.
37. Are You Not Supposed To Do That?
36. What’s Lucky About That?
In French there’s a phrase that translates as “having one’s butt ringed with noodles,” meaning that someone is lucky.
In Irish, whenever we say how we feel, we say that feelings are upon us. So, the sadness is upon me, the hunger is upon me.
35. Some Great Mexican Slang
Here are some Northern Mexican Spanish phrases and lingo.
Mexican Spanish – Literal translation – What it Means
“Ando bien pedo” – “I’m very fart” – I’ve had too much to drink
“Eso es puro pedo” – “That is pure fart” – That is not true
“Esta en casa de la chingada” – “It’s at the [bleeped] woman house” – It is very far
“Ya te cargo el payaso” – “The clown has already picked you up” – You are doomed
“Tengo Hueva” – “I have roe” – I’m lazy/I have laziness
“Que Onda?” – “What wave?” – What’s up?
“Que pedo?” – “What Fart?” – What’s up?
“Dame un aventon” – “Give me a push” – Give me a ride to
“Me costo un huevo” – “It cost me an egg” – It was very difficult/It was very expensive
“Se me fue el avion” – “The airplane got away from me” – I forgot
“Eres bien codo” – “You are very elbow” – You are cheap
” Se esta haciendo una chaqueta” – “He is making himself a jacket”- He is pleasuring himself.
These are very informal phrases and should not be said without a certain level of “familiarity” with the Mexican you’re trying to communicate with.
34. Finnish Your Quips
There are so many good ones in Finnish. It’s a shame I can’t think of all that many. Anyway, here are some I can think of right now.
To be in resin = To have a crush on someone.
Do I need to twist it out of iron wire? = Do I need to spell it out for you?
It doesn’t help crying in the market = Deal with it. (Something of the sort, anyway.)
To be in a tuba i.e. “I’m so in a tuba right now.” = Being under the influence.
33. Can You Handle It?
In Brazilian Portuguese, some young people call their parents and old people in general “coroa”, which literally means “crown”.
Also, our “happy birthday” song has full lyrics instead of repeating “happy birthday to you” over and over. It’s something like this: Parabéns pra você (Happy Birthday to you) Nesta data querida (In this dear day) Muitas felicidades (Have joyful moments) Muitos anos de vida (And many years of life)
When someone is very inconvenient we say he/she is a “suitcase without handles” (“mala sem alça”). It’s a pretty funny expression.
32. Rude Canadian?
31. Those Poor Owls
“You’ve bought the cat in the bag” – you’ve been tricked (katta i sekken)
“There are owls in the moss” – something fishy going on (ugler i mosen)
“Cucumber time” – nothing going on in the news (aggurknytt)
“Raisin in the sausage” – highlight, positive surprise (rosinen i pølsa)
30. Much Dutch
Here are some expressions in Dutch that don’t make sense when literally translated.
“I don’t understand a bag of it.” – I Don’t understand it.
“Having a piece in your balls.” – Having too many drinks.
“Do not sit in with it.” – Don’t worry.
“You have to fish that self out.” – You have to figure that out yourself.
“This runs out of the hand.” – This just got real.
“The world is after soap.” – We’re doomed.
“Come that against.” – You don’t want to experience that.
“I scared myself an accident.” – I was shocked.
29. Not So Little
‘La petite mort’ or ‘the little death’ is a French idiom for a climax, which is slightly morbid but also deeply poetic. Classic France.
28. Pure Poetry
There’s a saying in Hindi that very roughly translates to: “I’ll plant a mango tree in your mom’s butt and screw your sister in its shade.”
But it loses the poetic effect in translation.
27. We Should Honestly Use Some Of These In English
Here are some great Spanish phrases:
“Cocodrilo que se durmió, es cartera.” – Crocodile that fell asleep, became purse. (Meaning it’s a jungle out there. Watch your step or be eaten alive.)
“Está tratando de cagar mas alto de lo que le da el culo.” – He’s trying to poop higher than his butt can reach. (Used to reference someone who’s trying to appear richer than he really is. For example, buying a car than he can’t really afford and will have to sell six months later.)
“Cuanto mas alto trepa el mono, más se le ve el culo.” – The higher the monkey climbs, the easier it is to see its backside. (Meaning if you become famous, all the dirty details about your life will become publicly known.)
“A vos te chifla el moño.” – Your bow tie is whistling. (You’re crazy).
“Se te volaron las chapas.” – Your tin (or metal sheets) were taken away by the wind. (Meaning you became bold.)
“No te peines, que en la foto no salís.” – Don’t comb your hair, you’re not going to be in the picture. (Meaning don’t get too excited, this matter doesn’t concern you.)
“Quién te dió vela en este entierro?” – Who gave you a candle in this burial? (What made you think you were included in this conversation?)
“No saltés que no hay charquito.” – Don’t jump, there’s no puddle. (Why did you react to that comment? We weren’t talking about you.)
“Ella tiene buen ir.” – She’s got a good going. (She has a fine rear.)
“Ella tiene buen venir.” – She’s got a good coming. (She’s got great… *ahem* front.)
“El que no corre, vuela.” – The one that doesn’t run, flies. (Meaning everyone is crooked in some way.)
“Tu hermana es un caño.” – Your sister is an iron. (Your sister is hot.)
“Qué baranda!” – What a hand rail! (What an awful smell!)
26. Guess We’re All Scientists
I really like this Greek/Cypriot phrase which basically means you’re really overcomplicating something: Εκαμεs τον μουτσιον επιστήμη
Translation: “You made playing with yourself a science.”
25. Again With The Sausage
Es ist mir Wurst.
It translates from German to English as: “It’s all sausage to me.” It means “I don’t really care.” At least this is what my high school German teacher told us. We made shirts with it as our motto and a picture of a sausage on the front. I was suspicious we were being trolled, but according to other German speakers, this is a real phrase.
24. Some Of These Really Should Be Words!
Some words in other languages that don’t have any good equivalents in English:
Gigil: (Filipino) The urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute.
Culacino: (Italian) The mark left on a table by a cold glass.
Sgriob: (Gaelic) The itchiness that overcomes the upper lip just before taking a sip of whisky
L’esprit d’escalier: (French) The feeling you get after leaving a conversation, when you think of all the things you should have said. Translated, it means “the spirit of the staircase.”
Pari-pari and Saku-saku: (Japanese) Hard-crispy verses Soft-crispy, i.e. a rice cracker versus fried chicken.
Stam: (Hebrew) An agreement out of amusement and frustration that something doesn’t have a satisfactory answer among those talking.
Forelsket: (Norweigen) The euphoria you experience when you are first falling in love.
Manja: (Malay) A characteristic or action for affectionate and pampered/being pampered.
Dupey: (pronouced Duh-Up-Pee; Jamaican Patois) A bothersome ghost or apperition.
Waldeinsamkeit: (German) The feeling of being alone in the woods.
Meraki: (Greek) Doing something with soul, creativity, or love.
Pochemuchka: (Russian) A person who asks a lot of questions.
Pena ajena: (Mexican Spanish) The embarrassment you feel watching someone else’s humiliation.
Ilunga: (Tshiluba, Congo) A person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time.
Tsundere: (Japanese) A person who is initially cold and even hostile towards another person before gradually showing their warm side over time.
Yandere: (Japanese) A person who is initially very loving and gentle to someone before their devotion becomes destructive in nature, often through violence.
23. A Little Polish Humor
There’s a Polish saying that, translated literally, means “in case of a German.” It’s generally used to mean “in case something goes wrong” — always thought it was funny. A good indication of the history between the countries.
22. And A Little More!
There’s also a saying which goes, “Gówno sie do statku przyczepiło i mówi “płyniemy!”
It’s difficult to translate, both literally and in terms of what it means. Literally, it’s: “The turd attached itself to the ship and said, ‘Let’s sail!'”
It basically means that someone who is of no importance feels like he/she can be influential , and is usually used as an under-your-nose saying when someone is being too controlling or boastful.
21. I Speak Chicken Intestine
Here are some great Cantonese expressions that don’t quite make sense in English.
“Five elements missing water” (五行欠水) = No money; “water” being colloquial for money.
“Ox-skin lantern” (牛皮燈籠) = A person who can’t be (en)lightened.
“A mouse pulling a turtle” (老鼠拉龜) = A hard-to-approach matter.
“Mud Buddha crossing a river” (泥菩薩過江) = Can’t even save himself, how can he save you?
“A spell written by a ghost” (鬼畫符) = Lousy handwriting.
“A mute eating yellow lotus.” (啞仔吃黃蓮) = Only he himself knows the bitterness.
“The heart of Sima Shao [Emperor Ming of Jin]” (司馬紹之心) = Your ambition/ulterior motive has not gone unnoticed.
“A melon field, and under the pear tree” (瓜田李下) = Don’t tie your shoes in a melon field, and don’t fix your hat under a pear tree. Don’t do something that appears suspicious, even when you’re innocent.
“Observe the chariot in front” (前車可鑑) = Learn from the other person’s mistake.
“Failure is the mother of success” (失敗乃成功之母) = Failure breeds success, so be persistent.
There’s often a backstory behind the sayings. Sometimes only half of the idiom is said, and the other person is supposed to “get” the other half (e.g. say “no pain”, and the other person immediately understands “no gain”).
Finally, my favorite: “It’s all chicken intestine (雞腸) to me” = It’s written in English! Look at these cursive inter-tangling thingies!
20. Aristocats, Presumably
The French equivalent of having “other fish to fry” is “d’autres chats à fouetter,” which literally means “other cats to whip”.
19. Don’t Smell The Sun
There are tons of Tagalog idioms that sound stupid in English like:
Amoy araw: “Smells like the sun” — Implying that you’ve been out in the sun and you’re sweaty and smelly.
Makati ang paa/dila: “Itchy feet/tongue” — Meaning that you’re a chatterbox or you can’t keep still or like going places (wanderlust).
I remember a few Arabic idioms from back home too:
في عينيك (fi eiynayk): “In your eyes” — Which is basically like “in your face” kind of deal.
على عيني وراسي (a’la aiyni wa rasi): “On my eyes and head” — This is popular too and it’s more like an assurance that you will get something done when someone has asked you for a favor.
18. That Doesn’t Sound Cool At All
17. I’ll Eat Cheese Wherever It Comes From
When I lived in Montréal, I would see signs for Cheetos that read “Fromage dans le tapis”.
Being skilled in French, but not French idioms, I translated it literally to “There’s cheese in the carpet” and was baffled for months until somebody explained it to me.
What it meant was “Cheese to the max” or something like it.
See, “dans the tapis” translated literally means “in the carpet”. But colloquially it means the equivalent “pedal to the metal”.
If you think about stomping a gas pedal to the floor, it’s actually not touching metal, but it is touching carpet, so the French colloquialism actually makes more sense.
16. More Evocative
When you’re arguing over insignificant details in English, you’d be a nitpicker. In Dutch, you’d be screwing ants: ‘Mierenneuken’.
15. Oh, Salt Off!
14. Jackal Steal Your Girl
“The jackal is getting married to the wolf’s wife.” – Rain is falling while the sun is shining.
“The crows are yawning.” – It’s hot outside.
“The sun is pulling water.”- You are taking too long/ It’s getting late.
13. I Care!
12. A Third Helping Of Sausage
In German, “Eine Extrawurst verlangen” means literally, “to ask for an extra sausage.” Which really means, “to ask for special treatment.”
And this one goes very well with it: “Seinen senf dazugeben” means literally “to add their mustard” — the English equivalent is “to put their two cents in”.
Oh, I forgot my favorite: “Die beleidigte Leberwurst spielen,” literally to “play the offended liver sausage.” It means “to act like a prima donna.”
11. Korea Knows How To Party
They don’t say “let’s party” in Korean, or anything like that. Literally, they say, “Let’s drink and die”, which I think sets the bar for how much you’ll be drinking that night.
10. Tradition Is Important
9. Delicious Burns
I speak Chinese fluently. A lot of idioms are related to food items.
To sell tofu – To be a working girl. 卖豆腐
To eat tofu – A creep. 吃豆腐
Roll away, you egg- Screw off! 滚蛋
Scrambled eggs – A real jerk. 混蛋
Punch the airplane – Pleasure yourself. 打飞机
Candle-paced burner – An exceedingly slow person. 蜡烛配
8. Very Special Delivery
In Norwegian, if you’ve made a bad deal or gambled and lost, you can say, “So then I sat there with the beard in the mailbox.”
7. Australian Slang Is Priceless
Not exactly from another language but I recently got back from Australia where a local said “I’m so hungry I could eat the crotch out of a low flying duck.”
6. Let’s Popularize This One
5. The Color Of Night
4. Owls Are Really A Recurring Theme…
Norwegian: “Å drite på draget.” Literally “to poop on the pullshaft.” This means to make an embarrassing mistake or to miserably fail at a task. Apparently, it stems from the time of horse-pulled carriages. If your horse pooped on the shaft by which it pulls the carriage (something I can imagine happening), there was cleanup to be done.
In Norway we also have a saying that goes, “Å krysse bekken etter vann,” which literally means “to cross the stream for water.” I think it’s a really good one, and I sort of felt that surely English must have an equivalent, but I couldn’t find it. Well, it’s a nice way to say that you shouldn’t go someplace else to get something that’s just as abundant where you are now.
Now, the Danes have an extremely weird version of the above: “At bære ugler til Athen”, literally “to carry owls to Athens.” Apparently, Athens had a lot of owls back in the day, so you’d be stupid to bring your own.
As far as Danes and owls go, they also have “ulver i mosen”, which is Danish for “wolves in the marshes”. This was meant to indicate that you should be alert and take care. Makes sense. But in Norwegian “myr” means marsh, and “mose” means moss. And since it’s well known that Danish is impossible to understand, the saying was mistranslated into “ugler i mosen” by Norwegians, which means “owls in the moss.” The phrase survives today, and any Norwegian knows that if there’s owls in the moss, then something mysterious is going on, or something’s amiss or odd or not quite right.
3. Sounds Delicious
My Russian friend tells me that if someone is teasing, instead of saying “I’m just pulling pulling your leg” they would say, “I’m just hanging spaghetti on your ears.” Apparently it’s also just a general expression that means lying or BSing.
2. Oil That ‘Stache
I was born and raised in Bangladesh. I tried to explain the common saying “Gacche kathal gophe tel” to my friends today. But in English, “Oiling your moustache in anticipation of the jackfruit tree bearing fruit” doesn’t have the same snap.
It means “Don’t get ahead of yourself.” Like, an American equivalent might be, “Don’t start counting your vacation days before the job interview.”
But I like the fact that the Bangladeshi version makes the assumptions that: 1) You love jackfruit (which is milder than durian but if even slightly overripe smells like diarrhea); 2) You have a moustache that’s thick enough that it would be a hindrance to eating the juicy and sticky jackfruit; 3) You oil the moustache before you eat the jackfruit so that the remnant stink doesn’t mess with your luxurious facial hair; and 4) You are so excited by the idea of eating jackfruit that you oil your moustache in anticipation of this glorious event.
1. Pretty Small Monkey, I Guess
In Dutch, when someone dislikes something, you can say that he “has a little brother dead to it.” Also, when some mystery is finally revealed, you can say “the monkey comes out of the sleeve.” If you don’t close a door behind you, you are “born in the church.”