Idioms from Around the World.

When I saw the title “40 brilliant idioms that simply can’t be translated literally,” I rolled my eyes and prepared to move along after a brief glance, because I’ve gotten pretty sick of supposedly untranslatable words and phrases (usually the same collection of hyggeligs and saudades, passed around from one book and column to the next). But this turned out to be different:

As our Open Translation Project volunteers translate TED Talks into 105 languages, they’re often challenged to translate English idioms into their language. Which made us wonder: what are their favorite idioms in their own tongue? Below, we asked translators to share their favorite idioms and how they would translate literally.

So it’s not just the usual suspects; in fact, most of them I’d never seen before, even the Russian ones: Галопом по Европам ‘Galloping across Europe,’ i.e. “To do something hastily, haphazardly”; Хоть кол на голове теши ‘You can sharpen with an ax on top of this head,’ i.e. “He’s a very stubborn person”; and my favorite (for obvious reasons), На воре и шапка горит ‘The thief has a burning hat,’ i.e. “He has an uneasy conscience that betrays itself.” I didn’t know any of the French ones (I particularly like Les carottes sont cuites! ‘The carrots are cooked!’ = “The situation can’t be changed”), and it goes without saying that the Thai, Latvian, and Tamil ones are new to me (and probably you). A very enjoyable collection; thanks, Paul!

Comments

  1. I’ve come across “Les carottes sont cuites”, as it’s quite famous as one of the code phrases broadcast to the French resistance to inform them of the impending D-Day landings.

  2. Funny how cows on ice mean different things in different languages. In Russian, “a cow on ice” is just something ungainly.

  3. The original expression was apparently “det är ingen ko på isen så länge rumpan är i land” – the cow’s not on the ice as long as long as its arse is on dry land. No need to panic prematurely, in other words. A thoroughly Scandinavian observation.

  4. English has “independent as a hog on ice”, but I’ve heard it only in a Tom Waits song.

  5. Die Katze im Sack kaufen: We hear from translators that this is an idiom in Swedish, Polish, Latvian and Norwegian. Add Russian to the list.

    Russian got a lot of its idioms as French calques. It would be fun to see which of those are idioms in French as well.

  6. “50 steps are similar to 100 steps” (오십보 백보)

    In Japanese this is 五十歩百歩 ’50 paces 100 paces’. The Chinese original is 五十步笑百步 ‘fifty paces laugh at 100 paces’. It’s originally from Mencius. The story is that when a retreat was sounded, one soldier withdrew fifty paces, another withdrew a hundred paces, whereupon the one who had retreated fifty paces ridiculed the one who retreated 100 paces as ‘useless’. Equivalent to the pot calling the kettle black.

  7. I don’t think தலை முழுகுதல் is pouring water over “someone’s” head, it’s bathing the head, as in a purifcatory bath after someone dies. It’s like “washing one’s hands of someone” except with the implication that the other person is dead.

    “Be someone’s nemesis” struck me as a weird defintiion of தண்ணீர் காட்டுதல், so I googled, and found the exact same definition by Santhana Krishnan on Quora, which is a surprising coincidence.

  8. Re: Another Spanish expression for high price: “Me costó un huevo y la mitad del otro” ‘It cost me one testicle and half of the other one’

  9. squadron leader squiffy von bladet says:

    Isn’t it pretty much the definition of an idiom that it cannot be translated literally? The most canonical Dutch one to serve up for English delectation is “Het heeft geen windeieren gelegd” (“it has laid him no windeggs”), meaning something has been very profitable.

  10. “На воре и шапка горит” / “The thief has a burning hat” seems notably reminiscent of the English “pants on fire”. Coincidence, or calque, or independent manifestations of an underlying conscience-as-burning metaphor?

  11. The cow reminds me of “(independent as) a hog on ice”, the title of Charles Earle Funk’s first book on idioms.

  12. Isn’t it pretty much the definition of an idiom that it cannot be translated literally?

    Well, no, it’s that a literal translation does not tell you how it’s actually used. But maybe that’s what you meant.

  13. squadron leader squiffy von bladet says:

    I mean that a literal translation of an idiom isn’t a translation in any meaningful sense at all. Actually, I mean that the meaning of an idiom is non-decomposible in a sense which could be made fairly precise. (You can know about cats and dogs and rain and still not know about “raining cats and dogs”.) I actually think this is relevant to certain theories of semantics. (Trigger Unwarning: No Chomskyan Content.)

  14. Henk Metselaar says:

    When something is very expensive, a dutchie would complain that ‘het is een rib uit mijn lijf’ (a rib out of my body). Another body part but with an obvious biblical reference. Our ancestors were a pious lot.

    Something that will never happen will occur ‘wanneer pasen en pinksteren op een dag vallen’ (when easter and pentecost fall on the same day) or ‘met sint-juttemis’ (at st juttemis – a non-existing saint)

    Similar to the french carrots, we can threaten ‘dan zijn de rapen gaar!’ (Then the turnips are cooked) but it means: then you’re in a pickle.

    Similar to German, someone who doesn’t see the obvious (I.c. how other people are annoyed with them) has ‘een plaat voor z’n kop’ or ‘een plaat voor z’n harses’ (a plate in front of his head (vulgar) or brains (also vulgar). We can also ‘een kat in de zak kopen’, but if you are naive you ‘laat je knollen voor citroenen verkopen’ (let someone sell you turnips for (as if they are) lemons). Note how buying lemons is the desirable here.

  15. Charles Perry says:

    Probably the best-known Egyptian proverb is dud el-mishsh minnu fih — “there are some mishsh worms in it,” referring to the tiny worms that sometimes appear in the preserved dairy product mishsh. It basically means “the problem is inherent in the situation.”
    My favorite old American expression is “to do the rat dance” — to take an unjustified reprimand.

  16. ‘The thief has a burning hat,’ i.e. “He has an uneasy conscience that betrays itself.”

    The biggest surprise for me was that the esteemed Hat didn’t know these absolutely classic sayings. BTW this hatty wisdom has a parallel in English which is also about hats: If the hat fits, …

  17. Then there are idioms that appear independently and mean wildly different things. In Chinese (pan-Chinese, I think ) there is an expression 比蓝还蓝 which translates verbatim to “bluer than blue.” It actually means “the student has excelled the teacher.” Of course these can be translated into the other language, but the literality does take away some of the swing. “Sadder than sad” is a little flat.

  18. “BTW this hatty wisdom has a parallel in English which is also about hats: If the hat fits, ”

    Dmitry, do you mean “if the shoes fits, [wear it]”?

  19. The biggest surprise for me was that the esteemed Hat didn’t know these absolutely classic sayings.

    It was a surprise to me too! But I’m still learning things about English…

  20. The Croatian part is a mess. If I had to guess, I’d say it was done over the phone.The first indication that it was done over a rushed phone call is that the first expression is written using Serbian norms (“doće” instead of doći će”), which is unlikely if the Croatian translator actually wrote these expressions down for TED. Also, “Labudova” shouldn’t be capitalized but that might just be a typo.

    But much more importantly, “Vidjet ćemo čija majka crnu vunu prede” doesn’t ,mean being the black sheep in the family. It means “we’ll see how this ends”. What it’s saying is that it’s still too soon to tell whose mother will be wearing black by the time it’s over. And “mi o vuku” (and the Polish equivalent) is just plain old “lupus in fabula”. Not something to bring up in an article about “untranslateable idioms”.

  21. An actual interesting Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian idiom is “prodavati muda pod bubrege” – selling bollocks as kidneys. Bollocks as in testicles. The meaning is trying to sell a thing or an idea by making it seem good when, in reality, it’s anything but.

  22. Compare Henk Metselaar’s Dutch expression laat je knollen voor citroenen verkopen ‘let someone sell you turnips for lemons’; there lemons are seen as desirable, and in your saying kidneys are.

  23. Trond Engen says:

    if the hat fits

    Norwegian få så hatten passer “get until the hat fits” — be given a thorough (albeit metaphorical) beating.

  24. My understanding of if the hat fits, [wear it] ~~ fess up, like we already guessed what you’re hiding. Which would closely correspond to Russian slang “колись!” and fall roughly between “на воре и шапка горит” “thief’s hat’s ablaze” (in part that we already guessed it) and a wider-reaching “назвался груздем, полезай в кузов” literally “Called yourself Lactarius resimus, then climb into a mushroom-basket” (If you said A, have courage to say B).

    BTW I incorrectly called this bitter, wooly fav of Russian mushroom-hunting Lactarius nauseatus in a previous LH thread on mushroom names (I think I found the incorrect Latin name in an old mycology brochure written by an adventurous guy who dared to eat this wonderful species raw, and became violently sick. My apology to the mushroom!)

  25. hatten

    I’m suddenly reminded of one of the first internet memes I was exposed to, back in 2000.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    Expensive: it costs an arm and a leg = French ça coûte les yeux de la tête (‘it costs the eyes in [your] head’).

  27. Gassalasca says:

    “that the first expression is written using Serbian norms (“doće” instead of doći će”)”

    This is not the way you’d spell it in either Serbian, Bosnian or Croatian, but it sort of reflects the Bosnian way of pronouncing it (what with the elison of short unstressed /i/).

  28. Gassalasca says:

    “An actual interesting Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian idiom is “prodavati muda pod bubrege””

    Yes, this is a good one, but it’s “za bubrege”, not “pod bubrege”.

  29. Probably the best-known Egyptian proverb is dud el-mishsh minnu fih — “there are some mishsh worms in it,” referring to the tiny worms that sometimes appear in the preserved dairy product mishsh. It basically means “the problem is inherent in the situation.

    Oddly enough there’s a similar expression in Icelandic: maðkur í mysunni, meaning maggots in the whey. But it means that there’s something dubious/untoward going on.

  30. My favourite Icelandic expression is “margur heldur mig sig”. A literal translation into English is really awkward, I’m not sure this is grammatically correct: Many hold that I’m they.

    It means that many people assume that others are driven by the very same impulses they themselves are (a thief will assume that others are fundamentally just as dishonest, etc.).

  31. @Jim:

    @Dmitry:
    BTW this hatty wisdom has a parallel in English which is also about hats: If the hat fits, …

    do you mean “if the shoes fits, [wear it]“?

    The usual article is a cap in British English and a shoe in American English. I’ve always felt that the circumstantial evidence of having the same size head or foot as the guilty party would be insufficient for a conviction.

  32. If the hat fits, wear it.

    “Dmitry, do you mean “if the shoes fits, [wear it]“?”

    Apparently ‘shoe fits’ is the American version. I always knew it as “If the cap fits, wear it”.

  33. Apparently ‘shoe fits’ is the American version.

    There’s also a story about a foo bird and its, uh, excretions.

  34. From ‘Adrian Mole’:

    My mother shouted, ‘But I was wearing my new cap, I couldn’t have got pregnant.’
    My father said, ‘Adulteress!’
    ‘I’m not an adulteress,’ my mother sobbed.
    My father yelled, ‘If the cap fits, wear it!’
    ‘But I did wear it,’ said my mother in anguish.

  35. Gassalasca, you’re right about doće. I guess I always simply assumed it was standard based on the Serbian spelling for -ti infinitives and the fact I so often see it written that way by Serbians. Regarding doće reflecting pronunciation, it doesn’t just occur in Bosnian speech, it’s present everywhere BCS is spoken.

    Yes, this is a good one, but it’s “za bubrege”, not “pod bubrege”

    I’ve only ever encountered it as muda pod bubrege, so your post got me curious. Google has 44 700 hits for pod and 22 800 for za. So, pod is definitely more common, but it surprised me to see a decent number of hits for za considering I’d never heard it. I suspected regional differences, so I ran searches limited to the .ba .hr and .rs domains, and they seem to confirm my hunch: for .hr pages pod predominates 7:1, for .ba pages pod predominates about 3:1, and for .rs pages the number of hits is about equal.

    French ça coûte les yeux de la tête (‘it costs the eyes in [your] head’)

    In BCS you guard something like the eye in [your] head (čuvati kao oko u glavi)

  36. There’s a law review article called “If The International Shoe Fits, Wear It”, about the applications to cyberspace of International Shoe v. Washington, a 1945 Supreme Court case that discusses when a U.S. state court does and doesn’t have jurisdiction over an out-of-state corporation.

  37. I’ve always felt that the circumstantial evidence of having the same size head or foot as the guilty party would be insufficient for a conviction.
    But if the glove does not fit… you know.

  38. “But if the glove does not fit… you know.”

    I think we usually say (in AmE), if the ‘shoe fits . . .” It was the trial lawyer Johnny Cochran would famously said in the OJ trial, “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Of course, he did not mean this metaphorically. I wonder if it has since become an idiom, or replaced ‘shoe.’

  39. Gassalasca says:

    gwenllian, yes, sorry I should have guessed about the regional difference, and not assumed that it was a mistake on your part.
    I’m from Serbia, so that’s why I’m only familiar with the “za” version. : )

  40. Very happy to see someone from this part of the world here!

  41. You might both enjoy this decade-old post.

  42. Henk Metselaar says:

    The usual article is a cap in British English and a shoe in American English. I’ve always felt that the circumstantial evidence of having the same size head or foot as the guilty party would be insufficient for a conviction.

    Dutch also has shoe (wie de schoen past, trekke hem aan. With an occurrence of nearly extinct ‘aanvoegende wijs’ (subjunctive)). Is there any study on Dutch influence on (early) US English? I think I’ve seen other parallels before, but can’t recall specifics.

  43. Henk,
    “Dutch also has shoe (wie de schoen past, trekke hem aan. With an occurrence of nearly extinct ‘aanvoegende wijs’ (subjunctive)). Is there any study on Dutch influence on (early) US English?”

    There’s quite a bit probably, even phonetic. I recall hearing a guy from up near the Dutch border speak German, and thinking he sure had a strong American accent.

    I don’t know if this is of any value; I can’t look at the main article: http://www.jstor.org/stable/432522?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

    And then: http://en.aup.nl/books/9789089641243-cookies-coleslaw-and-stoops.html

  44. David Marjanović says:

    In BCS you guard something like the eye in [your] head (čuvati kao oko u glavi)

    German etwas hüten wie seinen Augapfel “guard something like one’s eyeball”.

    I recall hearing a guy from up near the Dutch border speak German, and thinking he sure had a strong American accent.

    Dutch is fully rhotic, and there’s an area where (at least at the ends of syllables) r is an approximant like in English.

  45. In BCS you guard something like the eye in [your] head (čuvati kao oko u glavi)

    Probably Slavonic Biblical in origin, and the Russian version remains totally archaic: беречь как зеницу ока <= Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy 32:10 (in KJV, “kept him as the apple of his eye”)

  46. Yes, I always thought this expression was Biblical in origin.

    In Icelandic: að gæta einhvers eins og sjáaldurs augna sinna (to guard something like the pupils in one’s eyes).

  47. Stefan Holm says:

    The Croatian ’to talk about the wolf’ is in Swedish när man talar om trollen (så står dom i farstun), ’when you’re talking about the trolls (they’ll be standing in your vestibule)’. The German ‘Die Katz im Sack kaufen’ (buy the cat in the sack) is the same but the cat substituted by a pig – köpa grisen i säcken.

    As for ‘the shoe fits’ we have så nu passar galoscherna, ‘so now the galoshes fit’, about a stubborn person changing his opinion (for his own benefit). To whom it may be of any interest I could add a few more native to me:

    Hon är inte född i farstun, ‘she’s not born in the vestibule’ (she’s a clever person).
    Han är ett stolpskott, ‘he’s a pole hit’ (from soccer: he is of no use or stupid).
    Mycket väsen för lite ull (sa’ käringen som klippte grisen), ‘much noise about little wool (said the woman who cut the pig)’ or göra en höna av en fjäder, ‘make a hen out of a feather’ (about a matter being far too exaggerated).
    Små koppar har också öron, ‘small cups also have ears’ (don’t underestimate children’s abilities to understand).
    Lära gamla hundar sitta, ‘teach old dogs how to sit’ (trying to change the behaviour or ideas of an old person).
    Det fina i kråksången, ‘the beautiful (part) in a crow’s song’ or även en blind höna kan hitta ett korn, ‘even a blind hen could find a grain’ (a good detail in what otherwise is just a mess).
    Göra bocken till trädgårdsmästare, ‘make the billy-goat your gardener’ or spänna vagnen före hästen, ’yoke the wagon in front of the horse’ (really mess something up).
    Små tjuvar går i järnkedjor, stora tjuvar går i guldkedjor, ‘small thieves walk in iron chains, big thieves walk in golden chains’ (self-explanatory – it reminds me about an English idiom I saw which can’t be properly translated into Swedish: ‘The golden rule = he who has got the gold rules’).

  48. Some of these have direct English equivalents:

    Hon är inte född i farstun, ‘she’s not born in the vestibule’ (she’s a clever person).

    “She wasn’t born in a barn.” There is a Southern/Western American accent (now mostly used by older rural people) in which “born” and “barn” sound alike (technically it has a NORTH=START merger instead of the more typical NORTH=FORCE merger). This is also present, says WP, in parts of the English West Country and the Caribbean.

    Mycket väsen för lite ull (sa’ käringen som klippte grisen), ‘much noise about little wool (said the woman who cut the pig)’

    “Much cry, little wool” (now rather old-fashioned).

    Små koppar har också öron, ‘small cups also have ears’ (don’t underestimate children’s abilities to understand).

    “Little pitchers have big ears.”

    Lära gamla hundar sitta, ‘teach old dogs how to sit’ (trying to change the behaviour or ideas of an old person).

    “Teach an old dog new tricks.”

    Spänna vagnen före hästen, ’yoke the wagon in front of the horse’ (really mess something up).

    “Put the cart before the horse” (try to do something before laying the foundation for it).

  49. I like the German Da liegt der Hund begraben ‘here’s where the dog is buried’, originally Da liegt der Hunde begraben ‘here’s where the treasure is buried’, meaning ‘this is the crux of the matter’. The expression (with the dog) was borrowed into Hebrew, po kavur hakelev, and is just as charming.

  50. Sorry, die Hunde.

  51. That’s a great story, but I can’t find any record of a Hunde ‘treasure.’

  52. Serves me right for quoting an odd story such as this without checking. I saw it in the Hebrew wiktionary entry for po kavur hakelev. There’s Old High German hunda ‘booty’, but I don’t know how recently a reflex of it persisted.

  53. Mycket väsen för lite ull

    This one seems to have been made famous by Putin (in English translation from the Russian).

  54. More in the German wiktionary entry. No mention of treasures, but there are equivalents in other languages involving donkeys, rabbits, pigs, etc.

  55. Mycket väsen för lite ull (sa’ käringen som klippte grisen), ‘much noise about little wool (said the woman who cut the pig)’

    The word “cut” has such a plethora of definitions that I was puzzled by what is intended by the parenthetical. Is the woman butchering the pig, cutting a notch in the ear, or is she castrating a male? And what do any of those have to do with wool?

    However, I see that one definition of “klippte” is the far more specific “sheared”. Is that what she is doing? Shearing the pig’s hair, rather than cutting into the flesh?

    Is “ull” usually used to refer to pig bristles, or is the deliberate misuse part of the joke?

  56. marie-lucie says:

    Some French (near-) equivalents:

    German etwas hüten wie seinen Augapfel “guard something like one’s eyeball”.
    In Icelandic: að gæta einhvers eins og sjáaldurs augna sinna (to guard something like the pupils in one’s eyes).
    – J’y tiens comme à la prunelle de mes yeux (lit. I cherish it like the sloe [the pupil] in my eyes)

    The Croatian ’to talk about the wolf’
    – Quand on parle du loup, on en voit la queue (lit. When talking about the wolf, one sees his tail)

    Swedish: ‘she’s not born in the vestibule’ (she’s a clever person).
    – Elle n’est pas née de la dernière pluie! (She was not born during the latest rain)

    Little pitchers have big ears
    Not about children, but more generally: Les murs ont des oreilles. (Walls have ears, = someone might hear you).

    “Put the cart before the horse” (try to do something before laying the foundation for it).
    – Mettre la charrue avant les boeufs (to put the plough in front of the oxen)

    “Teach an old dog new tricks.”
    With a meaning opposite to that of English and others; Ce n’est pas aux vieux singes qu’on apprend à faire la grimace (Old monkeys don’t need to be taught how to make faces = the old know full well what young people can get up to – you can’t pull the wool over their eyes).

  57. Stefan Holm says:

    Sorry, Owlmirror, for an error typical for an L2 speaker. The verb ‘klippa’ in Swedish specifically refers to what you do with a pair of scissors – the object might be your own hair, a sheep’s wool, a piece of paper or a garden hedge. Since I knew the word ‘haircut’ I presumed that ‘cut’ was applicable. The meaning of the proverb is of course that the outcome is very meager when it comes to the hair of a pig compared to the trouble and the noise from the animal.

    As for buried dogs it’s a very common expression in Swedish: Här ligger en hund begraven, lit. ‘here lies a dog buried’. The meaning is that you suspect hidden motives, a hidden agenda or that essential facts are deliberately held back. No treasures involved.

  58. Stefan, I’d have expected that teaching old dogs to sit would be like teaching one’s grandmother to suck eggs (that is, trying to teach an experienced person something they already know, as in Marie-Lucie’s “monkey” idiom), rather than teaching an old dog new tricks. But I guess the idea is that the old dogs haven’t been trained at all.

  59. Henk Metselaar says:

    the ‘Hund’ story reminded me: Dutch used to have an idiom ‘iemand van aver tot aver kennen’ (know someone from forebear to forebear – know all there is to know about him/her). But the word aver has disappeared before/during the middle ages and people misheard haver* instead (oat) and for good measure chose another grain to accompany it. Now we have rather odd ‘iemand (iets) van haver tot gort kennen’ (know something/someone from oat to pearl-barley. Come to think of it, ‘gort’ is nowadays unheard of … makes one wonder what’s next for this idiom?

    we have company from google there. When checking the story it asked me ‘did you mean van haver tot haver’. I wish they’d provide a place to click no.

  60. I once asked a biologist who had spent a lot of time on a farm why humans don’t milk pigs. Her answer: “Too many nipples too close to the ground.”

    (Another answer is that we haven’t bred the aggression out of lactating sows, who are both likely to resent being milked and easily capable of dealing fatal injuries, unlike goats.)

  61. marie-lucie says:

    JC: Not too long ago the subject came up, perhaps on or through Facebook, and the answer was that sows cannot be made to lactate beyond the time the piglets need the milk. There are probably several converging factors, such as the ones you mention.

  62. “Dutch is fully rhotic, and there’s an area where (at least at the ends of syllables) r is an approximant like in English.”

    David, that’s part of it, but also the vowel qualities and phonation were very similar and the “l” was velarized, as in AmEng.

  63. That’s the sort of thing that might be tunable by selective breeding. Dairy goats lactate for 305 days after the birth of their kids before drying up, but meat, fiber, and pet goats dry up after weaning, typically a few months after birth. Humans, who are intensely (self-)domesticated, have lactation periods that can go up to 8 years in extreme cases.

  64. I’ve been wondering about the pig thing for years. I suppose lying down on their side makes it hard to collect the milk, too.

  65. Unless the collector lies on their side too, which is undesirable in a pigpen.

  66. Stefan Holm says:

    As for most of my adult life having been employed by the dairy industry, I just have to stand up for the cow: We are probably the most adaptable of all creatures on earth or, to speak Darwinian, the fittest. We can feed from practically anything that any other mammals selectively can feed from: We can eat meat, eggs, fish, shellfish, nuts, berries, fruits, vegetables, roots, and – not to mention – seeds.

    The only thing we cant feed from is grass (our digestional system can’t break down cellulose). But for that purpose there is this wonderful invention, the cow, who feeds from grass and in mysterious ways transformes it into the most delicious beef steaks and camembert cheeses.

    This wonderful animal is even – as far as I have understood – a crucial point in the discussion between Gamkrelidze/Ivanov and the rest of the international linguistic society. Did the proto-Indo-Europeans say *gwou or *kwou?

  67. The pig – noise – wool wisdom in Russian is usually ascribed to Khruschev’s Ukrainisms. Supposedly he said that to cut budgets of the academia was like to shear pigs: much squealing and little wool.

  68. Stefan Holm says:

    I suppose that most idioms contextually in one way or the other are international. If they aren’t explicitly national, that is. I’ve never seen it in Russian but heard that like a Swede at Poltava is a way to describe, that you’ve lost just everything. (Poltava was for Charles XII what Borodino was for Napoleon and Stalingrad for Hitler). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Poltava

    The corresponding idiom in Swedish would be the more neutral that you have sålt smöret och tappat pengarna, ‘sold the butter and dropped the money’.

  69. Stefan Holm, Napoleon won the battle of Borodino (or of Moscow-river). It was not a kind of victory N. had at Friedland, to say nothing about Austerlitz.

  70. Y; More in the German wiktionary entry. No mention of treasures, but there are equivalents in other languages involving donkeys, rabbits, pigs, etc.

    Apart from the list of equivalents in other languages, that entry is worthless even in the opinion of its author.
    It consists of a rehash (with some huffings and puffings apparently added by the entry author) of what Büchmann is said to have written about the expression in Geflügelte Worte. But it begins by saying that Büchmann’s derivation “belongs to the realm of fable”.

    No alternative derivation is even attempted. So the reader now knows, in detail, something the entry author says is completely wrong.

  71. Stefan Holm says:

    D.O. Surely Napoleon formally won over Kutuzov at Borodino. But it was a Pyrrhus victory and the beginning of the end of his Russian campaign. The losses were terrible – 54.000 on the Russian side and 35.000 on the French. After Borodino Napoleon didn’t have enough supplies for his army and the solidiers contiunued, as in so many wars, to die from diseases and starvation. Only 15% of the original French army left Russian soil alive.

  72. Well, of course Napoleon lost the war. Although Russians are proud of the battle of Borodino (and often refuse to count it as a defeat), I never heard it used as a symbol of victory, like Poltava or Stalingrad. The latter is split between sense of victory and of destruction.

  73. David Marjanović says:

    Hon är inte född i farstun, ‘she’s not born in the vestibule’ (she’s a clever person).

    nicht auf der Nudelsuppe dahergeschwommen “didn’t swim here on the noodle soup”

    The one who comes when you mention him is either the devil or the donkey in German. 🙂

    There is a word Hunte; it’s feminine and means a cart used in a mine. It doesn’t seem to make sense in that idiom either, though.

    This wonderful animal is even – as far as I have understood – a crucial point in the discussion between Gamkrelidze/Ivanov and the rest of the international linguistic society. Did the proto-Indo-Europeans say *gwou or *kwou?

    Oh, no, that’s just the largely extinct glottalic theory, which Gamqʼrelidze & Ivanov heavily promoted because… according to a semi-popular article about their paper… they didn’t believe sounds are ever devoiced as a regular sound change, so the Germanic and Armenian */k/ couldn’t possibly come from a PIE */g/. ~:-|

  74. David, do you have any ideas about the buried dog and the hunda theory?

  75. David: I only (just barely) knew the word Hunt for that, plural Hunte:

    http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hunt

    There a derivation of the German version of “go to the dogs” is on offer. I’m not sure I should believe it:

    Die Redewendung „Vor die Hunte/Hunde gehen“ leitet sich vom Grubenwagen ab: Wenn in alten Zeiten ein Bergmann schlecht gearbeitet hatte, musste er zur Strafe die Hunte ziehen; so kam jeder, den das Erdenglück verlassen hatte, „vor die Hunte“,

  76. Der Hunt.

  77. Apart from the list of equivalents in other languages, that entry is worthless even in the opinion of its author. It consists of a rehash (with some huffings and puffings apparently added by the entry author) of what Büchmann is said to have written about the expression in Geflügelte Worte. But it begins by saying that Büchmann’s derivation “belongs to the realm of fable”. No alternative derivation is even attempted. So the reader now knows, in detail, something the entry author says is completely wrong.

    Wikipedia at its finest! You’d think someone would have come along and rewritten it more sensibly. This is one reason I am horrified in my capacity as editor to see book manuscripts increasingly citing Wikipedia as a source. I always add a query suggesting that it’s not a good idea.

    Surely Napoleon formally won over Kutuzov at Borodino. But it was a Pyrrhus victory and the beginning of the end of his Russian campaign.

    As D.O. says, that may be true but it’s still not comparable to Poltava or Stalingrad. A Pyrrhic victory is still a victory.

  78. David Marjanović says:

    The things I learn… I had no idea Hunte was the plural; I’m pretty sure my (utterly unscholarly) sources didn’t know either. Not surprising for a specialized term.

    David, do you have any ideas about the buried dog and the hunda theory?

    No. Sounds good to me – and I don’t expect that kind of idiom to have been written down very early, so it may well be old enough to have existed when hunda still did.

  79. Well, of course Napoleon lost the war.

    Some generals, of course, lost all their battles except the last while winning their wars, notably George Washington and Võ Nguyên Giáp.

    A Pyrrhic victory is still a victory.

    Stalingrad was a Pyrrhic victory for both sides, in a sense.

    Gamqʼrelidze & Ivanov […] didn’t believe sounds are ever devoiced as a regular sound change.

    They would have been freaked out by Austronesian interfocalic forttittion. To be sure, lots of other historical linguists are freaked out by it too.

  80. Stalingrad was a Pyrrhic victory for both sides, in a sense.

    In what sense was it any kind of victory for the Germans? Their army was driven out of the city, surrounded, and either killed or captured. I mean, yes, they killed a lot of Soviet troops while they were losing the battle, but it’s hard to fight a battle without killing people.

    Nice diacritics on Võ Nguyên Giáp! It’s interesting that neither of the actual Vietnamese pronunciations of gi, Northern /z/ or Central/Southern /y/, is available for an anglicized form of the name; aside from the impenetrable sound/writing matchup, there’s a disastrous conflict with the English words zap and yap. So we say /dzhap/ to the extent we talk about him any more (I think; I can’t recall the last time I said his name out loud or heard anyone else do so). I trust everybody knows that Võ is his family name; as usual with Vietnamese names, his given name is used to refer to him, the great exception being Uncle Ho. (Now that I think of it, why isn’t he referred to as Minh?)

  81. I haven’t found a definitive explanation, but Hồ Chí Minh is a pseudonym (chí minh is Sino-Vietnamese for ‘enlightened one’), though Hồ is a standard Vietnamese surname corresponding to Chinese 胡 , as in 胡锦涛 Hú Jǐntāo, the former president of China (see “Hu’s On First?). I’m reminded of Cordwainer Smith’s description of the Standard Mandarin second tone, “as though you were asking a question under the pressure of amusement and alarm”.

    Ho’s birth name was Nguyễn Sinh Côn, but he also used the given names Tất Thành ‘accomplished one’ and Ái Quốc ‘love-country, patriot’. This surname is borne by about 40% of Vietnamese, and corresponds to Chinese 阮 Ruǎn. By contrast, Hồ is born by only 1%, and is 11th most common.

  82. Hồ Chí Minh is a pseudonym

    *slaps self*

    Sorry, I’m still recovering. (I’m going to be using that excuse for as long as I can get away with it; then I’ll revert to the excuse of my venerable age.)

  83. Random notes on the Danish situation:

    If a Dane knows the pig’s wool quote, it’s probably in German: “viel Geschrei um wenig Wolle” — it may be relevant that the main character of Ludvig Holberg’s 1723 play Den Stundesløse (The Fidget) is named Herr Vielgeschrei. But the tag will be quoted in Danish: ‘sagde bonden, han klippede sin so’.

    And it will rain cobbler’s boys (skomagerdrenge) instead of cats and dogs. The popular explanation is that big raindrops will sort of bounce off cobblestones, and that looks like delivery boys skipping along.

    Going to the dogs = at gå i hundene: Ordbog over det danske Sprog has citations going back to 1710. Originally a very literal expression (ignominious death — cf 2 Kings 9:36), the social deroute sense is later. German ore carts don’t figure in that story.

  84. On “going to the dogs”: there is such a long history of pejorative use of “dog” in many languages that I think it’s more likely that this refers to literal dogs, and that the “Hunte” story is one of those clever stories (like “ring around the rosie” being about the plague) that I’d file under “anmateur historian / linguist pseudo-explanations”.

  85. That makes a lot of sense.

  86. David Marjanović says:

    Agreed on the dogs.

    They would have been freaked out by Austronesian interfocalic forttittion. To be sure, lots of other historical linguists are freaked out by it too.

    They’d also be freaked out by High German. I find it rather surprising that apparently there were Indo-Europeanists who didn’t know about it.

    All fricatives have also devoiced in all environments in northern Dutch and in Afrikaans.

    I’m reminded of Cordwainer Smith’s description of the Standard Mandarin second tone, “as though you were asking a question under the pressure of amusement and alarm”.

    Perfect description.

    Ái Quốc ‘love-country, patriot’

    That seems to be a pretty common name in China right now (Mandarin Àiguó; the -/k/ is preserved in Japanese koku).

  87. Cordwainer Smith was an old China hand.

  88. His godfather was Sun Yat-sen!

  89. In BCS you guard something like the eye in [your] head (čuvati kao oko u glavi)
    Probably Slavonic Biblical in origin, and the Russian version remains totally archaic: беречь как зеницу ока <= Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy 32:10 (in KJV, “kept him as the apple of his eye”)

    In BCS it can also be rendered mentioning the pupil, as čuvati kao z(j)enicu oka svoga. It’s a more poetic rendering.

    ‘make a hen out of a feather’ (about a matter being far too exaggerated).
    In BCS that’s praviti od muhe slona – making a fly into an elephant.

    Les murs ont des oreilles. (Walls have ears, = someone might hear you).
    It’s exactly the same in BCS.

    More in the German wiktionary entry. No mention of treasures, but there are equivalents in other languages involving donkeys, rabbits, pigs, etc.
    I’m surprised to see that the BCS version is shared with French, Spanish and Portuguese. Curious how we ended up with their rabbit instead of the dog.

  90. David Marjanović says:

    European Sprachbund, anyone?

    making a fly into an elephant

    In German it’s a midge rather than a fly.

    It’s exactly the same in BCS.

    And in German: Hier haben die Wände Ohren!

  91. Henk Metselaar says:

    Raining cats and dogs/delivery boys.

    I don’t know the background of these expressions but all three tend to be out on the streets. During a heavy rain they might seek refuge in whatever house is close, causing the startled tenant to exclaim: it’s raining cat and dogs (or whatever). Just speculation, so may be way off base.

    Dutch: het regent pijpestelen (pipe stems), presumably because heavy rain doesn’t form drops so much as streamers that resemble the long stems of 16/17th century dutch clay pipes.

  92. A riddle from my youngest years:

    “What’s worse than raining cats and dogs?”

    “Hailing taxis”.

  93. marie-lucie says:

    raining pipe stems

    French: il pleut des cordes ‘it’s raining ropes’

  94. David Marjanović says:

    Salzburger Schnürlregen: in Salzburg, the rain forms continuous threads rather than individual drops.

  95. Stefan Holm says:

    It’s raining cats and dogs. In my idiom we say regnet står som spön i backen, ‘the rain stands like rods in the ground’.

    And, as his name was mentioned, Võ Nguyên Giáp is an absolute favourite of mine. As a general he never attacked or invaded any foreign country but succesfully defended his own against mighty enemies like Japan, France, the Unites States and – finally – China. (I don’t know about his role in the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in order to end the terror rule of the Khmer rouge).

    After having been forced to watch his newly married wife being hanged by the French he committed his life to his nation. His victory at Dién Bién Phu http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Dien_Bien_Phu
    in 1954 is in my book a turning point in the histrory of mankind. It marked the end of European colonialism. For the first time ever a colonized people was able to defeat their oppressors on the battlefield. And so far he is the only commander to win a military victory over the United States of America. Even general Westmoreland admitted that he was facing a worthy enemy.

    Alexander, Ceasar, Genghis Khan, Napooleon, Custer, Rommel, Patton, Montgomery, Shukov – go to bed! You are all minor compared to Võ Nguyên Giáp!

  96. Amazingly, to a Hebrew speaker quite a few of the languages on the list have at least one well-known idiom. I’m guessing we borrowed them all during the revival between 1880-1950:
    “To buy a cat in a sack”. Yep. Same meaning.
    “It fell between chairs”. Ditto.
    “The thief has a burning hat”. Different meaning – basically, “you’re to blame” after encountering some clear evidence.
    “To take oneself in one’s hands”. Same meaning.

  97. I wonder if anyone’s done an international study of idioms, trying to trace their passage from one language/tradition to another; I’ll bet it would be interesting.

  98. I wonder if anyone’s done an international study of idioms, trying to trace their passage from one language/tradition to another; I’ll bet it would be interesting.

    Ruvik Rosenthal’s Dictionary of Hebrew Phrases and Idioms “contains 18,000 coinages uses by Israelis, and tracks their origins in Jewish texts and in the languages of the world. The book was awarded a ‘Golden Book’ prize by the Book Publishers Association of Israel.”

    The quoted section above is a quick translation of the book’s description on Rosenthal’s website:
    מילון יחיד מסוגו המציג את 18,000 מטבעות לשון שבהם משתמשים הישראלים, ומתחקה אחרי מקורותיהם בטקסטים היהודיים ובשפות העולם. הספר זכה בספר זהב מטעם הסתדרות המו”לים

    The author told me that the dictionary has sold more than 20,000 copies. This is an amazing quantity for a country with a population of only eight million people.

  99. marie-lucie says:

    (more rain)

    In the Nisga’a language (Northern British Columbia) you can say something meaning the rain comes up from below ground, when drops of heavy rain seem to bounce up from saturated ground or puddles.

  100. At købe katten i sækken works in Danish as well.

    It doesn’t rain cats and dogs, though, but “cobbler boys down” instead.

  101. I liked this one:
    Вирна ша вир юйла ца хиъна, лерг лаьцча бен.
    (дословный перевод: Осел тогда лишь узнал, что он осел, когда его за ухо потянули).
    (A donkey realized that he was a donkey only when he had his ear tugged.)
    Нохчийн кицнаш – чеченские пословицы! (Буква « В »)

    On a tangent, Hat may want to check this out:
    Словарь русских народных говоров

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