Are We Talking the Same Language?
10 Global Idioms and their Meanings

by Diane Berenbaum

What we say has an impact on how our readers and listeners feel. If our words aren't clear, then our audience may stop listening to our presentations, or just skim through our emails. And even worse; in some cases they'll "delete."

According to Smart Words, every language has its own collection of wise sayings that are unique to its country or culture. These adages offer advice about how to live and reference underlying ideas, principles and values of a specific culture or society. They are called "idiomatic expressions," and they are part of the English language. We use them on a regular basis. So much so, that we often don't even realize that we're doing it. And if taken literally, the meaning of these phrases would make us laugh or even cringe!

Countries around the world use these expressions—they are perfectly clear to their natives, but can be totally confusing and/or amusing to those of us in the United States. Here are just a few examples along with their English equivalents, from Hervé F. Chain, president of Omni Intercommunications, an expert in global translations and publishing:

  • 1.  You better get to the point if someone tells you you're beating around the bush. A Czech would say, "Chodit kolem toho jako kolem horké kaše" or "walking around it as around a hot porridge."
  • 2.  Working in the yard all day may result in you sweating like a pig. However, in the Netherlands, they say "zweten peentjes" or "sweat carrots."
  • 3.  Seems like you're going nowhere? You're probably spinning your wheels. But in France, they "pédalent dans la choucroute" or "pedal in sauerkraut"!
  • 4.  Visiting your friend in Peru happens once in a blue moon. Likewise, a Peruvian coming to see you happens "every time a bishop dies" ("cada muerte de obispo").
  • 5.  Good luck on your exam! I'll keep my fingers crossed. If you're in Germany, you'll probably hear, "Ich werde dir die Daumen drücken" which literally translates as "I'll squeeze my thumbs for you."
  • 6.  We've all been accused of making a mountain out of a molehill. But in Finland, "tehdä kärpäsestä härkänen" says you're "making a bull out of a fly"!
  • 7.  Focusing on the details? Then you probably can't see the forest for the trees. But in Italy, "your eyes are lined with ham" ("avere gli occhi foderati di prosciutto").
  • 8.  Who doesn't love love a bargain – buying something for a song? The Dutch would say, "lets voor een appel en een ei kopen"; they "bought something for an apple and an egg."
  • 9.  Many of us prefer our pastry to be puffed up instead of a conceited person we must be around regularly. In Serbia they would say, "Nosom para oblake," or "he's ripping clouds with his nose."
  • 10.  We all know what it means when someone says when pigs fly. But if you speak Portuguese, "Nem que a vaca tussa" translates into "not even if the cow coughs"!

So remember to think of your audience and/or customer and be open to what you hear and learn.  As we all know, "We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen more and talk less." (Zeno of Citium)

P.S. For more surprising idioms, check out I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms From Around the World  by Jag Bhalla
Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .
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