Try Something New: Idioms for (almost) Every Occasion
Updated: Aug 4
Words are important. You know what is more important? Words that don't mean what they are supposed to mean. That's right, folks, we're talking metaphors - the ligustic equivalent to a gilded rococo sideboard. Why did you buy that crazy sideboard? Because it's freaking awesome, that's why. And so are metaphors. Some metaphors are so cool that they become codified as an idiomatic expression unique to a time and place. There is something special about using an idom - if you are from the English-speaking world, you are automatically rooted in your culture when you say, "Hey, pal, a bird in hand...." You don't even need to finish the phrase. Everyone knows what you are going to say - even if no one actually knows what it is like to have either a bird in their hand or two in their bush.
But sometimes you don't want to feel rooted in the same old linguistic system you are so used to using. Sometimes you want to develop lingustic wings and go on a metaphoric flight of fancy! The best way to do that is to incorporate wild, weird idiomatic expressions from other languages into your repertoire. I want to support you in this pursuit, so I have compiled a list of some of the greatest and strangest idiomatic expressions from around the world - just for you! Because I love you.
The depth of my research has enabled me to learn something very important about the global human condition: everyone everywhere is obsessed with cats and/or monkeys.
Not my circus, not my monkeys
Means "Not my problem" in Poland
Try it in Polish: Nie mój cyrk , nie moje małpy
Polish is definitely one of the most beautiful languages out there, and they have just completely nailed what the rest of the world always wanted to say when asked about something you really don't care about. "Not my circus, not my monkeys," is the most perfect combination of words and sentiments and images I have ever heard. You should try it out.
I have other cats to whip
Means "I have better things to do" in France
Try it in French: J'ai d'autres chats à fouetter
I suppose the English version of this - having other fish to fry - is also strange and cruel if we focus on the experience of the animal in question. However, frying fish is pretty common in both cultures. Who whips a cat? Who thought that was a good idea?
You should use this phrase, and when people look at you funny, tell them, "Oh, I spent some time in France, that's what they do over there. It's very common." You will suddenly go from weird to classy in their estimation.
I would borrow a cat’s paw for help
Means "I am so busy, I can't handle it all" in Japan
Try it in Japanese: neko no te mo karitai
This one makes a lot of sense to me. I didn't have time to do the dishes today, and we do not have a dishwasher, so I asked Riley to lend me her paw.n I said, "Riley, I am so busy that I would borrow your paw for help." Well, let me tell you something: it was absolutely useless. You have to be really, really busy in order to think that a cat's paw will help you in any way.
This expression is scientifically and lingustically accurate. I give it five stars.
Go comb some monkeys
Means "Leave me alone!" in Brazil
Try it in Portuguese: Vai pentear macacos
Take a look at the monkeys in the above photo. These monkeys, found in Rio's Jardim Botanico, are grooming each other by licking the other's butt. As an aside... is this where the term "brown-noser" comes from? Fascinating.... In any case, if this is what combing a monkey entails, you know it is not a nice thing to say.
As I was writing this post in the coffee shop, the man next to me tapped me on the shoulder and said, "I am from Brazil, and we do say that! But if 'vai pentear macacos' isn't enough to make the person bothering you go away, there is a follow up phrase!" This man introduced himself as Rodrigo Barbosa, a PhD candidate in mathematics at Penn, and he sounded trustworthy. So, here is Rodrigo's even meaner follow up to go comb a monkey:
Go collect little coconuts up on the hillside!
Or, in Portuguese: Vai catar coquinho na ladeira!
I totally get that collecting little coconuts on the hillside would be very frustrating (because they would keep rolling away), but I can't help but think that combing a monkey is still worse.
If you want to get right to the point and be very clear that you are sending someone away simply because you don't want to be near them (and not because you actually need coconuts or have a monkey with tangles), try this favorite French version:
Go over there to see if I am there.
Or, in French: Va voir la-bas si j'y suis
It is a little confusuing, but it certainly drives the point home.
Don't insult the midwives while you can still bear children
Means "Don't bite the hand that feeds you" in the African Great Lakes region
Try it in Swahili: Usitukane wakunga na uzazi ungalipo
I think that "Don't bite the hand that feeds you," is really quite evocative. And yet... this Swahili proverb is perhaps even more effeective at driving the point home.
Furthermore, midwives rock. Thanks for doing what you do.
Let me show you where a chicken pees from
Means "Let me show you how it's done" in Finland
Try it in Finnish: Näytän sulle, mistä kana pissii
I have absolutely no idea why the Finns think that showing me where a chicken pees from is going to be an impressive display of knowledge or talent. And yet, here I am wondering: how DOES a chicken pee? The Finns have clearly tapped into something profound here. If you are skeptical that this expression is actually used by today's Finns, watch this video and listen to what the astronaut says at minute 3.17.
I encourage you to be like an astronaut and use the phrase, "I'll show you where a chicken pees from," as often as possible.
If you are in the market for something to say after you showed everyone how it is done/where the chicken pees from, try this related French phrase that means, "That was a piece of cake:"
I did that with my finger in my nose!
Or, in French: Je l'ai fait avec le doigt dans le nez
The pussy cat will come to the tiny door
Means "what goes around comes around" in Croatia
Try it in Croation: Doće maca na vratanca
Guys, I had a really hard time figuring out what this meant, and for a while I thought it was just something the Croats said because it sort of rhymes in Croation and everyone loves cat expressions. But now I think I got it. The little door in the expression is a cat door, and they are saying that the cat goes out the cat door, and the cat will come back in the cat door, so watch out. What you let out into the world comes back to you. Oh my god, it is so obvious now that I wrote it out. This is a great expression! I am going to use this nonstop.
Our little door in the photo actually hides our fusebox and some pipes. Riley really doesn't care about it, so I don't know if she would relate to the cat in this expression.
You're taking your pants off to fart
Means "You are making things too complicated" in China
There is no image because I think we can all imagine this.
Try it in Chinese: 脫了褲子放屁 (Tuōle kùzi fàngpì)
This is just a perfect thing to say pretty much all the time.
It's raining old women with clubs!
Means "It's pouring" in parts of South Africa
Try it in Afrikaans: Ou vrouens met knopkieries reen
Ok, it's weird that you would associate heavy rain with a violent old woman. Weirder still, the phrase in Norway is "It is raining female trolls," (Det regner trollkjerringer), and in Welsh you say it is raining old ladies and sticks (Mae hi'n bwrw hen wragedd a ffyn).
Why is this a thing??? You should not use these expressions. They are weird.
This is my grandma, and she will totally rain down on your with clubs and sticks because she is a badass.
Speaking of why is this a thing, there are many, many countries that say, "That'll happen on Saint Never's Day!" instead of "When pigs fly."
Polish : Na Święty Nigdy
Croatian: Na sveto nigdarjevo
Slovenian : Ob svetem nikoli Portuguese : No Dia de São Nunca
I feel like this is the Catholic version of just saying, "NOT," and I don't really support it. Maybe you feel differently, though, in which case I am excited for you.
There are so many ways to add a special florish to your language, and I hope this beginners guide helped!