From Apron Hunters to Matricide: Idioms from Around the World

Anyone who grew up speaking English knows the phrase, "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence," isn't about botany. Although idioms are particular to each language, most languages have them. Find out about strange idioms from all around the world, and what they say about the cultures that create them.

Idiomatic language is an effective way to separate the native speakers from those who are only learning the language. Idioms are phrases that have a specific meaning, usually that people have grown up understanding through context, but that can't be understood by looking at the individual words. 'Kicked the bucket,' or 'bought the farm,' or 'popped his clogs,' all mean dead. 'Having your cake and eating it too,' means having it all, or wanting it all. 'Shooting fish in a barrel,' means a too-easy fight. There are a lot of these phrases that pepper our language. But linguists have found that there are such phrases all over the world, and that people say them without understanding why.

In Russia, having a butt that's fringed with noodles is a state of extreme happiness, while hanging noodles from someone's ears means, well, pulling the wool over their eyes. Although it's understandable that no one wants noodles on their ears, the meanings of these idioms are lost in time. People who use them have no idea why. For example, 'letting the cat out of the bag,' is an expression that means, 'revealing a secret.' Most people don't know that it dates back to the sixteenth century, when people in the marketplace sold pigs in bags. (Why? I don't know.) Some swindlers substituted a less-valuable cat for a pig, and only by letting it out of the bag was the con revealed. A few other baffling ones were, 'the space below a nose is long,' is a way of saying that someone is lecherous towards women in Japanese. In Colombia being 'swallowed like a postman's sock,' means being in love, and to have 'eaten a monkey,' means to be crazy about someone in German. Meanwhile, a Latin American expression for flirting is, 'to set the dogs on someone.' I wonder how they translate a Simpson's episode when Mr Burns releases the hounds.

From Apron Hunters to Matricide: Idioms from Around the WorldS


There are a few images that run through idioms the world over. In English, 'taking something with a grain of salt,' means being skeptical of part or all of a story. 'Being salted,' in Spanish means to be unlucky. More often, salt is an expression of value or kindness. In Russia, 'meeting someone with bread and salt,' means giving them a warm welcome, and in Arabic you can accept a kind dinner invitation by saying, 'yes, I will take salt with you.'

And then there are the idioms that, while diverse in language, express common concepts. 'Apron hunter,' in German, means 'a skirt chaser,' in English means 'having fast hands,' in Japanese. Matrimony gets a lot of flack with Costa Rica calling it 'matricide,' and Mexico saying it's, 'hanging oneself.' A wife is referred to as 'handcuffs,' in Spanish and 'the old ball and chain,' in English. Hypocrisy is another common theme. There's the famous Biblical adage about pointing out the splinter in another's eye while having a plank in your own. In English there's, 'the pot calling the kettle black,' and in Arabic they say, 'a camel can never see his own hump.' It's good that there are some things that are common the world over.

Top Image: Erich Ferdinand

Second Image: SoraZG

Via Smithsonian Magazine and NPR twice.