Idioms

Some of the most fascinating examples of similarities and differences between languages are found in idioms and set expressions. Language learners are often surprised when a rather unusual expression has a word-for-word equivalent in another language. Just as often, they may be surprised to find that an expression does not have an equivalent in another language or that the equivalent differs in some ways.

Here are some expressions that rather unexpectedly have very similar equivalents in English, Spanish, and Russian – three languages that, although related, are quite far removed in most ways:

English: to shed crocodile tears
Russian: lit’ krokodilovy slyozy
Meaning: to pretend to cry in order to gain sympathy

English: to hit the ceiling
Spanish: tocar el cielo con las manos (literally “to take the sky in one’s hands”)
Meaning: to reach the limit; usually of your patience

English: to know something inside out
Russian: znat’ vdol’ I poperyok (literally “to know something lengthwise and crosswise”)
Meaning: to know something very well

English: to have nine lives
Spanish: tener siete vidas (literally “to have seven lives”)
Russian: dvuzhil’niy (literally “one with two lives”)
Meaning: to be good at avoiding death/danger

English: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”
Russian: “v Tulu so svoim samovarom ne ezdyat” (literally “don’t go to Tula with your own samovar”).
Meaning: When visiting a strange place, it’s best to follow the lead of the locals

On the other hand, there are no equivalents in English for the following Spanish idioms – see if you can guess what they mean from their literal translation:

cara de viernes (literally “Friday face”) :: a thin, wan face
decir cuatro verdades (literally “to tell four truths”) :: to speak one’s mind freely
saber más que las culebras (literally “to know more than the snakes”) :: to be cunning

At the same time, no language seems to have a word for word equivalent for the English expression “to go bananas” – although there is always a way to express the concept of craziness, no other language seems to use a fruit to draw the comparison between sanity and ‘going a little bit nuts’ (or perhaps in this case, a little ‘fruity’).

Comments on Idioms