Thursday, May 23, 2013

Idiomatic Indignation!

I have enemies. Yes, of course, just like anyone does. Nowdays though, they come in different forms. No longer the type to dissolve into shadows after a thwarted attempt to barrage our sun with anti-matter beams (the last case of which wasted an entire Tuesday night better spent on Lost). Now they are more phonetic.

One particular hurdle I still face daily in German has been colloquial speech, or more idiomatically; the idiosyncrasies of idioms. Sayings and expressions are often impossible to translate directly from English, and very difficult to decode from other languages when you hear them.

I encountered one less troublesome example today, the expression: I've got my fingers crossed for you. Again, translating from English to German would just come across as confusing to a German speaker (in most cases Germans have a good enough understanding of English to know what you're getting at though). In German however, one says I'm holding my thumbs for you.

By chance, this is a Swedish saying as well, so the first time I heard it I was spared too much pondering.

Then came this one, which I heard yesterday in response to something I said: 'well, it comes on it'.

My eyebrows instantly cocked to an alarming angle. My mind spun through possible meanings, but the conversation halted. Why? Let's break it down. What I heard was: es kommt darauf an (in English literally: it comes on it). What it actually means is: it depends. At the time, this to me was indecipherable.

Another brilliant yet equally indecipherable phrase is: einen hinter die Binde kippen lit. tilt one behind the bandage. This is is actually slang for: grab a drink.

To add to the confusion, I've noticed that very often sayings will use different animals in each language.

For example, wie ein Elefant im Porzellanladen, literally like an elephant in a porcelain store is to most English speakers like a bull in a china store. But this one is rather simple to work out. So, what about a personal favourite of mine then: da liegt der Hase in Pfeffer? This is literally there lies the hare in pepper, and means there's a fly in the ointment or that's the crux of it.

Another with the rabbit is sehen wie der Hase läuft, lit. to see see how the rabbit runs, or to English speakers, we'll see which way the cat jumps.

Our elephant example shoes that of course, sometimes there are similarities. Wie Mottem ums Licht means lit. like moths around a light but is more commonly heard as like a moth to a flame.

Here's a saying that doesn't really have a clear equivalent however: da liegt der Hund begraben. Literally, it means: there lies the buried dog. Any guesses as to what it means? It's a bit of a roundabout way of saying: that's the point [of the matter]. It can also be used to say: nothing is going on [there]. Either way, I certainly wouldn't consider it very clear.

Edit: Milla from Värmland has kindly pointed out that the same phrase in Swedish, här ligger en hund begraven means there's something fishy going on [here]. Note the dog in Swedish and fish in English, agreeing with that animal theory again! (The meaning between German and Swedish is however, curiously skewed).

And finally, there's just plain strange ones, like: wie der Ochse vorm Berg, lit. like the ox in front of the mountain. In English, it actually means: like a dying duck in a thunderstorm.

Nope. I've never heard that one either.

Jimzip :D


  1. One of my favourite expressions I found recently was a polish one (Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy) which means 'not my problem' but the literal translation is 'Not my circus, not my monkeys'. :) (Although Rob claims to have never heard it - but he has told me some pretty funny other expressions.)

    It's interesting some of the subtle changes - crossing fingers compared to holding thumbs etc.

  2. Haha. That's brilliant! X) Seems like a bit of a mouthful though.

    When Dave and I were attempting Slovene two years ago, I remember him telling me that Slovenian insults were really odd. He said that often they'll just use English swear words as in Slovene the insults are still stuck in time from when Slovenia was more agrarian. Saying to someone "I hope you have a bad crop!" was very nasty indeed.

    When we got there and asked the people about it, we got mixed responses. Some said they didn't know what we meant, but a couple knew what we were talking about.

    Jimzip :D

  3. Hi ya,
    Interesting studies :)

    Never encountered the duck in the thunderstorm before...
    ...But I do have some objections on the behalf of the buried dog.
    At least in Swedish, the meaning is like "A-ha, now here's something fishy going on..."
    -Not very obvious that one either, I'm afraid... ;)

    Just thought you might like to know :)

    Greetings from Värmland!