English is not my husband’s first language, although it is mine. He speaks English fluently, however, sometimes I say something that he just doesn’t understand and when he asks me to explain it, I am often at a loss as to how to do this. Idioms are cultural expressions that, to me, it just seems obvious as to what it means. Over the years I have noted some of these sayings as well as recorded expressions from other cultures that I have encountered when traveling or conversing with people from another country.

The Arabic idiom “I do not have a single camel in this caravan” means that a person has no interest in the matter.

A Mandarin expression “seeing the bow reflected in the cup and seeing a snake instead” means you are worrying about nothing.

If a French co-worker tells you that you have “long teeth”, he or she probably means you are too ambitious. And if they tell you that your teeth can scrape the floor, you are extremely, and probably overly, ambitious. If your French co-worker then says that they have other “cats to beat or whip”, don’t call the Humane Society. It simply means they are busy and have other things to do.

My nephew who now lives in Germany told me that he would squeeze his thumbs for me when he heard I had bid on a project. What he meant was that he was wishing me good luck. He also advised me “not to praise the day before night had fallen”. That meant he didn’t want me to run out and spend money I anticipated earning from this project before it was actually in the bank.

As a little girl I would often hear my Italian grandfather tell my grandmother to “stop putting a flea in someone’s ear” when she would be gossiping with a girlfriend. He was telling her to stop spreading rumors that would raise people’s suspicions. If someone did something stupid, he would say that they had “ham in their eyes” which meant they couldn’t see what was obvious. And whereas we here in the United States say “hungry as a horse”, Granddad was always “hungry as a wolf”.

My favorite auntie married a Welshman. As a little niece who visited often, I proved to be a challenging houseguest because of my natural curiosity and spirited disposition. My uncle would often tell me that I was “riding his white horse” which meant I was very mischievous. Eventually, in a very good natured spirit, he would tell me he was going outside to “toss his fiddle up on the roof”. This meant he was giving up because I was just too much for him.

One of my rabbi’s favorite sayings was “don’t chop my teapot!” He would say this when someone was annoying him. I found it so clever and funny.

Some of my sayings that have confused my husband and what they mean:

  • “Don’t bark up the wrong tree.” This means a person is looking in the wrong place.
  • “Burn the midnite oil.” This means you are staying up way too late working.
  • “Where in the Sam Hill is so-and-so?” It means you can’t find something no matter how hard you have looked.
  • “I’m fixin’ to go to the store.” This is a southern phrase which means I will soon be leaving to go to the store.

I find such colorful language delightful. I also find it quite fun to say some of these things in conversation with people I am certain have never heard such a thing before. It always provokes a fun and interesting conversation.