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10 Witty Foreign Idioms

Using idioms in our everyday vocabulary is as easy as pie, like stealing candy from a baby — so easy, one can do it with their eyes shut … you get the point.

Idioms are phrases with established uses that aren’t obviously deducible from their individual words. For example, if someone were to say it’s raining cats and dogs, we wouldn’t rush outside with a net to catch Fido and Felix as they fell from the sky. Nor would we assume someone was trying to explain the rules of ballroom dancing if they said, “It takes two to tango” — even though that’s exactly what these phrases suggest at face value.

We accept the idiomatic meaning of these expressions as common knowledge, despite the fact that they seem somewhat illogical on a surface level. These oddball phrases pop up in languages all across the globe, making their social context all the more crucial when interpreting them.

While it’s relatively easy to determine the colloquial meaning of idioms in our native language, it can be much trickier to interpret those that have their origins in other tongues. However, that doesn’t make them any less clever, creative, or witty. We’ve gathered some of the most scintillating non-English idioms to add some color and variety to your vocabulary. After all, it’s better to “non avere peli sulla lingua” whenever possible, right?

Non avere peli sulla lingua

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Don’t have hair on the tongue.

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In Italian, this phrase means to be direct and forthcoming. If someone has no hair on their tongue, it suggests that nothing hinders them from speaking their mind. Similar English idioms include “don’t beat around the bush,”  “don’t straddle the fence,” and “don’t sugarcoat it.”

ชาติหน้าตอนบ่าย ๆ

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One afternoon in your next reincarnation.

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The exact translation of this Thai phrase is “next life, in the afternoon,” which suggests an idea or event that’s unlikely to happen. The most widely practiced religion in Thailand is Buddhism, which espouses the belief in a recurring life cycle and, thus, reincarnation. English expressions that share the same sentiment include “a cold day in July,” “when pigs fly,” and “when hell freezes over.”

Mucho ruido y pocas nueces

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All noise and few nuts.

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This Spanish idiom’s word-for-word translation might seem off-the-wall, but its origins are more familiar than one might think: It came about as the original Spanish translation of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Equivalent English idioms include “making a mountain out of a molehill” and “creating a tempest in a teapot.”

على قد لحافك مد رجلي

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Stretch your legs as far as your blanket extends.

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Directly translated from Arabic to English, this idiom reads, “On your mat may extend your legs.” In context, this phrase refers to not overextending your resources, be they financial, emotional, mental, or physical. A common English expression that means the same thing is “live/spend within your means.”

Al draagt een aap een gouden ring, het is en blijft een lelijk ding

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Even if a monkey wears a gold ring, it is still an ugly thing.

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This Dutch idiom is certainly descriptive, albeit slightly hostile. A monkey remaining “ugly” even when donning a gold ring refers to the idea that if something is inherently unattractive or unpleasant, there’s not much that can improve it. “It’s like putting lipstick on a pig” is a similar English expression.

Man soll den Tag nicht vor dem Abend loben

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One shouldn’t praise the day before the evening.

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The importance of not relying on something that has yet to happen is a universal concept that appears to stem from Proverbs 27:1, a Bible verse that reads, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.” Comparable English phrases for this succinct German idiom include “don’t count your chickens before they hatch” and “don’t hold your breath.”

오십보 백보

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50 steps are similar to 100 steps.

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This Korean idiom is a short and sweet way of describing an idea or concept that’s no different from another. English idioms with a similar sentiment are “six of one, half a dozen of the other,” and “to-may-to, to-mah-toe.” These idioms imply that choosing one option over the other is pointless because the outcomes will be the same (or very similar).

Słoń nastąpił ci na ucho?

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Did an elephant step on your ear?

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Musical tastes are highly subjective. However, if one were to disagree with someone regarding this subject in Poland, one might inquire whether a giant mammal had stomped on their ear and prevented them from hearing properly. While there’s no direct English comparison, we might tell someone with bad taste that they have “no ear for music.”

Å være midt i smørøyet

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To be in the middle of the butter eye

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This Nordic expression might sound like gibberish at first, but it makes more sense when placed within the context of a hot bowl of porridge. To be a dollop of butter melting in porridge means to be in a very favorable place or position, similar to the English expression “having it made in the shade.”

Ej bekot

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Go pick mushrooms.

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Sometimes the best idioms are those that get straight to the point, as in the case of this two-word Latvian expression. Directly translated, it means “go kick,” but it’s generally understood to mean “go pick mushrooms.” It’s a blunt way of telling someone to stop bothering you, much like the English phrases “kick rocks” and “beat it.”

Featured image credit: Vitezslav Vylicil/ Shutterstock

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About the Author
Melanie Davis-McAfee
M. Davis-McAfee is a freelance writer, musician, and devoted cat mom of three living in southwest Kentucky.
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