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Let’s not beat around the bush, idioms are the best thing since sliced bread.

Everyone has their favourites that they like to use endlessly, but others think they should only be used once in a blue moon. To cut a long story short, idioms are phrases with culturally understood meanings that aren’t meant to be taken literally.

Today, we want to bite the bullet, and get down to discussing idioms in foreign languages. When they’re dropped into conversation by a native, they can make you question your listening comprehension and feel as if you’re not on the ball. When you’re translating and come across them, you know that a literal translation won’t get you very far. If – like us – you can’t get through a sentence without subconsciously using one and you crave the same effect when using a foreign language – you have come to the right place.

Idioms describe universal experiences that the majority of people can relate to, so similar idioms actually do exist in many languages. They’re fun and interesting ways of expressing your thoughts. Every language has them, but some really take the cake.

Their differences depend on the culture: superstitions, folklore, histories, and attitudes are reflected.

So, let’s let the cat out of the bag…

1. Italian: Il lupo perde il pelo ma non il vizio (= The wolf loses the hair but not the vice)

Equivalent: A leopard never changes its spots / Old habits die hard / You can’t teach an old dog new tricks

2. Czech: Je to pro mě španělská vesnice (= It’s a Spanish village to me)

Equivalent: It’s all Greek to me

3. Spanish: Mucho ruido y pocas nueces (= A lot of noise and no walnuts)

Equivalent: All talk and no action / All bark and no bite

4. Korean: 똥묻은개가겨묻은개나무란다 (= A dog covered in feces scolds a dog covered in grain)

Equivalent: Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

5. German: Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund (= The morning hour has gold in its mouth)

Equivalent: The early bird gets the worm

6. French: Coûter les yeux de la tête (= To cost the eyes of the head)

Equivalent: To cost an arm and a leg

7. Japanese: 手のひらを返す (Te no hira wo kaesu) (= To turn over the palm of your hand)

Equivalent: To give the cold shoulder

8. Arabic: التكرار يعلّم الحمار (At-Tikraar yu’allem al-Himaar.) (= Repetition teaches the donkey)

Equivalent: Practice makes perfect

9. Dutch: Over koetjes en kalfjes praten (= To talk about little cows and little calves)

Equivalent: To make small talk

10. Russian: Делать из мухи слона (= To make an elephant out of a fly)

Equivalent: To make a mountain out of a molehill

You see, some can be similar across languages, and some can be apples and oranges. Where do they even originate from? Your guess is as good as mine.

Just kidding. Idioms actually originate from literal meanings that have now become figurative. For example, “to cost an arm and a leg” has its origins in 18th Century art when the wealthy (but stingy) would have their portraits painted without certain limbs because it was less expensive.

Or, conveying total confusion, “it’s all Greek to me” refers to a very enigmatic language for English speakers. However, many Slavic languages such as Czech, Slovak, and Croatian instead find Spanish towns problematical in pronunciation and reading, and so convey their confusion with “it’s a Spanish village to me.”

You could say we’re as different as chalk and cheese, worlds apart, or not even in the same league, but when it comes to idioms, we think we’re all cut from the same cloth.