Strange Foreign Expressions : how to speak like a local

By Alexiane Bacle / November 22, 2020

Learning a new language is always a challenge, but not many things compare to the pride of speaking to a local in their native language. One way to know you have mastered the language is using the typical, and sometimes strange, foreign expressions , but it can take years to pick up on those subtle sayings that make a language fun. 

I have been using English on a daily basis for the past three years now, and yet not a week passes without its share of mistakes. No matter how hard I try, I always end up saying something very strange and having people blankly stare at me. True, it is always fun to see their faces as they are trying to process what I just said, but if you want to avoid some awkward looks and hurting some feelings (don’t ever call a cheerleader a “pom-pom girl”), using typical expressions is the key. 

French

We, French people, have quite the reputation. Whether people think of us as rude, grumpy or sophisticated (I still don’t understand this one), our expressions are quite colorful. 

For example, if you ever feel depressed, you could say “j’ai le cafard”, which, translated, means “I have the cockroach”. If you have other things to do, you could say “j’ai d’autres chat à fouetter”, which means “I have other cats to whip”. A true eyebrows raiser. 

Strange Foreign Expressions

Finally, if you wish to say that you were quicker that someone, you could use the great “je lui ai coupé l’herbe sous le pied”, which is “I cut the grass under its feet”. Why the cutting the grass under its feet? Maybe it is an image about taking the ground under someone’s feet to avoid them from getting further. Or maybe we are just that good at gardening. 

Italian 

We’ve all heard the cliché that speaking Italian is half words, half hands. It may be true, but Italians also have some strange sayings. For example, you would not be “drunk” in Italy, you would be “ubricato come una scimmia”, or “drunk like a monkey.”

An old Italian saying would be “capita a fagiolo”, which means “to happen at the bean.” This expression comes from older times, when the poor citizens would have beans to eat. When beans would happen, it would be a “perfect” time, as it was time to eat. 

Another idiom is “fare la gatta morta”, to play the dead cat. At first, I figured it was about surviving and playing dead, like animals in the wild. I was wrong, as playing the dead cat means playing dumb. However, it might still be linked to the surviving strategy and ignoring the adversary.

German 

German is a hard language to learn, but so fun to use. Indeed, German is very straightforward, creating new words by using other ones. Nevertheless, German expressions are a bit more mysterious. 

The first time I heard someone say “Jetzt geht’s um die Wurst”, I was the one staring blankly. Partly because I am not good enough to understand German, and partly because sausages were never part of the conversation. This expression means “it’s about the sausage now”, and is used to say that we have reached the heart of the problem, or the conversation. 

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To say that no one is at their level, a German speaker could say “Niemand kann mir das Wasser reichen”, which means “nobody can reach the water for me.” Lastly, if you ever hear the expression “die Daumen drücken”, it means “press the thumbs”. This one is not to be understood literally. If you were to press your thumbs in the middle of a conversation, you might throw off the other person, as the saying means “fingers crossed.” But when you think about it, crossing fingers is not much more logical. 

Spanish 

Spanish is the fourth most spoken language in the world and is attracting more learners each year. The Spanish language is often assimilated with sun and warmth as most Spanish speaking countries are warm. 

In Spanish, to say that something is old, you could say “ser del año de la pera”, which means “to be from the year of the pear.” I don’t know what the issue is with pears, but I hope it will get better. However, be careful not to use it about someone, it could be taken the wrong way. 

Another one with food is “no saber ni papa de algo”, or “to know nothing about the potato”, to have no idea of what is going on. Simple, efficient, and yet, why the potato? Was there an Original Potato, stolen, and no one knew anything about the Potato? 

Finally, to tell someone to be careful, you could use “andar con pies de plomo.” Translated literally, it means “to walk with lead feet.” It is the contrary to walking on eggshells, as one is very heavy, and the other is about being light. It is fun to realize that more often than not, languages use similar expressions to say the same thing : be careful! 

Portuguese 

If in Europe, we all love pasteis de nata and the sun of Portugal, Portuguese shines further than the European shores. In Portuguese, to say that something is not going to happen and that you don’t even want to think about it, you can use the expression “tirar o cavalinho da chuva”, which means “to take your horse out of the rain”. How did the horse get under the rain? That will stay a mystery. 

Another way to say “never in a million years” is the expression “nem que a vaca tussa”. It can be translated to “not even if the cows cough”. It can be linked with the English “when pigs will fly” or the French “when chicks will have teeth”. 

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Lastly, a clumsy person like me could be called “barata tonta”, which is “a dizzy cockroach”. Although I am not sure why a cockroach would be dizzy, I understand why a clumsy person could be referred to as a dizzy cockroach. 

English 

English has become the universal language. Most people learn it at school from a young age and use it as a middle ground when talking to someone speaking another language. English is well-spread around the globe, and local expressions appeared in different English speaking countries. 

In Australia, everyone will understand if someone talks about having a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock. It is a not so subtle way to say that someone has a screw loose, or is losing their marbles. See how rich English is when it comes to calling someone crazy. 

In the United States, to say that something is the best, the top of the top, you can say “it’s the bee’s knees”. Maybe it is because bees do not have knees. It is then so rare, so unimaginable, that it turns into something great. It’s that, or American bees are very different from the European ones. 

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Yet, my favorite expression comes from Ireland. To wet the tea. After a day reading about strange expressions in different languages, I figured this one might be about peeing. No. It is about preparing the tea, so making the tea wet. For that easy-to-understand expression, I am grateful. However, Irish have their own secrets. If they talk to you about “donkey’s years”, be ready to wait. 

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Alexiane Bacle

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