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An idiom abroad: One man’s guide to the weirdest European slang

A new book of bizarre phrases in European languages aims to counter a rising tide of nationalism

Image: The New European

Brexit broke my heart. I’m sure it did the same for many readers of this paper, but it broke mine my heart for selfish reasons. I’ve previously benefited from full freedom of movement around EU countries, having spent many years travelling around Europe as a stilt walker in a street theatre company, and I’ve always hoped to one day settle in a European country.

Beyond my own self-interests, though, I was also saddened more generally by Brexit being a symbol of a rising tide of nationalistic sentiment, in the UK and elsewhere. A closing of ranks, a rejection of other cultures, an embrace of barriers and borders and walls, and the increase in prejudice, directed at immigrants, that often follows.

It was during this period that I began tweeting lists comparing equivalent phrases in different languages. In truth, I would have done this anyway. I was already obsessed with learning words and idioms across languages and would no doubt have shared them online regardless (as I had with my previous obsession, Victorian-era slang). And I was always likely to have shared them in list form, lists being a lifelong preoccupation, originally a way for me to bring order to a chaotic childhood (both of my parents were heroin addicts and I was passed from home to home, and city to city, throughout my early years, before eventually being raised by my granddad in Manchester).

But with these particular lists, I also had the hope they might, even if only in the tiniest of ways, help to beat back the waves of nationalism and xenophobia – a small and quiet form of prejudice intervention. (The intergroup-contact hypothesis suggests that the more contact people have, directly or indirectly, in person or online, with outgroup members or cultures, the less negatively they view that group). This is especially so if the contact involves humour (and a lot of the idioms from other languages are VERY funny), which has been shown across multiple studies to be particularly effective in increasing a sense of commonality by decreasing stigma and distrust (or any other form of “othering”.)

One of the reasons often put forward for this country always being a prime candidate for a mass rejection of Europe (beyond a collective belief in our own exceptionalism, borne out of our colonial past) is its citizens’ famous lack of multilingualism (English speakers always languish near the bottom of league tables of ability to speak one or more other languages). Of course, this is a major barrier for many British people when it comes to truly understanding (and appreciating) the peoples and cultures of most European countries. This is why an accessible translation project, listing translations of how well-known idioms and proverbs are expressed in different languages, could help to redirect some currents of anti-European sentiment (this was my hope, anyway).

And without further ado, let me get this show on the road and share some lists with you, starting with this list of how to say “let’s get this show on the road”…

  • Let’s pick up our hammers! (Bulgarian)
  • On with the butter! (Icelandic)
  • Let’s saddle the chickens! (German)
  • Forward with the goat! (Dutch)
  • Let’s go, bedbugs, the bed’s on fire! (Finnish)

Another Finnish option is let’s go, lehmät, sonnilla seisoo, which means “let’s go, cows, the bull’s got a boner!” And another Dutch option is gaan met die banaan, which means “go with that banana!”

I should mention here that, as with most English phrases, there are usually endless variants of a certain expression in other languages too, whether based on geography or generation. And the entries in my lists aren’t necessarily the most common or current versions, but simply my favourites (which, big hipster that I am, are often the rare or regional ones, the ones that have fallen out of use, or the slang versions only used by younger generations.)

And speaking of slang used by younger generations, here’s a list of how to say “I don’t care” or “zero fucks given” in other languages…

  • I’m painting my balls with the brush of indifference (French)
  • It’s sausage to me (German)
  • I don’t give a frostbitten onion (Romanian)
  • Even the dog is uninterested (Hungarian)
  • Flowers on my dick and bees all around (Greek)

The French phrase, which I’ve heard expressed several different ways, but most commonly as je me peins les couilles avec le pinceau de l’indifférence or je m’en badigeonne les couilles avec le pinceau de l’indifférence, is another rare one. It’s a vulgarisation of a line from the Franco-Belgian comic book series Achille Talon (the original line translates to something like “I’m smearing my belly button with the brush of indifference”).

One more fun German way of expressing apathy is erzähl das ner Parkuhr, which means “tell that to a parking meter”. It’s dated now, and is probably something you’d hear a German dad say. And speaking of which, perhaps the only thing that people from different cultures can bond over more than slang ways of expressing apathy is the creative ways their dads used to complain about their children costing them money. Here, for example, is a list of ways European dads might respond to you leaving the front door open…

  • Were you born on a trolleybus? (Lithuanian)
  • Are we at the Colosseum? (Italian)
  • Don’t you have a rock for your cave? (Romanian)
  • Waiting for your dog? (Norwegian)
  • Did a goat eat the door? (Polish)

My favourite European dad phrase for when someone leaves the lights on is from Serbian and translates to “was your grandpa Nikola Tesla?” And so that I won’t be accused of ignoring the joy of colloquial UK expressions, I’ll add that the English equivalent (at least the version I always heard in my granddad’s house whenever I left the lights on) is “it’s like the Blackpool illuminations in ’ere”.

The best expression I’ve heard for when someone is blocking your view (usually of the TV) is the Italian sei bello/a ma non sei trasparente. It means ‘“you’re handsome, but you are not transparent”. And the English version (again, the one that my grandfather would say to me, at least) is “you make a better door than a window”.

If I complained about the inconvenience of having to constantly switch off lights or shut doors (or move out of the way of the TV), my granddad would usually reply by telling me I didn’t know what true hardship was, probably with a phrase like “life isn’t a bed of roses, you know”. And, reassuringly, there are countless ways of expressing the idea that life is hard or unfair in other languages, too, with my top five being as follows…

  • Life is not a pony farm (German)
  • Life is not a fairytale, it doesn’t stroke your balls (Polish)
  • Life is not an ice-cream van (Flemish)
  • Life is not a little feather (Czech)
  • The gummy bears are not always evenly divided (Finnish)

Another phrase in German is das Leben ist kein Honigschlecken (“life is not honey-licking”), and this is sometimes combined with the “life is not a pony farm” expression to get das Leben ist kein Ponyschlecken (“life is not pony-licking”).

A further area of commonality with our European neighbours is a propensity for scapegoating through language, which often reveals historical rivalries. In English we have numerous examples of this, of course, from “taking French leave” to describe someone sneaking out of a party without saying goodbye to “it’s double Dutch” for something that makes no sense. But we are not alone in this. Here, for instance, is a list of ways other countries have described something unintelligible…

  • It’s Greek to me (Spanish)
  • This is a Spanish village to me (Czech)
  • Is this a Czech movie? (Polish)
  • It’s Polish spoken backwards (German)
  • It sounds like pig’s German (Finnish)

Today in Spain, and most other Spanish-speaking countries, you would say “that’s Chinese to me” (está en chino) rather than “that’s Greek to me” (está en griego), which is outdated. The phrase from German is also especially outdated. I still included the old versions, though, mostly because I was determined to do a list where each country/language connected to the next one (and please feel free to take an extra moment to admire just how nicely they all connect!).

And one more note on ways of saying that something makes no sense. The Esperanto equivalent is ĝi estas laŭ mi Volapukaĵo, which means “it’s all Volapük to me”. Volapük is another constructed language that attempted (and failed) to become the international language before Esperanto (and Esperanto takes every opportunity to mock it mercilessly). So even modern nation-less languages are not beyond casting shade.

But most of these types of expressions point to national rivalries. For example, a Norwegian way of saying someone looks like a fish out of water is som en danske på ski, which means “like a Dane on skis”. And a Finnish euphemism for when someone is vomiting translates to “they’re speaking Norwegian”. Further evidence of the linguistic blame-game can be found in this list of what syphilis was initially called in different European countries…

  • Italian Disease (France)
  • French Disease (Italy)
  • Polish Disease (Russia)
  • German Disease (Poland)
  • Spanish Disease (the Netherlands)

While we’re on the subject of dated and regressive phrases, there are also numerous expressions/euphemisms used to describe someone who is simple or unhinged (“a few sandwiches short of a picnic” is perhaps the most common English variant), and here is a list of five of them…

  • They’re not the most oxygenated trout in the river (French)
  • Mentally, they are a sock (Hungarian)
  • It’s splashing on their lighthouse (Czech)
  • They don’t have all the Moomins in the valley (Finnish)
  • The wheel is spinning but the hamster is dead (Swedish)

This is probably as good a place as any to mention that hjulet snurrar men hamstern är död (“the wheel is spinning but the hamster is dead”) is the title of my current book, which is a collection of idioms like the ones in this article. So, if you want more, you can find The Wheel is Spinning but the Hamster is Dead: A Journey Around the World in Idioms, Proverbs and General Nonsense in all good bookshops (and some evil ones too). Alternatively, I still post many lists like these on my Twitter account, @AdamCSharp.

So, now I’ve managed to fit in some shameless self-promotion, I will wrap up with a list of five ways to bring a story to an end from European languages. Thank you again for reading…

  • Snip, snap, snout, this tale’s told out (Norwegian)
  • And if that was how it was or not was, may you go into a pumpkin (Basque)
  • Then along came a pig with a long nose and the story was over (Flemish)
  • The cat in the vale, lost its tail, end of fairytale (Icelandic)
  • Flap shut, monkey is dead (German)

Adam Sharp is a writer and former music journalist. His book The Wheel is Spinning but the Hamster is Dead: A Journey Around the World in Idioms, Proverbs and General Nonsense is published by Seven Dials on September 28

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