Is it raining cats and dogs where you are? It rains shoemakers’ boys if you’re Danish. In Dutch it rains pipe stems and sometimes cups and saucers. In Greek it rains chair legs and in Czech it rains wheelbarrows. Ow!

Perhaps you’ve got a frog in your throat. The French have a cat. Italians have a toad. Hungarians have a dumpling, which makes much more sense and is surely easier to remove.

We call a spade a spade. The French call a cat a cat. The Portuguese just say, “Bread, bread. Cheese, cheese.” I like that. I think I’ll start saying it.


Do you tend to make a mountain out of a molehill? A Russian might make an elephant out of a fly. A Turk might turn a flea into a camel.

If you’re losing your marbles in English, you’re losing your goats in Turkish. In German you’d be missing cups in your cupboard.

If you’re going bananas in English, you’re going cucumber in Danish.



In the British parliament there was some confusion recently when a Belgian delegate at a forum said that someone had sent his cat. Imagine the conversation:

British peer: I say! Chappie sent his cat to the meeting. Dashed impertinence!
Belgian visitor: No, no. It means he failed to show up.

While we’re on the subject of politicians, we might say they like to beat around the bush rather than give a straight answer. But in German you’d say they were talking around the hot porridge. In Spanish you might say there was a lot of noise and no walnuts.


Perhaps you’ve put your foot in it recently. In Norwegian you’d say you stepped in the salad. Or maybe you’ve got your wires crossed. In Finnish you’d have crossed skis instead.

If you’re not cut out for something, in Icelandic you’re on the wrong shelf in life. If the horse has bolted in English, in French the carrots are cooked. If something seems fishy to you, a Norwegian would say there are owls in the bog.


It’s time to let the cat out of the bag (or the monkey out of the sleeve if you’re Dutch). Sometimes I feel like a fish out of water. But in Spanish I’d feel like an octopus in a garage. I think that’s my favourite idiom of all. Imagine that confused octopus floundering around amongst the cardboard boxes and tools and bikes and camping equipment!

In Iceland if someone says, “I took him to the bakery,” it doesn’t mean for a nice sugary treat. It means they gave him a piece of their mind rather than a piece of cake. And since we’re in Iceland, wouldn’t a visit to the Blue Lagoon be the icing on the cake? (Yes, it really would. I’ve been there. It’s fantastic. Do go if you can.) But in Icelandic you’d say it was the raisin at the end of the sausage.

We all want an easy life. That’s the nub of it—or, as a Russian might say, that’s where the dog is buried. But some people really do have it easy. Some people just slide in on a shrimp sandwich, according to the Swedes. Most of us, though, just have to crack on and get the job done. Or, as the Dutch say, wash that little piglet.


Don’t hold your breath waiting to win the lottery. You can take your little horse out of the rain. (That’s Portuguese for don’t hold your breath.) Pigs might fly. If my grandmother had wheels, she’d be a bicycle. (Italian for pigs might fly.)

Possibly I’ve taken this too far now. Perhaps it’s all Greek to you. (German: I understood only “train station”. Dutch: I can’t make any chocolate from that. Icelandic: I come completely from the mountains.)

When I went on a ramble through cyberspace to research all these silly sayings, I also found two very sweet videos about concepts that we don’t really have the words for in English:

  • A Filipino word for a cute, adorable thing that gives you joy: gigil
  • A Japanese phrase for predicting love: koi no yokan

Now I feel like looking for more examples, but that’s a job for another day. Let’s not get carried away. Leave the church in the village, as the Germans might say.