Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cross-cultural idioms

In a prior thread, we briefly touched on cross-cultural idioms, a topic I find endlessly fascinating. I have always wanted to turn this into a full-fledged thread, and now I got beaten to the punch (an idiom, BTW, that does not exist in German).

20 comments:

miriam b said...

A while ago we had a discussion centering around the expression "a bone to pick". and we explored equivalent idioms in various languages.

Well, sadly, a cousin in Paris sent an email the other day which reads in part:


Chers amis,
Juste quelques mots pour vous annoncer que ma mère, que certains
d'entre vous connaissaient un peu,a rendu son dernier soupir hier.

This set me to thinking. In English we'd say "breathed her last". In French, it's "gave up/surrendered/yielded [take your choice]her last breath. What's the equivalent in German? or Dutch?

Saddened as I am to hear of the passing at 93 of this wonderful woman, I remain a language geek. Can't help it.

mac said...

@Miriam: we have basically the same expression in Dutch, which doesn't surprise me because French was a secondary language in Holland for many years:

"z'n laatste adem slaken" literally means "to release his last breath"

mac said...

@Miriam: there are many other, old expressions in Dutch for dying:

"de pijp uitgaan": leave the pipe (no idea where that comes from)
"zijn laatste pijp roken": to smoke his last pipe
"zijn laatste loodje leggen": to drop his last load

etc.

It's an old language, with written
proof of it since the 12th century. We are still a very literary country, apparently spend more on books than any other.

Ulrich said...

@miriam and mac: The closest in German to "to breathe one's last" would be
das Leben aushauchen (to exhale life). We do not have literal equivalents for the Dutch idioms mac listed.

The Germans also do not use an euphemism like "to pass away"--there is nothing wrong if you say "he died" (er starb or more colloquially er ist gestorben) in German. For this reason, I have a hard time saying "he passed away" in English to the present day b/c it sounds unnecessarily squeamish to my German ear.

It's too late to go deeper into this tonight. I'll list tomorrow some idioms I'm particularly interested in under a cross-cultural perspective.

But then again, it may be Friday until I get to this--Happy Thanksgiving to all of you!

mac said...

@Ulrich: you brought up an interesting point: in Dutch we have several words for "to die", some more gentle than others:

doodgaan: a little cold, used for animals
sterven: more gentle, and just like sterben, it's root is "to become stiff"
overlijden: comparable to "to pass on"

I'm having fin with my Van Dale Etymologisch Woordenboek!

mac said...

Of course I mean "its root"

Ulrich said...

Here are two German idioms I'm so fond of that I use them in English in literal translations, even if they make no sense (in our household, though, they are in common usage):

"Keep your ears stiff" (Halt die Ohren steif) meaning "hang in there".

"Howl like a castle dog" (heulen wie ein Schlosshund) meaning "cry one's heart out", "bawl uncontrollably". I'll have to find out why castle dogs are supposed to be particularly fond of howling...

ArtLvr said...

Maybe castle dogs are just very big dogs, so their crying is outsized too? I picture the Hound of the Baskervilles, which was larger than life in a very old Sherlock Holmes film... Happy Thanksgiving!

Ulrich said...

@artlvr: That may be the case.

BTW German Schloss doesn't necessarily mean "castle"--it's not fortified--the word for a fortified castle in German is Burg. Schloss also doesn't really mean "palace" b/c German has the same word, Palast, which may be more opulent than a Schloss and need not be tied to nobility. A Schloss, then, is a non-fortified abode for nobility, and it may be modest, i.e. not a palace. It's called slots in Danish and, possibly, other Skandinavian languages--I'm sure Dutch has a similar word, too. I always wondered why there is no English equivalent, i.e. why "castle" has to cover both German Burg and Schloss.

fikink said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
fikink said...

@ulrich, in fact, Laraine used the expression "keep one's ears stiff" in the HOPE thread not too long ago. I find it a charming expression!
(But, in fact, I must admit I thought it had more to do with staying alert, reminding me of the deer when they turn their ears toward a sound. This is what I always find myself doing on crossword puzzles.)

Ulrich said...

I was thinking about the more disrespectful idioms in English for dying, like "to kick the bucket" (I really like this one) or "to bite the dust". The only German version I can think of right now is ins Gras beißen--"to bite into the grass".

Another interesting group of idioms to consider are those that describe crazy people. In both languages, this can be done by indicating that something is missing. In English, we say, e.g., that someone "isn't playing with a full deck", or "doesn't have all oars in the water", or "is one can short of a six-pack". German has this type of idiom in generic form: Someone hat sie nicht alle ("doesn't have them all"). It also has specific versions, like someone hat nicht alle Tassen im Schrank ("doesn't have all cups in the cupboard").

Laraine said...

@Ulrich I just thought of two more idioms that suggest craziness by indicating something is missing, "She's not 'all there' and 'He doesn't have all his marbles.'

@Mac Any insight on the idiom "to be in Dutch," meaning to be in big trouble. I was also interested to see that two Dutch idioms related to dying mentioned a pipe. I've never heard anything similar in English but I'm going to see if I can find some reference to a similar expression once existing, given the importance of Dutch settlements here and the many references to pipe smoking in an early writer like Washington Irving.

One of my favorite idioms is "to be as mean as a junkyard dog." It somehow fits that the "schloss" dog would be crying (to be let in) and the junk yard watch dog would be mean. As for disrespectful idioms related to death, from cheap mystery stories, I'm especially fond of "sleeping with the fishes." Anything similar in Dutch, French or German since people obviously die in floods or by drowning themselves?

mac said...

@Laraine: to be in Dutch doesn't ring a bell, but then there are many expressions specifically in the US that use the word Dutch but mean Deutsch/German.

I left a comment yesterday about the different words and expressions for dying in Dutch but it disappeared. There are at least three terms that we use with a different feel: doodgaan, a little harsh, usually used in connection with animans; sterven: same as the German sterben, actually based on "to become stiff", and overlijden, which, at its root, means to pass on. There are of course many, many disrespectful terms in the Dutch language.....
I got out my big fat Dutch etymological dictionary, what fun!

miriam b said...

Laraine: As far as I know, those who sleep with the fishes have been killed by mobsters and consigned to the deep after having been weighted down with cement blocks or some other heavy material.

The only disrespectful French expression which occurs to me just now is "crever", to croak. I believe it's used w/reference to animals. A human, however, may say "Je crève de faim (I'm starving)."

There was a man in our neighborhood when I was a kid who wandered around talking loudly to himself, just about daily. Neighbors would say "He has money in the bank." I've often wondered whether this was an established idiom or whether it had been coined. BTW, the people who made this comment were of either Sicilian or Neapolitan origin. Maybe the remark was a translation?

I lived in Bridgeport, across the street from Jenny's Pizzeria, which later moved to the New Haven area and was praised by Jane and Michael Stern in a Gourmet article several years back. It may even have been Jenny herself who first
commented on that meshugginer.

Gosh, I can't seem to get away from the computer today. Just goes to show you how much I have to do.

Ulrich said...

@mac: The comment with these three terms is still there (#5)--did you leave another one?

Being "batty" seems to be closely related to having "bats in one's belfry"--an instance of an idiom associating craziness not with having too little of someting but with having too much of it. I love to watch bats careening through the sky over our house when it gets dark in summer.

On a different topic: There is one more German idiom that has made it into our household vocabulary: du kannst dir das an den Hut stecken ("you can pin this on your hat")--meaning that what you offer or provide is pretty useless. I can't think of an English equivalent right now.

miriam b said...

There are many variants of "That and a quarter will get you a cup of coffee." This seems to me to be roughly equivalent to suggesting pinning something on one's hat.
There's something intrinsically funny about hats, at least to my ear.

mac said...

@Ulrich: no, my comment was definitely deleted, probably by myself. I just repeated what I had said in the earlier one.
There is no Dutch equivalent to your expression, at least not that I can think of.

Ulrich said...

@miriam b: That's exactly why we are so fond of the "hat": We also feel that there is something intrinsically funny about it.

@mac: What about Schloss? Your Queen must reside in one (or several of those). Aside from that, I'm very well aware of the confusion between "Dutch" and "Deutsch"--the Pennsylvania "Dutch" are definitely "Deutch" in origin.

mac said...

@Ulrich: d'oh to self! That was wat the deleted comment was about.

The queen grew up in "Paleis" Soestdijk, but there are several other terms for grand houses:

kasteel (castle)
slot (schloss)
burg or burgt (reinforced, moat etc.)
hof (manor house)

A lot of the castles and burgts are ruins, of course....