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Exploring Idioms in Foreign Languages

In my previous post “Understanding English-Language Idioms,” I discussed the peculiarity of idioms. Idioms are expressions used in informal language that don’t actually mean what their literal meaning would suggest, which is often rather strange. We use idioms every day without putting much thought into their literal meaning or their origin. However, idioms can also offer an important cultural and historic insight into the lives of people around the world, as these playful and symbolic expressions often serve as a sort of linguistic fossil. Therefore, language learners, translators and linguists of all sorts can examine idioms as a way of connecting the language to the culture. In today’s post, however, I will explore some more common idioms as well as some from other languages.

Always a bridesmaid, never a bride: This idiom is a little bit easier to figure out. It’s used when someone feels that they’ll never find love. Its origin is a 1920’s advertisement for Listerine mouthwash. The ad featured the slogan, Always a bridesmaid, never a bride, accompanied by an image of a woman who was unable to find love because of her bad breath.

Riding shotgun: If you grew up with siblings and ever fought over who got to ride in the front seat of the car, this expression is most likely quite familiar to you. It dates back to when stagecoaches were the dominant form of transportation and the seat next to the driver was reserved for a copilot carrying an actual shotgun, to scare off and defend against highway bandits looking to pillage and loot the vehicle and its passengers.

Media naranja (Spanish): This common expression in Spanish is one of my favorites because of the citrusy and creative imagery it invokes. It literally means half orange and is used affectionately to refer to your significant other or better half.

No hay moros en la costa (Peninsular Spanish): This expression is rooted deeply in Spanish history. Its literal meaning is “there are no Moors on the coast,” but could be understood in English as “the coast is clear.” For nearly seven centuries, Spain was ruled by the Moors and during the renconquista era, when the Spanish were fighting to win back their territory, watchmen on the coast would shout this to let others know there was no immediate danger of attack.

鱼米之乡yúmǐzhīxiāng (Chinese): This literally translates to village of fish and rice, although its real meaning could be understood as land of plenty.

Wohlfühlen, wie die Made im Speck (German): While the literal translation of this German idiom may not sound so appealing (snug as a maggot in bacon), its real meaning is actually much more pleasant, as its English equivalent is snug as a bug in a rug, which is used to describe a person who is in a state of warmth and comfort.

One of most interesting aspects of studying languages is being able to learn each language’s and region’s unique idioms. What are some of your favorite English or foreign language idioms?