Working like a …

The Russian idiom, работать как лошадь, means to work hard, or literally ‘to work like a horse’. Another idiom with the same meaning is работать как проклятый (‘to work like the damned’) [source].

Horse Ploughing (18)

In English you might say that you’re working like a dog. Other variations on this phrase include wokring like a beaver and working like a trojan [source]. Do you know of any others?

hard working

In Welsh you might say that you’re working ‘to the marrow of your bones’ – gweithio hyd fêr dy esgyrn, which means to work for hard, or to overwork.

One equvialent in French is travailler comme un acharné (‘working like a relentless person’).

What about in other languages?

Two Left Feet / Dwy Droed Chwith

Last night I wrote a song called Two Left Feet, about someone who believes he can’t dance because he has two left feet – not literally, but in the idiomatic sense of being clumsy and awkward, especally when trying to dance.

I used to feel like this, and still do a bit when I try to learn new dances, or different styles of dancing. I don’t let this stop me though, and dance anyway, which is what the song is all about. I’ll add a link to the song here when I’ve recorded it.

I like to translate the titles of my songs and tunes into Welsh, so I looked for Welsh equivalents of this idiom. These include:

  • bod â dwy droed chwith = to be with two left feet
  • bod yn drwstan eich traed = to be clumsy of foot
  • bod yn drwstan ar eich traed = to be clumsy on one’s feet
  • bod yn lloglog = to be clumsy / awkward

Drwstan [ˈtrʊstan] is a mutated form of trwstan which means clumsy, awkward, unsteady, bungling, unpolished, shoddy, unfortunate, unlucky, unhappy, sad or wretched.

Lloglog [ˈɬɔɡlɔɡ] means clumsy, awkward, untidy or baggy.

Trwstan and Lloglog might be good names for characters in a story or song – maybe I’ll use them in my next song.

Incidentally, trwstan is not related to the name Tristan, which comes, via Old French, from the Celtic name Drystan, from drest (riot, tumult).

Other Welsh words for clumsy and awkward include:

  • trwsgl, afrosgo, lletchwith, trwstan, ysgaprwth, clogyrnaidd, anfedrus, di-lun, annehau, anneheuig, ysgafnrwth
    annosbarthus, annechau, clemog, sgrongol, siagal

The word awkward comes from the awk, an old word meaning odd, wrong, clumsy or uncomfortable, and the adjectival suffix -ward.

Awk comes from the Old Norse ǫfugr / ǫfigr / afigr (turned backwards, unkind, harsh).

Sources: Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru (A Dictionary of the Welsh Language), Geiriadur yr Academi (The Welsh Academy English-Welsh Dictionary Online), Wiktionary

Cats and Porridge

att gå som katten kring het gröt

What connection is there between cats and porridge?

Well in Swedish, att gå som katten kring het gröt (“to walk like the cat around hot porridge”) means that you are not getting to the point, beating around the bush, stalling, avoiding talking directly about something sensitive or unpleasant, approaching something indirectly and cautiously, walking on egg shells, pussyfooting around, or wasting time.

Some examples of how this phrase is used:

  • Låt oss inte gå som katten kring het gröt
    Let us not beat around the bush
  • Vi går som katten kring het gröt, både politiskt och diplomatiskt sett.
    We tread on eggshells, both politically and diplomatically.
  • Vi har tassat likt katten kring het gröt i den frågan alltför länge.
    We have pussyfooted on that issue for far too long.
  • Vi här har varit rädda och gått som katten kring het gröt.
    We here have been fearful and have beaten around the bush.

Source: bab.la

Similar idioms involving cats and porridge are found in a number of other languages:

  • Czech: chodit kolem horké kaše = to walk around hot porridge
  • German: wie die Katze um den heißen Brei herumschleichen = as the cat sneaks around the hot porridge
  • Finnish: kiertää kuin kissa kuumaa puuroa = to pace around hot porridge like a cat
  • Norwegian: å gå som katta rundt den varme grauten = to walk like a cat around hot porridge

These are all equivalents of to beat around the bush.

The English idiom to beat around the bush was first used in writing in 1572, and referred to the practise of beating bushes in order to flush out game animals [source].

Some other cat-related idioms

  • It’s rain cats and dogs = It’s raining heavily
  • To let the cat out of the bag = to reveal a secret
  • Curiosity killed the cat
  • When the cat’s away the mice will play
  • French: Avoir d’autres chats à fouetter = To have other cats to whip = To have other fish to fry / other things to do.
  • French: Avoir un chat dans la gorge = To have a cat in the throat = To have a frog in one’s throat
  • French: appeler un chat un chat = to call a cat a cat = to call a spade a spade = say it like it is
  • French: Chat échaudé craint l’eau froide = Scalded cat fears cold water = Once bitten, twice shy
  • Spanish: El gato escaldado del agua fria huye = The cat that has been scalded runs away from cold water = Once bitten, twice shy
  • German: meine Arbeit war für die Katz = my work was for the cat = my work was a waste of time
  • German: das hat die Katze gefressen = the cat ate it = the fairies took it
  • German: wenn die Katze aus dem Haus ist, tanzen die Mäuse (auf dem Tisch) = when the cat is out of the house, the mice dance (on the table) = when the cat’s away the mice will play

Sources: Idioms of the world, Reverso

Do you know other cat- or porridge-related idioms?

Out of a clear blue left field

When something comes out of left field, it is comes from an unexpected place or direction, or is surprising or unexpected, and something that is left field is uncommon, unpopular or strange [source].

This phrase comes from baseball and refers to the left side of a baseball field, although why something coming from this part of the field is unexpected or surprising is uncertain, according to Know Your Phrase.

More about the possible origins of this phrase.

Lightening out of a blue sky

Another way to say that something is unexpected is that it came out of the blue, which apparently comes from the phrase a bolt out of / from the blue. This refers to the unlikelyhood of lightening coming out of a clear blue sky (another version of the idiom).

A bolt out of the blue was first used in writing in The Standard in 1863, and out of the blue first appeared in The Spectator in 1879 [source].

In French an equivalent of like a bolt out of the blue is comme un cheveu sur la soupe (like a hair on the soup) [source], although I don’t know why. A hair in your soup is more likely than lightening from a clear blue sky, I would think.

Are there interesting equivalents of these phrases in other languages?

Treading in Spinach

Language quiz image

A few posts ago I wrote about an interesting Swedish idiom – trampa i klaveret – to make a social mistake, put one’s foot in it, or literally “to step heavily on the accordion”.

Today I learnt the Danish equivalenttræde i spinaten (“to tread in the spinach”). For example, jeg har virkelig trådt i spinaten (“I have really trod in the spinach”) = I really put my foot in it.

Accoriding to Den Danske Ordbog, træde i spinaten means “utilsigtet sige eller gøre noget dumt” (to accidentally say or do something stupid).

Another version is træde/trampe i spinatbedet (“tread/tramp in the spinach bed”) [source].

Then there’s the spinatfugl or “spinach bird”, which is apparently a person who writes reviews or other cultural material in a newspaper without a journalistic background [source].

Does anybody know why such a person is known as a spinach bird?

The word spinach comes from the Middle English spinach, from Anglo-Norman spinache, from the Old French espinoche, from the Old Occitan espinarc, from the Arabic إِسْفَانَاخ‎ (ʾisfānāḵ), from the Persian اسپناخ‎ (ispanâx).

Apparently spinach cinema refers to “Movies that are not very exciting or interesting, but that one feels one must see because they are educational or otherwise uplifting.” [source]

Are there any interesting spinach or other vegetable-related idioms in other languages?

As happy as a …

happy clam

If you’re really happy, you might say that you’re as happy as a clam, as happy as a sandman or as happy as larry.

The expression as happy as a clam is thought to be a shorter version of the phrase “as happy as a clam at high water”, which first appeared in print in 1844 in The Adams Sentinel, a newspaper in Pennsylvania. By 1848 is was fairly well known, especially along the coast of New England, where clams are common.

Why is a clam happy at high water? Possibly because high water, or high tide, is when they are safe from predators.

The sandboy in as happy as a sandboy refers to the men who delivered sand in the 18th and 19th centuries in the UK. The phrase first appeared in print in 1821 in Pierce Egan’s Real Life in London.

The expression as happy as larry first appeard in print in 1875 in the work of G L Meredith, a writer from New Zealand. Nobody know who Larry was or why he was so happy. One theory is that Larry was Larry Foley (1847-1917), an Australian boxer who never lost a fight. Another is that it come from the slang term larrikin, a word of Cornish origin that refers to a hooligan who likes to lark about.

Other versions of this expression include:

– as happy as a dog with two tails
– as happy as a lark
– as happy as the day is long
– as happy as a pig in muck

Do you know any others?

Equivalent expressions in Scottish Gaelic include:

– cho sona ri bròig = as happy as a shoe
– cho sona ri caimeanach an t-sruth = as happy as the giant of the stream
– cho sona ri cuthag ann an nead a coimhearsnaich = as happy as a cuckoo in its neighbour’s nest
– cho sona ri luch ann an lofa = as happy as a mouse in a loaf
– cho sona ri bó ann an loch = as happy as a cow in the loch (lake)
– cho sona ri óthaisg = as happy as a ewe
– cho sona ris an rìgh = as happy as the king
– cho sona ri cat a’ gabhail na gréine = as happy as a cat taking the sun

Are there similar expressions in other languages?

Sources: The Phrase Finder, Mo bhloga, SMO Gàidhlig / Gaeilge Corpus

To write like a crow

An example of my handwriting

If your handwriting is difficult to read, you apparently write like a crow, at least you do in Swedish – skriva som en kråka.

That’s one of things I discovered today when putting together a new page of Swedish idioms.

If your spelling is poor, you spell like a crow – stava som en kråka.

Why is this? Are crows known for their poor writing and spelling in Sweden?

I found “to have (hand)writing like chicken scratch” in English [source], though haven’t come across it before.

Are there equivalent idioms in other langauges?

The image is an example of my handwriting. I can write more neatly than this, though rarely write by hand these days anyway.

Working like a horse

Working like a horse

The other day I learnt an interesting Russian idiom (via Duolingo) – Работать как лошадь [rɐˈbotətʲ kak ˈloʂətʲ], which means literally “to work like a horse”, and is used to indicate that you are working hard. For example, Сегодня я работаю как лошадь (Today I am working like a horse).

You can also work like an ox in Russian: работать как вол.

The English equivalent is to work like a dog, as in the Beatles song, A Hard Day’s Night. Are there other English idioms with a similar meaning?

In French you can also work like a dog, or travailler comme un chien.

In Hebrew you work like a donkey: לעבוד כמו חמור (la’avod kmo khamor).

In Italian you work like a mule: Lavorare come un mulo.

What about in other languages?

Personally I prefer to work like a cat.

Source: WordReference.Com

Phrasemes

From a new article that I added to Omniglot today – How to Avoid Phraseme Goofs in Other Languages, I learnt a new word, phraseme. I hadn’t encountered before, so I thought I’d find out more about it.

According to Wiktionary, a phraseme is:

An utterance, consisting of multiple words or morphemes, at least one of whose components is selectionally constrained or restricted by linguistic convention such that it is not freely chosen.

One type of phraseme is idioms, such as to hit the sack (to go to sleep), under the weather (sick, unwell). Idioms are also known as non-compositional phrasemes, as their meanings cannot be determined from the meanings of their component words.

Another example is the compositional phraseme, which consists of words that normally appear together, such as heavy rain, strong wind and bright sun (you wouldn’t usually say heavy wind).

More information about phrasemes

Horse horse tiger tiger

馬馬虎虎 (mǎmǎhǔhǔ)

In Mandarin Chinese there’s an idiomatic expression that translates literally as “horse horse tiger tiger”. What do you think it means?

There is some interesting discussion about this idiom on the podcast Global Pillage, where they discuss idioms and customs from around the world. Suggestions for the meaning of this idiom included “social classes don’t mix”, “only date within your tax bracket”, “you wait for a bus for ages, and three come along at once”, “six of one, half a dozen of the other”

This expression is written 马马虎虎 [馬馬虎虎] (mǎmǎhǔhǔ) and means “careless,casual, vague, not so bad, so-so, tolerable, fair” and is a reduplicated version of 马虎 [馬虎] (mǎhǔ) “careless, sloppy, negligent, skimp”.

Here are some examples of how it’s used:

– 你的中文讲得好棒啊 (Nǐ de zhōngwén jiǎng de hǎo bàng a) = You speak Chinese well
– 马马虎虎,马马虎虎 (Mǎmǎhǔhǔ, mǎmǎhǔhǔ) = Just so-so

– 那家餐馆的服务马马虎虎 (Nà jiā cānguǎn de fúwù mǎmǎhǔhǔ) = The service at that restaurant is so-so
– 他马马虎虎地做事 (Tā mǎmǎhǔhǔ de zuòshì) = He does his work carelessly
– 他这个人做事比较马虎 (Tā zhège rén zuòshì bǐjiào mǎhǔ) = He’s a sloppy / rather careless person

The origins of this phrase are uncertain. The earliest known use was during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). It might be related to 模糊 (móhu – unclear, fuzzy) or 麻糊 (máhú – careless), or it might have been borrowed from the Manchu mahu (wry, face) or lahū (not adept, unskilled [especially at hunting and dealing with livestock]; scoundrel, hoodlum).

I remember reading somewhere, though I can’t find any confirmation, that this phrase is borrowed from the Sanskrit word मोह (moha), which means ‘magic employed to bewilder, error, bewilderment, foolishness, wonder, infatuation, delusion, confusion, amazement, distraction, inability to discriminate, perplexity, ignorance, loss of consciousness, hallucination’. Has anybody else read or heard this theory?

Here’s an alternative story about its origins.

Source: MDBG Dictionary, Wiktionary, Sinoglot, Sanskrit Dictionary for Spoken Sanskrit, Learn a Chinese Charachter a Day, StakeExchange.