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.

Elephant flies

An interesting Dutch idiom I came across today is van een vlieg een olifant maken or “to make an elephant out of a fly”, which is the Dutch equivalent of the English idiom to make a mountain out of a molehill.

This comes from a post on the blog Stuff Dutch People Like.

Other idioms from this post include:

Nu komt de aap uit de mouw (Now the monkey comes out of the sleeve) = To let the cat out of the bag, i.e. to reveal the hidden motive or the truth behind something.

Ben je van de trap gevallen? (Did you fall down the stairs?) = Did you have a fight with a lawn mower? – said to people who’ve had a rather drastic haircut.

Wie boter op zijn hoofd heeft, moet uit de zon blijven (Those with butter on their heads should stay out of the sun) = People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, i.e. do not criticize others unless you are without fault.

Are there equivalents of these idioms in other languages?

French and potatoes

I came across an interesting phrase in Scottish Gaelic today: Ith do bhuntàta beag mus dig na Frangaich!, which means “eat your small potatoes before the French come!” and it is apparently said to children picking at their food to encourage them to eat up [source].

Are there similar phrases in other languages, perhaps used in different contexts?

What did your parents say to you to get you to finish your food?

Or if you have kids, what do you say to them, if they need encouragment?