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?

The combed giraffe sings like a saucepan

I came across a number of interesting French idioms today in this article in The Guardian, including peigner la giraffe (combing the giraffe), which means to waste time on a pointless task, and chanter comme une casserole (to sing like a saucepan) or to sing terribly. It also mentions a Dutch idiom, broodje aap verhaal (monkey sandwich story), which refers to persistent rumours or urban legends.

English equivalents of peigner la giraffe include idling, dossing (about), doing nothing (much), killing time, and so on. Do you have any others?

How about English or other language equivalents of chanter comme une casserole or broodje aap verhaal?

Paid a gwgu!

I learnt the Welsh expression Paid a gwgu! [paɪd a ˈgʊgɨ] from friends in Aberystwyth yesterday. It means ‘Don’t frown/glower/scowl!’. I like the sound of gwgu, which doesn’t seem like a frowny word to me – it’s more like a baby’s babbling. Related words include gwg (frown) and gwgus (frowning).

Words for frown in Irish, grainc and gruig, are possibly related to the Welsh word gwg. Other words frowny Irish words include púic and místá. The verbal expression is grain/gruig a chur ort féin (to put a frown on oneself), and an idiomatic way of saying, for example, ‘he frowned at me’ is bhí muc ar gach mala aige chugam (“he had a pig on each eyebrow to me”).

Dros ben llestri

The Welsh idiom, dros ben llestri (literally, “over (the) dishes/crockery”), means ‘over the top’, as in excessive, exaggerated or beyond reasonable limits. The phrase dros ben on its own means “residual, spare; extra, extremely, indeed, over”. I’m not sure how this phrase came to be associated with exaggeration.

In French there are a number of ways to express the same concept:
– (être) exagéré / trop / délirant(e) = (to be) over the top (excessive)
– encenser = to go over the top (praise excessively)
– en faire trop / en faire des tonnes / aller trop loin / dépasser les bornes = to go over the top (do sth excessively)

encenser also means ‘to praise by burning incense (l’encens)’.

Here are a few examples of usage:

– Votre réaction est exagérée = Their reaction was well over the top
= Mi aeth eu ymateb dros ben llestri

– L’Eurovision, c’est vraiment trop ! = Eurovision is so fantastically over the top
= Mae Eurovision yn hollol dros ben llestri

– Cette fois, il dépasse vraiment les bornes ! = This time he’s really gone too far / over the top!
= Y tro ‘ma, mae o ‘di mynd dros ben llestri yn wir.

The English expression over the top first appeared in print in 1965, and the acronym OTT made its first appearance in 1982 in the Official Sloane Ranger Handbook, according to the OED.

Sources:, OED

How do you express the same idea in other languages?

Fence sitting

Last night I learnt the French equivalent of the English idiom, to sit on the fence (to be undecided in opinion, or neutral in action) – ménager la chèvre et le choux [source], or “to keep the goat and the cabbage”. This phrase is also translated as “to face both ways”, “to keep everyone happy”, “have a foot in both camps” and “to play both ends against the middle”.

As a verb ménager means to handle carefully, to treat considerately, to take care not to hurt sb’s pride, to take care of, to look after or to arrange. As an adjective it means household, domestic, housework, housewife or canteen. The related noun, ménage, means household, housework or housekeeping.

Expressions including ménager and ménage include:

– ménager ses forces – to save one’s strength
– ne pas ménager – to spare no effort.
– robot ménager – food processor
– appareil ménager – domestic appliance
– jeune ménage – young couple
– argent du ménage – housekeeping money
– chef de ménage – head of the household
– chocolat de ménage – plain chocolate
– (mal)heureux en ménage – (un)happily married
– ménage à trois
– (grand) ménage de printemps – spring cleaning

Etymology: ménager and ménage come from the Old French word manoir (to remain, stay, dwell, reside), from the Latin manēre / maneo (same meaning as manoir) [source], from the Proto-Indo-European root *men- (to stay) [source], which is also the root of the French words maison (house) and manoir (manor house), of the English word manor, and of mansion, which is found in French and English.

Cat got your tongue?

Cat, Chat

The English idiom “Has the cat got your tongue?” is used when someone remains silent in situations where they are expected to say something. It could be glossed as, “Why don’t you say anything? Your silence is suspicious.” Possible origins of this phrase are discussed on this page. The French equivalent of this idiom is “Tu as perdu ta langue ?” (Have you lost your tongue?”).

In French there is a similar idiom involving cats and tongues: donner sa langue au chat (to give one’s tongue to the cat), but this means to give up or stop guessing when you don’t know the answer to something, or don’t know what someone is asking of you.

Apparently this idiom developed from the phrase jeter sa langue au chien (to throw one’s tongue to the dog), which originated in an era when leftover food was thrown to the dogs, and meant that you no longer felt like finding an answer to a question, so you might as well throw it to the dogs. Over time the phrase became donner sa langue au chat, as cats were considered secret keepers, and you gave your tongue to the cat in the hope that it would be able to answer the question [source]. An equivalent idiom in English is “to throw in the towel” or “to throw in the sponge”, expressions which come from boxing.

Are there any similar idioms in other languages?

Wire twists

The electricians have been rewiring my new house this week and finished today, so I thought it would be interesting to looking the etymology of the word wire.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, wire comes from the Old English word wir (metal drawn out into a thread), which is related to the Old Norse word viravirka (filigree work), the Swedish word vira (to twist), and the Old High German word wiara (fine gold work).

Going further back we find that the Proto-Indo-European root of wire and wir is *wei- (to turn, twist, plait). This is also the root of the Old Irish word fiar (bent, crooked – cam in Modern Irish); the Welsh word gwyr (bent, crooked); and the Latin viere (to bend, twist).

The Proto-Indo-European Etymology dictionary gives the PIE root of wire as *chislom.

There are quite a few idiomatic expressions involving wire, including:

  • the wire – another for the telephone, and the name of a TV series
  • down the wire – right up to the last moment
  • get in under the wire – to accomplish something with little time to spare
  • get one’s wires crossed – to misunderstand
  • pull wires – to exert influence behind the scenes using personal connections, etc – also ‘pull strings’
  • wire in – to set about (something, especially food) with enthusiasm (not one I’ve come across before)

Does wire feature in equivalents of these expressions in other languages, or in other idioms?

The yellowing of the year

We were discussing Irish idioms involving colours today and one of the ones I really liked was buíú na bliana*, which literally means “the yellowing of the year” and refers to the time when spring is becoming summer and the light becomes yellower and warmer.

Red or dearg is used in expressions such as: deargbhréag, a barefaced or blatant lie; deargamadán, an utter fool; dearg-ghráin, intense hatred; and deargiomaíocht, cutthroat competition.

Black or dubh is used in such expressions as: dubh le daoine, swarming with people; and ó dhubh go dubh (from black to black), round the clock or from dawn to dusk.

I’ll put together a page of these idioms for the colours section on Omniglot.

* As I didn’t see it written down, I’m not totally sure that it’s written like this.