If you compile a list of idiomatic expressions from a given language and organise it by recurring themes, you will soon discover (or have confirmation of) some national obsessions. Here are a few British examples.
What a storm in a teacup! If making such a drama is his cup of tea, tea and sympathy are as useful as a chocolate teapot. I wouldn’t get involved in any of this for all the tea in China.
They make such an odd couple… He always complains of being under the weather and his perspective always seems to be that it never rains but it pours. When invited to a party, either he takes a rain check or he has to rain on everyone’s parade if present. She, however, is always as right as rain and happy to join the fun, come rain or shine.
One minute he’s stumped about this sticky wicket and the next he acts off his own bat without anyone knowing what he’s up to. This has now put the project on the back foot. It’s just not cricket, is it!
In 1604, King James brought together 54 scholars to translate the Bible, a project finalised in 1611. In order to facilitate the popularisation of this new version, one of the requirements was to make the language and style of the translation accessible to all.
Four hundred years on, this Renaissance marketing trick still has an impact on how we speak today. Many expressions or clichés in our everyday vocabulary were originally coined for the purpose of this translation. Here are a few examples:
From time to time (Ezekiel 4:10)
The root of the matter (Job 19:28)
Know for a certainty (Joshua 23:13)
Turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6)
No small stir (Acts 12:18)
Stand in awe (Psalms 4:4)
Idioms make any language colourful and interesting, if not strange. When we use them in context, however, we don’t think about what they say literally, but non-native speakers hearing them for the first time will often find them mind-boggling or hilarious – or both. For instance…
French: Ca ne casse pas trois pattes à un canard
Literal translation: That doesn’t break three legs to a duck
Meaning: That’s nothing to write home about
French: Parler allemand comme une vache espagnole
Literal translation: To speak German like a Spanish cow
Meaning: To speak very poor or little German
French: Filer à l’anglaise
Literal translation: To sneak away the English way
Meaning: To take French leave
The incongruity of idioms can also be a source of inspiration for creativity, as this sculpture, Poule au couteau (the chicken with a knife) by metallic’art, testifies.
French: Avoir l’air d’une poule qui a trouvé un couteau
Literal translation: To look like a chicken that has found a knife
Meaning: To look puzzled