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Idioms: A linguistic Journey Across Cultures


Hot balloon flying labeled with idioms across cultures.Idiomatic expressions are curious in their function within language as they mean more than what each word denotes. Even if idioms are metaphorical and figurative, once understood they serve as a palpable and distinct feature of any language. They allow the speaker to express themselves, articulating certain sentiments without explicitly saying so. Furthermore, they offer cultural understandings into societal standards, principles, and beliefs. Idioms allow us insight into the thoughts, emotions, and views of the speaker’s background. Language and culture are inextricably connected. Let’s examine three familiar English adages.


Common English Idioms

Burning the midnight oil is one such expression. It means to work late into the night long before the advent of electric lighting. One would elucubrate or do a thing by lamplight. Perhaps the origin is ambiguous for some, but the implication is crystal clear. At some point in our lives, either for work or school, many of us have burned the midnight oil, cramming for that final, writing until dawn, or tweaking that pitch until perfection.

Another, to feel under the weather can trace its roots back to the seas. The nautical origins could allude to a time when a sailor was ill or sick; they were sent below deck to seek protection from the elements to recover. The sailor was literally under the weather. In time, we now understand that one is not feeling well when they are under the weather.

The idiom It’s is all Greek to me might be interesting to explain to a Greek. However, English speakers recognize that it expresses something that is not easily understandable. Interestingly, the origin comes from Medieval Latin scribes who had trouble translating Ancient Greek. Shakespeare guaranteed its crossover into the mainstream with his writings, and centuries later we still use it. If one wonders what the Greeks might say in comparable circumstances: this strikes me as Chinese.  Woman holding forehead

Idioms from around the world


Idiom: Tomaten auf den Augen haben.

Literal translation: You have tomatoes on your eyes.

Meaning: You are not seeing what everyone else can see.



Idiom: Sambil menyelam, minum air.

Literal translation: While diving, drink water.

Meaning: Accomplish two things at once.


IdiomFinns det hjärterum så finns det stjärterum.

Literal translation: If there is room in the heart, there is room for the butt.

Meaning: If we care about you, we’ll make room for you to join us.


IdiomNo tener pelos en la lengua.

Literal Translation: Not to have hairs on your tongue.

Meaning: To tell it like it is.

Idioms Across Cultures

Woman smiling holding lights shaped as a heart.

Indeed, idiomatic expressions convey a unique aspect of culture, but often we see that various cultures use a different version of the same phrase. For example, it is all Greek to me, although the language may change from Greek to Chinese to Arabic, fundamentally, we are all expressing the difficulty of comprehending what’s before us. Additionally, to live in an ivory tower can be found in more than 35 languages. Let’s look again at the Indonesian phrase of, while diving, drink water. Could we relate that to English’s to kill two birds with one stone?

Scholars of all types have theorized and pondered on why we can trace idiomatic expressions across languages- from shared ancestral language, to loan translations, to elites corresponding with one another. Imaginably, the explanation is a combination of numerous reasons. Perhaps one is a testament to our shared human bond and our need for understanding and connection.

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