Language Matters November 2010: English Language Idioms


One of the most difficult challenges translators face in their work is translating idioms.These are figurative expressions that have developed over time, and often, are specific to a language, or a certain dialect of a language.They can be words or short phrases that make perfect sense to some, but are easily misunderstood by anyone not overly familiar with that particular dialect. Idioms are said to be a part of culture, not language, because they reflect more the lifestyle and customs of people, rather than the way those people communicate.

Contributed by Cecilia Rose. Thanks for reading.


Popular Idioms

Here are some examples of popular English idioms that would be hard to translate:

A piece of cake – something easy to accomplish.

“I was worried about passing the English exam, but it was a piece of cake!”

Cake is often used to symbolize leisure and privilege, as in this other example:
Icing on the cake an added bonus. 

“I knew I did well on the exam but getting an A+ was the icing on the cake.”

Cold turkey – to quit something suddenly, typically a bad habit, or drug addiction.

“He’s not the kind of person who can just slow down, he has to quit drinking cold turkey.”

It is commonly thought that this idiom comes from the goose bumps that form on an addict’s skin during a withdrawal. Others, however, believe it derives from the phrase ‘talk turkey’, which means to state something in a plain manner.

To cry wolf – to lie, pretend or fake something for no good reason. 

“That’s what he gets for crying wolf.”

This idiom comes from an Aesop fable called ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’. The story is about a boy who is asked to watch a flock of sheep at night. He is so bored that he decides to amuse himself by yelling ‘wolf!’ just to get the villagers to come to his aid. He does this a couple of times and soon the villagers start to mistrust him. When on the third night a wolf actually does arrive and the boy yells for help, the villagers don’t come and the wolf eats the sheep, or in some versions, the boy!

An arm and a leg – a ridiculously large amount of money. 

“That car cost me an arm and a leg! It better be worth it!”

Some believe this came from the Renaissance period when painters were hired to do portraits of the aristocracy. Portraits were priced depending on how much of the subject’s body is shown; therefore, if the painting was not just of a head and shoulders, but also had arms and legs, it obviously cost a lot of money!

Barking up the wrong tree – making a mistake or false assumption, looking in the wrong place. 

“If she thinks she’s going to find a husband by going out to bars, she’s barking up the wrong tree.

Most likely came from a hunting culture, when dogs would choose the wrong tree to bark up at, thinking their prey is hiding there.

Beating around the bush – to preamble or take forever to come to the point.
“He couldn’t say it, he kept beating around the bush.”

Another hunting term – hunters would beat the bushes so that the birds would fly out and be in clear sight.

Mind your p’s and q’s – to watch what you say and do, behave appropriately.  

“Your grandmother’s coming over so mind your p’s and q’s.”

Old English breweries would keep track of pints (p’s) and quarts (q’s) of beer sold on a chalkboard. This way the bartender could make sure the patrons weren’t drinking too much by telling them to ‘mind their p’s and q’s’.

Let the cat out of the bag – to let a secret out.

“She has such a big mouth! She let the cat out of the bag last night at dinner.”

In medieval times, when farmers sold piglets, they would put them in a bag and tie it closed. A common scam was to put cats in the bag instead. The new owner wouldn’t discover the ‘secret’ until he/she got home and opened the bag.

Once in a blue moon – to happen very rarely.  

“That kind of opportunity only comes along once in a blue moon.”

Farmers used to record full moons in red print on their calendars. It is rare for a second one to occur in a month, but if it did, they would use a blue ink.

Bite the bullet – to do whatever one needs to do to accomplish something.  

“You are just going to have to bite the bullet and drive there right away.”

Likely came from the war front when servicemen had to be operated on without anaesthetic, and they were given a bullet to bite down on to ease the pain.


Cultural Adaptation at LingoStar

As you can see from the above examples, mistranslating an idiomatic expression would be an easy mistake for an amateur translator to make. For example, a literal translation of ‘let the cat out of the bag’ would be very confusing! At LingoStar we ensure that the proper meaning is translated to the target language. We offer a Cultural Adaptation service, a process by which a specialized linguist with expertise in the specified linguistic and cultural domains reviews a translation to make sure that the language used is culturally appropriate and clear to the target audience.