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Language Through Idioms: from the Mundane to the Obscure


Idioms are fun! Whether translatable or not, rich in imagery and meaning, idioms are an essential part of our day to day language.

Apologies in advance…

Let’s not get off on the wrong foot about idioms. As funny and senseless as they might come across, they are not merely just small cogs in large wheels: idioms are an integral part of our language.

Not convinced?

Without diving in headfirst and jumping on the bandwagon, using idioms can be more fun than a barrel of monkeys.

For language learners, in the long run, learning new idioms will add a feather to your cap, although overuse can result in you falling flat on your face. The key to good idiomatic expression use is a fine balancing act and takes time to perfect, but ultimately is worth its weight in gold.

Idioms for everyday use

To a native speaker, idioms slip off the tongue without a moment’s thought, which is how it should be. To the non-native, however, hearing an idiom for the first time may leave you thinking the person you are talking to has not yet had their morning coffee and is suffering as a result. Idioms translated directly can often make no sense at all and leave both parties confused, either in mere bewilderment or, more worryingly, in offense.

Pondering on the ‘why’ of idiom origins should be left to the likes of Chomsky and Pinker, but it is safe to say, idioms have been part of our language from our earliest attempts at language learning. Old wives’ tales and words of wisdom from our grandparents formed some of those first words, and we began using them as infants before we even understood their meaning.

Word Play

Idioms are a seemingly endless source of wordplay, especially when we introduce those in exotic and foreign languages far from our own. Like trainspotters greedily noting down class and ID numbers on passing carriages, collecting international idioms can be fun. Especially when we realise that some idioms are more or less translatable.

Take for example, the classic ‘there are two sides to a story’.

In French: il y a deux sons de cloches différents – ‘there are two sounds of a bell’.

In Spanish: la moneda tiene dos caras – ‘the coin has two sides’.

Simple, to the point, making perfect sense if you think about it. Leave it to the Finnish to make a pretty mundane expression have a little colour:

In Finnish: kaksipa päätä makkarassa – ‘there are two ends to a sausage’.

It seems the further from your mother tongue you go, the stranger the idioms you will find.

The Untranslatable Ones

While the above example demonstrates that some idioms are translatable, there are so many more that just cannot be translated with any justice or meaning. To borrow one from the Russians:

Я не висит лапша на уши –  translated as ‘I’m not hanging noodles on your ears’. Which equates to the English expression ‘pulling your leg’. Neither example makes any logical sense at all, however, both expressions are commonly used. That is the joy of idioms.

Think you already know a little Russian? Test your language level with our free level test!


Now let’s look at the delights from Finnish and its Uralic neighbour, Hungarian, on the list of our…

 ‘Least Translatable Idioms’:

1. Kuin kala ilman polkupyörää – ‘like a fish without a bicycle’.

Meaning: something is fine as it is and in its own right. The normal given example is ‘a woman without a husband is like a fish without a bicycle.’ (Finnish)

2. A baj nem jár egyedül – ‘the rain, it pours’.

Meaning: Apparently, the closest English equivalent is ‘misery loves company’. (Hungarian)

3. Mennä pipariksi – ‘to go gingerbread’.

Meaning: Something has gone completely wrong. (Finnish)

4. Jó bornak nem kell cégér – ‘good wine needs no bush’.

Meaning that something that is good needs no advertising. (Hungarian)

5. Pukki kaalimaan vartijana – ‘a goat guarding a cabbage patch’.

Meaning: Giving a task to someone with a conflict of interest. (Finnish)

Learning Idioms

If you are a language learner, the language of idioms is a colourful taste of your preferred second tongue. Take the bull by the horns and acid test your new idioms in a conversation exchange. It will work like a charm; expect to reap the rewards of your efforts and bask in the glory of their praise. Even better, add a language course to your arsenal and prepare to dazzle – just don’t bite off more than you can chew… look at what we have on offer and we’ll turn you from a diamond in the rough into a force to be reckoned with.