A Novice's Guide to Foreign Idioms | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
An American speaks to a group of French nationals and tries to purge his vocabulary of American idioms. (Illustration by Eric Palma)

A Novice's Guide to Foreign Idioms

If you think learning foreign idioms is easy, just try combing the giraffe

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Some years back I was invited to speak at a black-tie event for the French-American Chamber of Commerce at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Because the audience would be primarily French nationals, I was advised to avoid using American idioms in my address. This is a fine kettle of fish, I thought as I sat down to purge my vocabulary of American idioms. What I was left with at the end of the day was “Good evening,” “Thank you” and a rented tuxedo.

I’d have sold the farm back then for a peek into Jag Bhalla’s 2009 book, I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears, and Other Intriguing Idioms From Around the World. Had I done so, I could have substituted French idioms for the English ones that make up way too much of my working vocabulary.

Imagine the audience’s delight had I told them how I felt my butt was fringed with noodles (very lucky) to be there. These noodles, by the way, would be different from those hanging on my ears—a Russian expression meaning, “I’m not pulling your leg.” I’m not pulling your leg.

The French nationals gathered at the Plaza clearly had their butter, money for the butter and the woman who made it (had it all). But, some of them also had a glass up their noses (one too many). No doubt I would have had their posteriors banging on the ground (laughing hysterically) if only I’d read Bhalla’s guidebook.

I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears does more than catalog humorous world idioms. It presents an often-confounding glimpse at the inner soul of foreign cultures. “Language most shows a man,” the British playwright Ben Jonson once wrote. “Speak that I might see thee.” But what do I see when I hear that a Colombian who is hopelessly in love has been swallowed like a postman’s sock, or that drowning the fish in France is to lose by deliberate confusion? I have no idea how to use the phrase, but I can’t wait to try it, even if I drown the fish in the attempt.

In fact, there are dozens of foreign idioms we could put to good use in these parts. When talking about misers, we typically resort to cheapskate. But I like it that in Syria, a penny pincher is better known as an ant milker. (Not to be confused with a German mouse milker, who in the United States would be called a micromanager.)

That nervous boy at the door to pick up your daughter would be like a dog in a canoe in Puerto Rico. And if he had to be shown the door at the end of the evening he could leave mainland Spanish style and go out by the neck of the shirt.

As for my French friends, they’re likely to invite me back to speak in a week with four Thursdays (when hell freezes over). Then I will once again bite the moon (try the impossible) on behalf of international bonhomie. Am I pounding sand down a rathole? “Au contraire,” the French might say. I am combing the giraffe (wasting effort).

Good evening, thank you and pardon my French.

Tom Bodett is a humorist and author living in Vermont.

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