Whipping the cat and lining your eyes with ham – idioms lost in translation

How close are we to the universal translators that pepper science fiction? Will Google Translate be the technological equivalent of Douglas Adams’s babel fish? For simple sentences, the service works well.
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Google Translate can even master complicated documents or, at least, provide enough to make sense of the text.

One the biggest test is whether the service can make sense of idioms. Would it translate the English concept of ‘raining cats and dogs’ as animals falling from the sky or, more intelligently, as the sense of heavy precipitation?

Let’s look at a few examples. In English, if you have more pressing concerns than what you are faced with, you may say that you have other (or bigger) fish to fry. In French, you would have other cats to whip.

Other fish to fry other cats to whip

Score one for Google! Not only does it offer the correct idiomatic French expression, it also suggests an alternative translation of having ‘other things to worry about’.

What about wishing someone luck or keeping them in your thoughts? In English, you might say that you will keep your fingers crossed for them. In German, you will offer to squeeze your thumbs.

Keeping fingers crossed squeezing thumbs

Score two for Google! Okay, so squeezing thumbs and whipping cats is a bit strange to our Anglo-Saxon minds. Let’s see how Google copes with something even odder. If you miss the obvious or important by getting lost in a morass of detail, you might not see the wood for the trees. In Italy, your eyes are lined with ham.

To not see the wood for the trees to have eyes lined with ham

Too much for Google – it offers a literal translation of the phrase. Which might leave readers a bit confused.

Maria non si rende conto che Paolo la tradisce, quando si tratta di lui ha proprio gli occhi foderati di prosciutto

Okay, let’s try something else. Irish is an incredibly visual and poetic language. It global terms, it also has relatively few speakers. Google would be hard pressed to offer an idiomatically correct translation of tá sí mar a bheadh cág i measc péacóg.

A fish out of water a jackdaw among peacocks

Unsurprisingly, Google offers a literal translation. But, perhaps the meaning of this one is so clear that it wouldn’t affect the overall translation. If you are hot, bothered or worried, you might be sweating like a pig. But, in the Netherlands you would be sweating like a carrot.

Sweating like a pig sweating like a carrot

Again, this is one for a literal translation from Google. It might leave readers thinking that the individual was not hot and bothered, but had eaten too many carrots.

So, Google is catching up with some of the more widely used idioms in some of the most spoken languages. But it will take a while before it captures the nuances of speech.

Going back to the original point, it would have to learn that it can rain old women (Afrikaans and Welsh), barrels (Catalan), buckets (Bulgarian, Croatian, German), pipe stems (Dutch), frogs (English, Polish and French), female trolls (Norway), strings of rope (Turkish) and knives and forks (Welsh).

Raining cats and dogs and buckets and barrels and knives and forks and frogs and old women and trolls and pipes and rope

My favourite variations of this expression are:

  • Il pleut comme vache qui pisse – it’s raining like a pissing cow (French); and
  • Það rignir eld og brennustein – it’s raining fire and brimstone (Icelandic).

And, if all of this makes you think that I’m talking double Dutch, or that it is all Greek to you, have you ever thought what the Dutch say when something is indecipherable? Or how the Greeks refer to language that they can’t understand?

It is all Greek to me idioms for the incomprehensible

The Dutch (along with Germans) say it is like Chinese, whilst the Greeks refer to Chinese but also to Arabic. Spanish speakers are similarly perplexed by Greek, but also by Chinese. Arabs suggest something incomprehensible is like Hindi.

Chinese is the most typical target language, perhaps indicating its difficulty or exoticism. The Chinese don’t target any other language, instead saying that something indecipherable is as if heavenly script (i.e. god’s language).

Which European country tops the sovereign default league table?

Sovereign debt default was a lot more common when it was literally sovereigns defaulting. Kings liked money. They didn’t like paying it back. So, quite often, they didn’t.

In the richest economies, default has become rare. One of the reasons the Greek financial crisis is dominating headlines and moving markets around the world is the rarity of a rich country failing to pay back the IMF.

But back in the nineteenth century, defaults were far more common. The table below compares the number of sovereign debt defaults in a selection of European countries from 1800 onward. There are lots of different ways of classifying a sovereign debt default; I’ve used the dates from this paper.

European sovereign debt league table

For more on the history of sovereign debt, plus a reading list, visit my 2011 post Screwing the moneylenders.

Ticket to Vokzal

Why is the word for a main railway station in Russian named after the unprepossessing London area of Vauxhall?


The Russian word for a main train station is Vokzal (воксал). Say it out loud – does it remind you of anything? Say it in a suitably English accent, and it sounds like Vauxhall. Is this a coincidence, or is there an etymological connection between this minor suburban railway station on the London and South Western Railway and the grand Imperial terminii of Tsarist Russia?

Vauxhall railway station

The most beguiling story is that Vauxhall Station was the location chosen to show off British technological prowess to a Russian delegation. Just a short trip down river from the Houses of Parliament, it was an ideal location to demonstrate the workings of a railway network with a newly built station.

Continue reading “Ticket to Vokzal”

World’s most visited museums – part two

Every year, millions of tourists, culture vultures and art lovers pour into the world’s museums. There are thousands of collections that attract over 100,000 visitors. Just over 60 institutions manage to draw over a million visitors. The premier league of museums are ten world class institutions that bring in between 3.5 and 9.3 million visitors. This is part two of a two-part piece highlighting the next five in the top 10. 

The top five most popular museums are clearly in the A List of global cultural institutions. The next five might not share quite the same level of name recognition as the Louvre, Met or British Museum, but they are still world class museums and galleries.

6 - 10 museums by visitor numbers

Continue reading “World’s most visited museums – part two”

World’s most visited museums – part one

Every year, millions of tourists, culture vultures and art lovers pour into the world’s museums. There are thousands of collections that attract over 100,000 visitors. Just over 60 institutions manage to draw over a million visitors. The premier league of museums are ten world class institutions that bring in between 3.5 and 9.3 million visitors. This is part one of a two-part piece highlighting the top 5. 

Paris, London, New York and Rome are four of the most visited cities in the world. It is therefore no surprise that they host five of the most visited museums. It helps that their premier attractions are also world class – the Louvre, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery and the Vatican Museums boast a quantity and quality of objects that are mindbogglingly exquisite, valuable, famous and admired.

Top 5 museums by visitor numbers

The Louvre continues its reign as the world’s most visited museum – it is so far ahead of the chasing pack that it is difficult to imagine it ever slipping from the top spot.

Continue reading “World’s most visited museums – part one”

The people behind the menu – 2

If you are powerful, celebrated or heroic you may be remembered by having things named after you. Schools, airports, roads, squares and public buildings are all dedicated to politicians, royalty, celebrities and heroic figures from a nation’s past. One way to be immortalised is to have a popular food, drink or dish named after you. The only danger is that the product becomes so ubiquitous that the name’s roots are forgotten. So this is the second of three posts to remember the people behind the menu.  

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria is in no danger of being forgotten. Anyone who has visited London’s top tourist spots will have seen the giant memorial in front of Buckingham Palace. They may also have spotted her unmistakable likeness in statues at the Royal Exchange, Carlton House Terrace or Blackfriars Bridge.

You may catch a train at Victoria Station, not only in London but also in Manchester, Belfast and Southend. She is commemorated in everything from Canadian cities (the capitals of British Columbia (Victoria) and Saskatchewan (Regina)) to Australian states (both Victoria and Queensland are named for the Queen-Empress), Africa’s natural wonders (Victoria Falls and Lake Victoria) to Britain’s highest military decoration awarded for valour (the Victoria Cross).


As the iconic and eponymous Queen of the Victorian age, reigning at the apogee of Britain’s imperial reach, it is perhaps unsurprising that her name attached to a staggering long list of places and things. More prosaically, this included foods.

The most obvious of these is the Victoria Sponge. I must confess a conflict of interest when writing about the Victoria Sponge – it is an enduring favourite and an unavoidable weak spot for any diet. In principle, it is a very simple cake – two layers of sponge joined by a jam and cream filling and dusted with sugar.

This apparent simplicity belies some pretty fundamental questions – fresh cream, vanilla cream or buttercream? Strawberry or raspberry jam? Icing or caster sugar?

Victoria was also commemorated in a plum, apple and pea.

Beef Stroganoff

If the Romanovs held the imperial crown, the Stroganovs held its purse strings. Since the days of Ivan the Terrible, the family had been singularly successful at navigating the largely separate worlds of royal court and commercial endeavour.

The result was a dynasty of fabulous wealth. They were elevated to the aristocracy and built one of the finest mansions in the new capital of St. Petersburg (Stroganov Palace on the famous Nevsky Prospekt). They served a succession of Tsars as advisors, ministers and administrators.


The Stroganovs’ hold on Russian business ended with the Revolution, but their name lives on in a dish that has become a quintessential symbol of Russian cuisine. It isn’t clear which member of the family the dish is named for. It might even have just been named to honour the dynasty and add some aristocratic sparkle to a menu.

Beef Stroganoff is essentially sautéed pieces of beef served in a sauce with sour cream. Over the decades, however, it has become a favourite around the world and is made to hundreds of different recipes. It has even been used as a topping for baked potatoes, as a filling for crepes and on pizzas.

I’m not sure that Count Stroganoff would have approved of a dish where tomato paste is substituted for ketchup and sweetcorn is added, but I’m sure he would have been happy that at least his illustrious family is remembered, albeit tangentially, in menus around the world.


In the 1930s, Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Harry’s Bar in Venice, developed a dish based on the Piedmonetes carne cruda all’albese. It featured raw meat thinly sliced or pounded thin. Soon after, an exhibition dedicated to Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio was staged in Venice. How did the two become connected? The Daily Telegraph suggests that the recipe took on the painter’s name “possibly because the colours of the dish are reminiscent of his vivid use of reds”

The people behind the menu – 1

If you are powerful, celebrated or heroic you may be remembered by having things named after you. Schools, airports, roads, squares and public buildings are all dedicated to politicians, royalty, celebrities and heroic figures from a nation’s past. One way to be immortalised is to have a popular food, drink or dish named after you. The only danger is that the product becomes so ubiquitous that the name’s roots are forgotten. So this is the first of three posts to remember the people behind the menu.  

Queen Margherita of Savoy

Margherita of Savoy was part of the most gilded of nineteenth century elites. She was a daughter of the Houses of Savoy and Wettin placing her at the imperial heart of the interconnected royal houses of Europe.  Princess Margherita was, unsurprisingly quite the dynastic catch. In line with the genetically misjudged aristocratic preference for ‘keeping it in the family’, she ended up marrying her first cousin Umberto, Prince of Piedmont.


In a divided, pre-Risorgimento Italy, Piedmont was one of the more powerful states. But it was far from the premier league of great powers. After the unification of Italy, its ruler became the King of Italy and, eventually, Princess Margherita would become the Queen of Italy.

Margherita was well known for her beauty, grace and elegance and she garnered a range of cultural and artistic displays of affection. One of these followed a visit to Naples, when the chef, Raffaele Esposito, designed a patriotic pizza in her honour. As David Gilmour notes in The Pursuit of Italy:

“One Neapolitan chef achieved renown with a pizza of tomato and mozzarella, which he named after Queen Margherita, the most gracious and elegant member of the Savoia dynasty, who accepted the honour.”

It is a bit of a stretch to describe a Margherita pizza as being either gracious or elegant. It is certainly not a beautiful dish. But it was patriotic, featuring the red (tomato sauce), white (mozzarella) and green (basil) of the Italian flag. It is also one of the more enduringly popular, famous and ubiquitous dishes to have emerged from the country. Did it really have a royal connection? Recent detective work in the archives suggests it may have been a twentieth century fabrication to bolster sales hit by the Great Depression.

The House of Savoy no longer has a throne; Italy has been a republic for more than 70 years.  But one of its first Queens is still remembered, albeit mostly unknowingly and perhaps fraudulently, in pizza houses across the world.

Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin

In general, the British do puddings whilst the French do desserts. It reflects an essential difference in national cuisine – solid, hearty, simple and heavy versus fancy, light, delicate and elaborate. When done properly, both can be superlative – I can be driven into dizzying heights of ecstasy by a syrup sponge and custard or a Crème Brûlée.

In a few examples, the French dessert veers dangerously close to the British pudding; a Tarte aux Amandes is essentially a Bakewell Pudding dressed up to the nines whilst a Tarte aux pommes à l’Alsacienne is the apple pie’s loose living half-sister.

And then there is the Tarte Tatin, the supreme crossover – a desert so pudding-like that it has become a favourite in Britain.

In the 1880s, France was recovering from a humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the bloody civil war centred on the Paris Commune. All of this seemed far away in Lamotte-Beuvron, a small town in the Loire Valley some 100 miles south of Paris.


In this sleepy town, two sisters, Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin, ran the Hotel Tatin. There are various, probably apocryphal, stories to explain the creation of the tarte. Stéphanie, the sister who did the cooking, had left apples cooking for two long in butter and sugar and tried to rescue the apple pie she had intended to make by putting a pastry case over the filling.

Alternatively, Stéphanie baked an upside-down tart  with accidentally caramelized apples. In all the stories, dessert is rescued, diners are served the novel creation and it becomes an instant, if accidental, hit.

What is more likely is that the sisters improved on a regional classic, the tarte solognote. Whether an intentional creation or a successful mistake, the Tarte Tatin became a French classic. The Hotel Tatin now proudly boasts its gastronomic heritage as the birthplace of the dessert.

Franz Sacher

If the Tarte Tatin was an unintentional creation, Sachertorte was quite the opposite – it was designed to impress. Franz Sacher was a Viennese confectioner working in an Imperial capital that adored cake. The Austro-Hungarian empire was by this point an intricate patchwork of nationalities and languages.

Politically, it was unified by the ruling Habsburg emperors. Socially, it centred on the coffee house. Kaffeeklatsch over kaffee und kuchen was as popular in Budapest and Prague as it was in Vienna.


In 1832, Franz Sacher was a 16-year old serving the second year of an apprenticeship at the kitchens of Prince Metternich. Metternich was Austria’s powerful minister for foreign affairs and regularly hosted dinners. One particular evening in 1832, Metternich had assembled a particularly potent mixture of powerful and important guests. The chef of the household was taken ill, and the task of making the signature dessert fell on to Sacher’s young shoulders.

Metternich is reported to have added to the pressure by demanding, ‘dass er mir aber keine Schand’ macht, heut’ Abend!’ (‘Let there be no shame on me tonight!’). Sacher rose to the challenge, creating the eponymous chocolate torte.

Sachertorte became both a signature dish for the Sacher family (Franz’s son would eventually open the Hotel Sacher in Vienna) and a symbol of Viennese coffeehouse culture. It is even celebrated with its own national day in Austria on the 5th of December.

Protecting the best of British

What connects Fenland celery with Gruyère cheese? Cornish clotted cream with Prosciutto di Parma? Or Gloucestershire Old Spots Pork and Pizza Napoletana? They have all been granted Protected Geographical Status under EU law through the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) regimes respectively.

Some of the most iconic food and drinks produced in the European Union benefit from legal protection. Champagne, Parmesan and Jamón de Huelva are some of the iconic examples, but foods produced in the UK also benefit from protection.

Map showing some of the protected food stuffs in the UK

There are currently c. 60 products that are protected under one of the three official EU regimes. From a cheddar cheese produced in Orkney to the north to Kentish ale in the south, Pembrokeshire early potatoes in the west to Grimsby smoked haddock in the east – what the UK lacks in number it makes up for in the variety of protected produce.

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Governing in style

You’ve won the election and soon you’ll be sworn in as the governor of the state. What is top of your list of priorities? Fulfilling manifesto pledges? Dishing out patronage? Dealing with the legislature? One thing most of America’s state governors don’t have to worry about is where to live. All bar three states in the USA have official governors’ residencies.

Alabama Governor's Mansion, Montgomery Carol M. Highsmith [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Governors of states in the USA have considerable political power. They are the chief executives of territories whose population or size dwarfs many sovereign countries. As befits the role, most states in the USA provide an official residence – a state by state version of the White House and centre of executive power.

Continue reading “Governing in style”