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).

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.

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Strangers in their own land

What connects Wales to Wallachia (in Romania) and Scotland’s Galloway with Gaul (an ancient name for France)? The answer is a shared etymological root – the single Proto-Germanic word – Walhaz – the strangers.

Walhaz was a useful term employed by the Germanic tribes living beyond the boundaries of the ‘civilized’ Roman world. It can mean ‘foreigner’ or ‘stranger’, but can also be used to describe someone who speaks Latin, Greek or Celtic. Essentially, it means ‘not one of us’.

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Hell – a visitor’s guide

Archaeological discoveries around the world seem to prove an abiding human obsession about death and the afterlife. From Stone Age burial tombs to the intricate Egyptian funerary text ‘the Book of the Dead’, thinking about what happens when we die is a universal societal trait. The emergence of the Christian concept of Hell builds on earlier ideas and, over the centuries, writers, thinkers and theologians have built up an impressive picture of an imagined land.   

The Economist’s Christmas Special is an annual tour de force of unusual and dependably fascinating articles. This year included a human and spiritual history and travel guide to Hell which proved to be no exception to the newspaper’s tradition of quirky yet entertaining festive pieces.

One of the most interesting quotes describes the geography of the infernal regions:

“The four rivers of Hell — Phlegethon, Cocytus, Acheron and Styx — are made of human tears, flowing all the faster because God in his fury will never notice them.”

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Going underground II

In August, I sang the praises of Andrew Martin’s book ‘Underground, Overground: A Passenger’s History of the Tube’. At the end of that post I promised a follow up covering the Americanisation of the lexicon of travel, Brunel and the war winning boots and state funerals on the Tube. Six months is no time at all in a blog, so here (finally) is the follow up!

For tourists, few things evoke a trip to London as effectively as a ride on the Tube. London’s deep tunnel network is unlike any other metro system in the world – curiously compact, cylindrical and ‘cosy’. Many, including most Londonders, will not appreciate the debt that is owed to foreigners, especially Americans, in the financing, design and running of the network.

Americans were also responsible for changing the way we speak about travel. Thousands, maybe even millions of people commute into London every day. But, if American linguistic influence hadn’t extended to Britain in the 1940s, they might have ‘oscillated’, ‘shuttled’ or even ‘taken season tickets’. The word we use today comes from regular travellers obtaining reduced price tickets in the US called ‘commutation-tickets’, so-called because their cost had been commuted.

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Robbing Peter to pay Paul

People are often accused of ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’; but who is the unfortunate Peter who is being robbed to pay the rather more fortunate Paul in this common phrase?

This week, two politicians have hit the headlines accusing the government of ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’. In America, the looming ‘fiscal cliff’ elicited the phrase from Virginia State Senator Adam Ebbin as he criticized plans to redirect money from the Commonwealth’s general fund.

Over in Australia, Labor’s immigration spokesman Scott Morrison highlighted the government’s plans to use money from the overseas aid programme to fund the costs of processing asylum seekers and told ABC television that the: “The government are basically robbing Peter to pay Paul here in terms of the aid program”.

It is a common idiom, used to describe the pointlessness of taking from one source to give another very similar one. But what is the etymological origin of the phrase? Put another way, who (or what) were the original Peter and Paul?

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The deadly vengeance of the hash eaters

The Nizaris, a deadly sect of Ismāʿīli warriors, were feared across the Middle East and beyond for their daring attacks on powerful enemies. They became known as the ḥaššāšīn or Ḥashshāshīn – a word that was modified in European languages as the Assassins. The word’s Arabic origin was, however, devised as derogatory slur to highlight a particular habit of the group. To the god-fearing, they were the notorious order of hashish-eaters.

Today’s ‘hashish-eaters’, stoners, smokers, potheads and dope fiends, are not renowned for their violence and military fearlessness. Sitting on a comfy sofa under a thick and pungent purple haze, they might erupt in a fit of laughter or develop powerful cravings for snacks. But they are unlikely to form secretive religious sects and execute their rivals and enemies in daring raids. In truth, the nearest any contemporary pot smokers are likely to get to their etymological forebears is by playing computer games such as Assassin’s Creed, Guild Wars or Final Fantasy.

The historical link remains as an etymological footnote, explaining the origin of the word ‘assassin’, its links to hashish, or hash (a preparation based on compressed cannabis) and the existence of a small but terrifying military sect that erupted in the turbulent middle east in the age of the Crusades.

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The (French) language of war

French is one of the major sources of vocabulary in the English language. From the Norman invasion to nineteenth century European diplomacy, French words have percolated into English and have sometimes been swallowed whole with little or no attempt to Anglicize terms or phrases.

One area of language is particularly heavily dependant on French loan words – the language of war.

The impact of Norman dominance was immediately seen as Norman French words poured into common use and displaced Anglo-Saxon alternatives. As a result, by the 14th century you could describe whole conflicts in purely French derived words:

The commander sought to conquer the castle with a force of archers. The defenders were heavily armoured and tried to defy the assault. The attackers laid siege to the enemy fortress and brought engines of war to destroy the tower. A traitor in the garrison opened the portcullis to the enemy and the battle was soon over. The castle was conquered with the chieftain victorious.

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White elephants and the King of Siam

What springs to mind if you think of the phrase ‘white elephant’? Monuments to a politician’s hubris? The Millennium Dome? Unused and unloved Olympic venues around the world? Few people in England would associate this idiom directly with Elephas maximus, the Asian elephant, or imagine its roots in the royal courts of Burma and Siam.

The Oxford English Dictionary hints at the two meanings for white elephant. The first is its literal meaning – “a rare albino variety of elephant which is highly venerated in some Asian countries”. The second explains the phrase in its figurative sense:

“A burdensome or costly possession (from the story that the kings of Siam (now Thailand) were accustomed to make a present of one of these animals to courtiers who had rendered themselves obnoxious, in order to ruin the recipient by the cost of its maintenance). Also, an object, scheme, etc., considered to be without use or value.”

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