We all know that all “roads lead to Rome”, which “was not built in one day”, but what about “smoking like a Turk” or “speaking Chinese”?
Idioms. We all use them, but where do they come from? The easiest answer would be that they come from historical events and from the proximity of one country to another. The English-speaking people have a saying about the French, “don’t leave like the French” which means leaving without saying Good-bye! The Spaniards say “despedirse a la francesa“, to “leave the French way”. On the other hand, the French say the same thing about the English (“filer à l’anglaise“). The Germans blame it on the Polish, “einen polnischen Abgang machen“,“make a Polish exit” and the Poles throw it back at the English “leave in an English way”, “wyjść po angielsku”.
We Romanians had a lot to deal with the Turks, so we say, “he eats like the Turks are fighting on his mouth” (“se bat turcii la gura lui”) to describe someone who eats very quickly. In addition, when someone sits with their legs crossed, they are “Turkish sitting” (“stă turceşte”) and when someone does not understand something obvious we implore “don’t be a Turk” (“nu fi turc”). I was surprised to find that Slovenians have the same saying but about the French, Croatians about the English, Polish people about the Greeks and Greek people about the Chinese. In addition, “Θες ν’ ακούσεις κάνα τούρκικο τώρα” in Greek, “You want to hear some Turkish now?” means “do you want me to swear?”. And what about “pardon my French”? It is not that someone is excusing themselves for their level of the language? Indeed, it is also related to swearing.
Have you heard about “smoking like a Turk”? Well, if you are Romanian, Italian, Slovene, Croat, Luxembourgish, Macedonian, French or German, apparently you would use this idiom when you refer to someone smoking a lot.
To refer to something that they don’t understand in writing, the English would say “it’s all Greek to me”. At the same time the Greeks say the same thing, but referring to Chinese. As do the Portuguese, Bulgarians and Spanish, people. The Finns have a slightly different saying about the same thing, to “speak pig’s German” (“puhua siansaksaa“) – namely, when someone says something completely weird and incomprehensible.
For the Spanish people, the English are punctual, so they say “punctual as an English man”, while in Romanian, Estonian and other Baltic languages, they say the same thing, but about the Germans. When Italians describe one’s punctuality, they say “punctual like a Swiss watch” (“puntuali come un orologio svizzero“), the Poles say “to work as in a Swiss watch” (“chodzić jak w szwajcarskim zegarku“) referring also to the accuracy of a Swiss watch. The same goes for Portuguese people who say, “Certo que nem um relógio suiço“ (“right as a Swiss clock”).
“Going Dutch” means splitting the bill in half at the restaurant, and “having a French shower” means to spray on too much deodorant instead of washing oneself. This is the first time I have heard that, but it seems that it is a popular idiom. In Sweden, the idiom is “take a Turkish shower” (att ta en Turkdusch). The French people also have an idiom about showers but it’s “prendre une douche écossaise“, (“take a Scottish shower”) which describes someone experiencing a hot and cold alternate water temperature when showering.
It was an interesting journey to find and read about all these idioms. Do you know some idioms we have not mentioned?
- 10 idioms in English using nationalities and countries
- European nationality related idioms
- Idioms using nationalities and countries
Written by Raluca Caranfil
Communication Trainee at TermCoord
Journalist & Student at the University of Luxembourg