The common idioms native English speakers toss around don’t usually confuse most people. But non-English speakers may be a different story.
From time to time, I post about some of the more common idioms we encounter and their backstory. Idioms are phrases that have a meaning other than what one might assume from the words themselves.
A good example would be the phrase “raining cats and dogs.” If you know the phrase, you know it means a powerful rainstorm, a downpour. At no point should one expect to see felines or canines literally falling from the sky in such a storm.
Another good example involves the idiom “kill two birds with one stone.” If you love birds, you should rest assured: No one is going around targeting our feathered friends. But those unfamiliar with the idiom might not understand it simply means to accomplish two important goals by taking a single action.
Sure, most of us recognize these common idioms and know exactly what they mean. Most of us, that is, who are native English speakers.
But if English is not your primary language, such phrases may well confuse you.
Let me give you a couple of examples
Recently, I tried an artificial intelligence program to test how well it could translate a news story from English to Spanish. It seemed like a simple enough task.
But the article contained a phrase about the lifting of a certain federal regulation. To a native English speaker, that particular use of the word lifted was figurative. It had nothing to do with elevating the regulation above the ground. The intent of the phrasing was to indicate the cancellation of the regulation.
But the AI program didn’t use the word for canceled.
I asked Google Translate to translate the phrase, “…when the regulation will be lifted.” It produced this:
…cuándo se levantará la regulación.
If I reverse-translate, it does indeed show that the original phrase, I typed is what it translated. But the word levantará in Spanish means levitated, not canceled. It should have translated it with the word cancelará to maintain the same meaning.
A while back, I tried a similar test. This one was about a student who suffered minor injuries after a school bus struck him (or her, I don’t remember which). As I recall, the bus driver somehow lost control and the bus hit the student. It was a hard bump that knocked the student to the ground.
The translation, however, changed the wording so that when I reverse-translated, what I got back was a mention of the school bus running over the student. There’s a big difference between a vehicle as large as a school bus hitting someone and running over them.
English isn’t the only language with confusing idioms
It definitely goes both ways…in Spanish and surely in every other language. For example, Spanish offers this idiom:
Hablar sin pelos en la lengua
Imagine the confusion of the typical English speaker who’s visiting a Spanish-speaking country when they figure out the literal translation of the phrase is “speak without hairs on your tongue.”
Remember I said that was the literal translation. But that’s the thing about idioms: They have a special meaning beyond what they might seem based on the words themselves. In this case, the phrase simply means to speak frankly or to “pull no punches,” another common idiom.
This website lists 14 Spanish idioms that don’t translate all that well into English. The one about the Spanish idiom dar calabazas made me chuckle. Many of us have been the victims of such an event, I suppose.
French has idioms like coincer la bulle, which translates as “wedge the bubble.” It means “to do nothing.” In English, we’d probably say something like “sit on your hands.”
Even German, an intimidating language on its own, offers idioms that German speakers understand but non-German speakers don’t. Take, for instance, das blaue vom himmel versprechen. It translates literally as “promising the blue from the sky” and figuratively as “over-promising what one can deliver.”
Mastering these 70 idioms might help people in English
The website BestLife suggests understanding these 70 idioms will “help you be fluent “help you become fluent in no time.”
It offers dozens of old reliables like “cut to the chase,” “hook, line and sinker,” and “can’t see the forest for the trees.”
I don’t know that mastering such phrases is enough to help one be “fluent.” But doing so will certainly help avoid at least a little of the confusion such idioms might unintentionally cause.
And let’s face it: It’s not always non-native-English speakers. A friend of mine liked the idiom, “And Bob’s your uncle.” I had a good idea that he used it to mean, “and there you have it.” But you have to search a bit to find the presumed story behind that one. The website Global Graduates suggests “no one’s quite sure” about where it came from, but offers a popular theory.
Sometimes, even when you know — or think you know — what an idiom means, you have to hear it used and examine the context to make sure your suspicion is correct.
That only adds to the potential for confusion in writing.
I’m not saying you should ditch all your idioms or, to put it idiomatically, to “kill your darlings.” But once in a while, particularly if we know someone who is relatively new to English, we should think about how much we rely on such phrases rather than just saying what we mean.