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What Italians mean when something sounds German to them

Idioms can connect in a charming way.

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What Italians mean when something sounds German to them

Idioms can connect in a charming way. The EU may have 24 official languages, but anyone who travels across Europe with its many languages ​​and dialects will find that there are a surprising number of idioms that are the same in most countries and regions.

Almost all Europeans know “where the shoe pinches” and they also shed “crocodile tears”. The linguist and proverb expert Rolf-Bernhard Essig has compiled such language blooms on trips in his volume "Phoenix from the Ashes" (Duden-Verlag). He says: "Hundreds of proverbial sayings are the common heritage of Europe."

The expression "like day and night" or "like dog and cat" is known in all EU national languages. You "play with fire" and sometimes you "tear your hair out" in anger when you can't see "the wood for the trees" and then "pull yourself back together". Sounds like Europe. You understand each other.

Even more amusing for vacationers are those idioms that are funny and different, but mean the same thing. Oddly enough, Germany is the only place where people are as fit as a fiddle, which always amuses other nationalities, while in France they are as alert as a squirrel ("comme un écureuil"), in Britain fresh as a daisy ("like a daisy"), in Italy healthy like a fish (“sano come un pesce”) and fit as a chicken (“als een hoentje”) in the Netherlands.

Even if “carrying owls to Athens” is understood across the EU as a pointless activity, there are other equivalents in the national languages. "Give bread to the baker's child" is a saying in Norway, honey is sold to the beekeeper in Portugal, cucumbers are sold to the gardener in Romania, and trees are planted in Estonia. And what do people like to say in southern Germany? They bring beer to Bavaria.

But be careful: On the way you discover idioms whose literal translation in the travel destination can cause confusion or amusement. That’s where choosing the right color really matters. Only in this country and in Spain ("ponerse negro") can one get angry. The French, on the other hand, prefer to be angry in red (“se ​​fâcher tout rouge”), the Italians turn green with anger (“verde dalla bile”), while the Dutchman also gets a yellow cast (“zich groen en geel ergeren”).

Sometimes the color is right, but not the animal: what is as rare as a white raven for Germans and Russians is a white crow for the British. In France and Spain, a rarity is known as a white blackbird, in Bulgaria a white swallow is used, in Latvia and Lithuania a white sparrow, in Malta and Italy it is called a whitefly.

Some idioms pull other people through the cracks, in a friendly way, of course. What sounds Spanish to Germans is "mi sembra tedesco" to Italians, which is perceived as German. The linguist Essig particularly likes a phrase he found in France: “Une querelle allemande”. Guess what is actually meant by “German quarrels”: Exactly, a “gotcha over trifles”. Should be remembered!

Already in the final last year - this year on the winner's podium: After years of adults choosing the youth word and causing a lot of "cringe", the word itself is winning the race this year.

Source: WELT/Thomas Vedder

This article was first published in November 2021.

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