LinguaTute

International Idioms: You Say ‘Tomato,’ I say ‘Shrimp Sandwich.’

What are idioms and where do they come from?

Whether you use idioms around the clock or just once in a blue moon, it’s no secret that they can be utterly bananas. We often don’t notice how strange they can be until we are asked to explain or translate them. Have you ever had to assure someone that every Briton does not in fact have an Uncle Bob? It’s not easy, trust me. So, where do these phrases really come from? The Oxford Companion to the English language tells us that an idiom is simply an expression which ‘typically presents a figurative, non-literal meaning attached to the phrase’, but they are much more than that, they can be keepers of an entire culture. Let’s explore the etymology and origins of some international favourites.

Weird and wonderful idioms from around Europe

Today, we’ll predominantly focus on French sayings and idioms but we’ll make an initial stop somewhere a little further afield. Try to think of some equivalents in any languages you know as we go through each new phrase (English answers can be found in each section).

Glida in på en räkmacka

We may as well begin by addressing the so-called elephant in the room and explain the idiom which is this article’s namesake: ‘Glida in på en räkmacka (sliding in on a shrimp sandwich)’

 

Having something handed to you on a silver platter

The bizarre and seemingly messy image in fact means having had it easy, that someone’s journey to a particular point has been due to lucky circumstances such as nepotism which have allowed them to glide past everyone else who is working hard to get where they are.

 The Swedish bring us this succinct idiom to condemn those who we don’t view as having earned their positions especially in the world of work. The phrase is often used either critically behind the person’s back or to their face warning them that their crustacean companions won’t be enough to get them through whatever it is they are about to attempt i.e. ‘don’t think you can just slide in on a shrimp sandwich’.

Open-face shrimp sandwiches are quite a common food at Swedish buffets and toppings often include eggs, mayonnaise, lemon and possibly caviar. As such, the origin of the idiom is thought to be found in the economics of shrimp itself. Sweden’s economy saw significant decline due to oil embargoes in the 1970s, and while the country is by no means landlocked, shrimp is not typically caught in the region, making it a highly sought-after, expensive resource. It has been concluded that this combination of economic circumstances has led Swedes not only to view shrimp as fancy but to frown upon abuses of (economic) privileges and excess, especially in the face of the hardship of others. It crops up in other Swedish sayings, such as ‘it was no shrimp sandwich’ which might remind you of a similar snack-themed English idiom…

‘It was no picnic’

Vouloir le beurre et l’argent du beurre

Sticking with the sandwich theme, let’s explore what the French find reprehensible. This idiom literally translates to, ‘wanting the butter and the butter money’. Essentially, it means wanting to reap the benefit of something without any cost to oneself. 

According to the National Library of France’s archives, the first recorded use of this idiom they have is from an 1896 economics essay by Swiss politician Numa Droz. He argues that one must give in order to take in the context of commercial transactions of any kind. The etymology of this particular image being used as a metaphor for transactions has more humble origins, likely in countryside living prior to the industrial revolution. In an artisanal, peasant sense, the idiom could have been used to admonish those who made their own butter (product) and wanted to sell it but wanted to keep both the butter and the money they would make from selling it – those who wanted a benefit without returning the favour. 

For a long time, the image of butter has not been an unusual one in French economic analogies as it is often used in place of ‘profit’ in expressions such as  ‘faire son beurre (making your own profit)’. As society moved into larger economies, the phrase came to be applied to any and all economic exchanges and transactions, ultimately meaning ‘wanting all the profit without compensating in turn’. Do you recognise any of these international equivalents? If not, can you think of any in your language?

Wanting to have your cake and eat it too

Non si può avere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca (You can’t have a full bottle and a drunk wife)’

‘Man kann nicht auf zwei Hochzeiten gleichzeitig tanzen (You can’t dance at two weddings at the same time)’

‘No se puede estar en misa y repicado (You can’t be at mass and ring the bells)’

Comment peut-on ȇtre persan ? 

In contrast to the somewhat everyday, universal imagery we have explored so far, there are certain idioms  rooted in works of literature which are often labelled ‘untranslatable’ because to understand the idiom we have to get across both the meaning of the phrase and the cultural significance of the text from which it originated. 

In reality, the idiom could really be heard as, ‘how could anyone not be French?’ and has been used to poke fun at right-wing or white-supremacist sentiments and ignorance of other cultures in general in French politics.

The idiom I have chosen to illustrate some of the aforementioned cultural context difficulties is ‘Comment peut-on ȇtre persan ? (How can one be Persian?)’ and is taken from the 18th-century novel ‘Lettres Persanes (Persian Letters)’ by Charles de Secondat, the Baron of Montesquieu. Theoretically, you would have had to read the novel to understand the phrase and its context but in practice, it has reached widespread idiomatic use. Now, is every French citizen forced to read the book at birth? Certainly not, yet this idiom is used commonly enough that we have to assume everyone understands whether they have read the novel or not. 

Within Montesquieu’s epistolary novel, he paints a satirical picture of contemporary Parisian society and the poser of the question is the native French friend of a Persian voyager visiting France for the first time. In response to meeting this new friend with a different language, customs and ways of thinking, the question is asked by the Frenchman wondering how there could be people other than his own in the entire universe. 


Are there any idioms you can think of which are so common that we don’t need to be familiar with their source material to know and use them? Below are some examples, click on them to find out their source!

From Hamlet, meaning ‘even though this seems crazy, there is a reason behind it.’

From Don Quixote by Cervantes, meaning ‘you shouldn’t accuse or criticize someone for something of which you are also guilty.’

From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, meaning ‘crazy.’

Conclusion

Understanding idioms and their associated contexts are significant indicators that we are immersed in a culture as well as its language. Try to learn some popular idioms in your target language(s) to give yourself an edge.

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