Skip to main content.
Idioms of the World explained

Idioms of the World

This article originally appeared on, which is now part of

We use idioms to pepper our speech and writing, often without even realising we’re doing it. These odd little phrases are used to express a sentiment other than their literal meaning. It doesn’t really rain cats and dogs, as the world and his wife knows. I’ve always been fascinated by foreign idioms; they give us a unique insight into the culture that uses them. Did you know that in German you can say “to live like a maggot in bacon” instead of “to live the life of luxury”? Idioms can tell us a lot about what matters to a nation. They’re a window to the soul.

Meaning idioms of the world

We wanted to explore the world in all its linguistic glory, so we asked artist and illustrator Marcus Oakley to draw some of his favourite idioms from across the globe. We hope they inspire you to learn the local idioms next time you travel.

Italian expression

1. "Into the mouth of a wolf"

Language: Italian

Translation: In bocca al lupo

Meaning: Good luck!

“Into the mouth of a wolf” is a very popular Italian phrase that’s similar to our “break a leg”, and perhaps much more understandable. You’d say it to someone facing a tough trial or nerve-wracking performance, such as an exam or a concert. But don’t say “thank you” in response: it’s bad luck. The correct answer is “may the wolf die”.

Stay at top hotels in Milan

Our top pick of hotels in Rome

Polish expression

2. "Not my circus, not my monkey"

Language: Polish

Translation: Nie mój cyrk, nie moje malpy

Meaning: Not my problem

While more cryptic than just saying “not my problem”, the Polish expression “not my circus, not my monkeys” makes perfect sense, and is a lot more fun to say. Poland can offer a traveller some difficulties in terms of cultural customs – holding your thumbs means good luck, not crossing your fingers, for example. You’ll probably need a bit of luck, what with all those monkeys running around.

Our favorite hotels in Wroclaw

Japanese expression

3. "To have a wide face"

Language: Japanese

Translation: Kao ga hiro i

Meaning: To have many friends

We all know that Asian countries have the best proverbs. Well, they also have some fantastic idioms too. “Having a wide face” means you have lots of friends and are well liked. It could be based on reality, as men with wide faces supposedly earn more money and are more attractive to women. Or it could come from the Chinese concept of “face”, which is where we get our own term, “losing face”, from.

French expression

4. "To have the midday demon"

Language: French

Translation: Le démon de midi

Meaning: To have a midlife crisis

For the funniest idioms, look no further than our cross-channel neighbours in France. “To have the midday demon” means “to have a midlife crisis”. And what better way to explain reaching 50 and suddenly swapping the suit and tie for a ponytail and a Harley than demonic possession?

Portuguese expression

5. "To feed the donkey sponge cake"

Language: Portuguese

Translation: Alimentar um burro a pão-de-ló

Meaning: To give good treatment to someone who doesn't need it

Portugal’s variation on the Bible’s advice about pearls and swine, “don’t feed the donkey sponge cake”, means don’t give fine treatment to those who don’t deserve it. After all, why should we have to sit around chewing raw oats because some idiot’s given all the cake to the donkey?

Stay in the finest hotels of Lisbon

Porto's top hotels

Top hotels on the Algarve

German expression

6. "A cat's jump"

Language: German

Translation: Katzensprung

Meaning: A short distance away

“A cat’s jump” is in the minority of German idioms in that it doesn’t refer to either beer or sausages. Katzensprung simply means a short distance away, or “a stone’s throw” as we’d say in English. Use whichever one you’d prefer, it’s all sausages to us.

Where to stay in Berlin

Our pick of hotels in Hamburg

1. 25hours Hotel HafenCity           

2. Radisson Blu Hotel, Hamburg Airport          

3. Radisson Blu Hotel, Hamburg       

Top hotels in Munich

Spanish expression

7. "To give someone pumpkins"

Language: Spanish

Translation: Dar calabazas a alguien

Meaning: To reject somebody

As we’re sure you’ve guessed, “to give someone pumpkins” means to turn somebody down. It’s just one example of the colourful idioms you’ll find in Spain, and it originates from Ancient Greece, where pumpkins were considered an anti-aphrodisiac. Try eating one seductively, and you’ll probably see why.

Our favorite hotels in Madrid

1. Regina           

2. Iberostar Las Letras Gran Via          

3. Praktik Metropol       

Check out these hotels in Barcelona

1. Grand Hotel Central           

2. Barceló Sants           

3. Barcelona Airport Hotel       

Hotels we love in Valencia

1. Ayre Hotel Astoria Palace  

2. Melia Valencia          

3. Caro Hotel    

Russian expression

8. "To ride as a hare"

Language: Russian

Translation: Exatj zajcem

Meaning: To travel without a ticket

As home to the Trans-Siberian Railway, Russia probably has quite a few train-related idioms. “To ride as a hare” means to ride the train without a ticket, as we all know hares are prone to do. Apparently it comes from the fact that fare-dodgers would shake like a hare whenever the ticket inspectors would come round.

Moscow hotels you'll love

1. Golden Ring Hotel           

2. Mercure Arbat Moscow           

3. Novotel Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport       

Top hotels in St. Petersburg

Where to sleep in Yekaterinburg

1. Park Inn by Radisson Ekaterinburg           

2. Novotel Yekaterinburg Centre           

3. Hyatt Regency Ekaterinburg       

Finnish expression

9. "To let a frog out of your mouth"

Language: Finnish

Translation: Päästää sammakko suusta

Meaning: To say the wrong thing

Finnish idioms have a lovely tone to them, often referencing Mother Nature and their homeland. Having “rye in your wrists” means to be physically strong, for instance, while “own land strawberry, other land blueberry” reflects Finns’ love for the motherland. “Letting a frog out of your mouth” means to say the wrong thing, which makes sense, as spitting a frog at someone is almost always the wrong thing to do.

Top hotels in Helsinki

1. Radisson Blu Seaside Hotel           

2. Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel          

3. Radisson Blu Royal Hotel   

Our top hotel picks in Espoo

1. Radisson Blu Hotel       

2. Hellsten Espoo       

3. GLO Hotel Espoo Sello      

Where to stay in Tampere

1. Original Sokos Hotel Ilves         

2. Scandic Tampere City     

3. Scandic Tampere Station        

Danish expression

10. "To have a stick in your ear"

Language: Danish

Translation: At have en pind i øret

Meaning: To not listen to someone

A lot of Danish idioms will sound familiar to us – “not the sharpest knife in the drawer”, for instance. But Danes would “go absolutely cucumber” at you if you were to “have a stick in your ear”. This means to not listen to someone, which can be a very bad thing to do to somebody with a strong Viking ancestry.

Hotels in Copenhagen we love

Our top hotel picks in Aarhus

1. Zleep Hotel Aarhus        

2. CABINN Hotel Aarhus      

3. Comwell Aarhus       

Where to stay in Odense