Deciphering the Food Idioms of Foreign Languages

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Last week I wrote about funny English-language food idioms and their origins. Word-and food-geek that I am (and I imagine/hope I'm not alone), I find this stuff fascinating. At least as interesting is how other languages work food into their quirky turns of phrase.

For starters, there's the one in the title of the book I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms From Around the World, which author Jag Bhalla explains—though I find it hard to believe—is how Russians tell you they're not pulling your leg.

Bhalla's book includes a whole chapter of amusing food expressions translated from Chinese, Yiddish and other languages. A few favorites, from the book unless otherwise noted:

Instead of having a hair of the dog that bit them—as Americans call having a drink to ward off a hangover—Spaniards drown the mouse.

Germans use the same body part—the nose—that English uses to mean intrusively inquisitive (i.e. nosy), but much more colorfully:  sticking your nose in every sour curd cheese. And the German insult for "a bunch of losers" is as delightful for its meaning—a troop of cucumbers—as the way it sounds: Gurkentruppe.

If you annoy a Frenchman he might advise you to go cook yourself an egg, or go fly a kite. The same sentiment in Spanish is expressed by telling someone to go fry asparagus.

Not surprisingly, many of the expressions relate to the foods that are most important in a particular culture, like bread in French and onions in Yiddish. Hindi has a lot of mango-based idioms: wind-fallen mangos are something easy or cheap; a mango at the price of a stone is a good deal; a ripe mango is a very old person; and to have mangos and sell the seeds is to have it all.

An insincere person in Yiddish cries onion tears instead of crocodile tears. Other Yiddish onion idioms include the insults "onions should grow from your navel," and "he should grow like an onion with his head in the ground," meaning "take a hike."

Instead of milk and honey, in Chinese a land of plenty is a land of fish and rice. If someone is exaggerating about such a place, he is said to be adding oil and vinegar.

The site Italy in SF has a list of Italian food idioms, including both the Italian and English translations. Some of them are similar to English sayings, namely that something easy is like taking candy from a child—“E’ facile come rubare le caramelle a un bambino”—and that something tender is soft as butter—Tenero come il burro.” Others are decidedly different: instead of giving an eye for an eye, Italians give back bread for focaccia. And someone who is always in the way is like parsley (Sei sempre in mezzo come il prezzemolo).

The Paris-based food blog Chocolate & Zucchini has a series on French "edible idioms." One of my favorites is "Ménager la chèvre et le chou," which translates to "accommodating the sheep and the cabbage" and means "trying to please both sides in a situation where the two sides are in fact reconcilable." I love the mental image of a Frenchman trying to negotiate with a cabbage.

When my last blog on food idioms was posted on Facebook (where you can become a fan of Smithsonian magazine), one commenter contributed the Spanish idiom, "el pan bajo el brazo." I know just enough Spanish to translate it as "bread under the arm," but I had to look up the meaning. As far as I can tell, it is a shortened version of "nacio con el pan bajo el brazo," which means born with bread under the arm, a rough equivalent of the English expression "born with a silver spoon in one's mouth."

Do any other foreign-language speakers out there want to share the food expressions in your language?

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