Lesser known amazing foreign phrases?
February 7, 2012 7:39 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for obscure but beautiful or amazing sayings or phrases or words in languages or dialects other than American English.

That's basically it. I'm looking for them to connote amazing wonder, fear, love, beauty, bittersweetness, excellent observation or excellent articulation of the un-articulatable - to be beautiful, funny, or wise. As I said, I would like them to be on the lesser known end of things. If you have a really good one, I can loosen up on the obscure thing - I just don't want a bunch of "Home is where the heart is"-level stuff.
posted by jitterbug perfume to Writing & Language (32 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
You may want to browse the book They Have A Word For It. This is exactly what the book is about -- words in other languages for which there is no English translation, but there should be.

One of my favorites from that book is "Mamihlapinatapai", which holds the Guinness record for "most succinct word". It's from a language from Tierra del Fuego, and means “a look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that both desire but which neither one wants to start.” (In other words: you know that sort of look you give someone when you know you both want to kiss each other, but you're both still sort of hanging back, waiting for the other one to go first so you can be sure that that's really what you both want and it's not in your head, but come on, seriously, you can tell they want to kiss you too so why are you waiting, but wait, what if you're wrong, maybe they should just go first, so you end up just looking at each other? THAT look. "Mamihlapinatapai.")
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:48 PM on February 7, 2012 [13 favorites]

Response by poster: That does look really awesome, but I'm somewhat moreso looking for phrases or idioms with awesome meanings than words. I am going to check my e-reader for that book! Thanks!
posted by jitterbug perfume at 7:56 PM on February 7, 2012

"Life is like the surf, so give yourself away like the sea" from the movie Y Tu Mama Tambien. It is said in Spanish in the movie, but I couldn't find the written Spanish online. This phrase is from the subtitles.
posted by ruhroh at 8:10 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

"You can't wrap fire in paper." Chinese proverb.
posted by steinsaltz at 8:10 PM on February 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

In Farsi, Armenian, Turkish people say 'I'd eat your liver' - which sort of means love in a 'I'd die for you' way, I think. The word for liver 'jigiyar' is used as a term of enderment.
posted by k8t at 8:44 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Luck is a little bird" (Das Glück ist ein Vogerl) is a Viennese saying.
posted by scody at 8:53 PM on February 7, 2012

I was looking for Hawaiian sayings and I came across this post: Famous Proverbs (Sayings) In Your Country. Kind of limited to only a few languages but there are some good ones in there.
posted by book 'em dano at 9:14 PM on February 7, 2012

A list of mottoes and phrase in various languages (Latin, French, Welsh, Irish, etc.) and their English translations.
I like - Is minic a chealg briathra míne cailín críonna. - Many a prudent girl was led astray with honeyed words.
posted by unliteral at 9:15 PM on February 7, 2012

"Sueño con los angelitos" (dream with the little angels) is a lovely Spanish way of saying goodnight.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:17 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

From Arcade Fire on SNL: "Sak vide pa kanpe!"
posted by rhizome at 9:44 PM on February 7, 2012

I've always been partial to the NZ English phrase "box of fluffy ducklings" - meaning to feel especially cheerful and good.

There is also the more succinct variant "box of birds," as in:
"How are ya?"
"Box o' birds, mate!"
posted by Paragon at 10:01 PM on February 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

I do not know French, but they have a saying that comes in response to being asked if you want (more) wine. It translates to "fill it no higher than the top"... A funny way to seem modest and request a "small" amount while still asking to fill'er up...
posted by milqman at 10:01 PM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Lala salama means "sleep peacefully" in Swahili. It may more accurately/literally mean sleep well, but my friend who lived in Tanzania was told by the people he lived with that it was meant to convey peace in your sleep. Its also really calming to pronounce.
posted by fuzzysoft at 10:21 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Even monkeys fall from trees. (Even experts mess up once in a while.)
posted by KokuRyu at 10:33 PM on February 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've always liked Spanish sayings:

Darle la vuelta a la tortilla - Spanish, lit. to flip the omelette, meaning to completely change your view on something, kind of akin to the English to turn the tables.

Mi media naranja - Spanish, lit. my orange half, also said as la otra mitad de la naranja, lit. the other half of the orange. Meaning my better half, my soul mate.

Como agua para chocolate - Spanish, lit. like water for chocolate, made famous by a book and later movie by the same name, is an idiom for being hot, angry, the temperature that water must be to melt chocolate.

This site also has a list of many more that I haven't heard of, broken down alphabetically. I may start using to consult with your pillow (consultarlo con la almohada), and there are so many more...
posted by vegartanipla at 11:22 PM on February 7, 2012

Probably should have also mentioned that site, Language Realm, isn't just for Spanish idioms - it has multiple languages represented and makes distinctions between idioms, proverbs, and slang. Here's a link to their main page which includes Japanese, Spanish, French, German, and more.
posted by vegartanipla at 11:29 PM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

One for all yall who still need to write Valentine's Day greeting cards:

白头到老 - Literally, it means "white hair until old." Essentially: let's live together until our hair turns white. There's all sorts of really allusive Chinese idioms (or chengyu, four character sayings), but I like how obvious this one is. No need to consult the Analects to figure this one out.

Here's a cheesy but wonderful music video to go with it.
posted by jng at 11:47 PM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Japanese: 呉越同舟 / goetsudoushuu: bitter enemies stuck by chance together in the same boat. In a "suck it up and row together" way.
posted by nicebookrack at 12:22 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

According to a book I came across some years ago, someone suffering from depression in Tuscany is sometimes referred to as "Sotto una cappa del piombo" or under a hood of lead. I've often thought that it was such a very apt description of the feeling.
posted by ninazer0 at 1:01 AM on February 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't know how common this is elsewhere, but apparently saying "we're buying a house" is euphemism here in Singapore for "I just got engaged to my SO" Because, in socialist, highly regulated Singapore, only married couples may buy subsidized housing.

Likewise, I've been told "buying milk powder" is euphemism for "we're having a baby".
posted by the cydonian at 2:50 AM on February 8, 2012

There's an Icelandic saying that goes: Að pissa í skóinn er skammgóður vermir. That translates to: Pissing in your shoe won't keep you warm for long. The meaning is roughly: A short-term solution to a longer-term problem will only compound your troubles.
posted by Kattullus at 4:27 AM on February 8, 2012 [9 favorites]

I don't know whether people in France itself use this phrase, but a Burkinabé friend of mine would always use the phrase "arroser l'amitié" to describe when we would split a beer; it means "to water the friendship." He also had a phrase he tried to teach me in Mooré that I don't remember how to say, but its translation is "If I have even only a peanut shell full of water, then I have enough to share with you." (Giving people water is a Thing here.)
posted by solotoro at 5:08 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Isak Dinesen once wrote, "the cure for everything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea." I don't know if that is a proverb but if not it should be.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:06 AM on February 8, 2012 [6 favorites]

nach mir die Sintflut. German

Roughly translated as "after me the deluge"

Roughly interpreted as: let the coming generations clean up our mess, or it does not matter what we do, we won't be around to bear the consequences of our decisions. Overall it conveys a reckless, self-centered, cavalier and irresponsible posture towards present day actions and future effects.
posted by space_cookie at 6:28 AM on February 8, 2012

"Don't shout hello until you've jumped across the stream." I was told it was a Finnish expression and I like it so much better than than don't count your chickens.

I am also partial to the whole Australian "No Worries." as a response to well anything.

Can you have that by Friday? "No worries." It just sums up a whole attitude of a country in 2 words.

Oh and a very old Australian curse. "May all your chooks turn into emus and kick your dunny down." (chooks - chickens, dunny = outhouse)
posted by wwax at 7:33 AM on February 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have always liked the the Spanish phrase for "to sleep on it": consultar con la almohada or "to consult with the pillow" By the same token, I enjoy the French for "Let's get back to business": revenons à nos moutons, or "let's get back to our sheep." It conjures the image of two shepherds, deep in discussion, who belatedly notice they have wandered far from their flock.

Another French phrase that comes to mind is a warning not to hurry needlessly. I have only heard it once or twice so I will doubtless botch it if I attempt to reproduce it, but it translates as "we all get to Christmas at the same time." I have only ever heard it in French Canada, so it's possible it may be a Quebecois thing.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:05 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

space_cookie: nach mir die Sintflut. German

In French it is "après moi, le déluge," and it's usually attributed to Louis XV. This sentiment has deep roots in western civilization, which blogger Gabriel Laguna traces here.
posted by Kattullus at 9:31 AM on February 8, 2012

In Kannada:
Kan toothu: when something is so bright/gaudy/colourful/garish that it makes a 'hole in the eye'
Kannige habba: When something is so (visually) beautiful, that it is described as a 'festival for the eyes'
Huchara sante: A fair (like a village fair) for (and filled with) mad people.
posted by dhruva at 9:41 AM on February 8, 2012

"Não vem que não tem", is a Brazilian Portuguese idiom that literally translates as "Don't come, nothing here". It's a rather nifty little way of telling someone cutely, "Don't even bother asking me for something because I can tell you right now you ain't gonna get it."

I use that one on my seven year old niece quite a bit.
posted by msali at 5:37 PM on February 8, 2012

French Canadian/ French:

Plus ça passe, et plus c'est pareil. (The more time goes by, the more things are the same.)

On the funny side, and very québécois: "T'as de l'eau dans cale." (Your pants are too short. Literaly: there's water in your basement.")
not a saying per-se but I think "À perte de vue." (Not seeing the limit of something you're looking at, going on forever, never-ending. Literaly: To the point of losing sight.) is very poetic.
posted by kitsuloukos at 6:15 PM on February 8, 2012

A German term for a hangover is katzenjammer, which translates to "the wailing of the cats".
posted by dephlogisticated at 8:32 PM on February 8, 2012

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