When in Rome: Idioms based on countries and nationalities

It’s impossible to live in a country like Luxembourg and not let its multiculturalism sweep you off your feet. With foreign nationals making up an astounding 46% of the country’s total population, it isn’t uncommon to meet people from all over the world on a single night out. Conversations often start with “Where are you from?” and quickly turn into a meaningful exchange about countries, food, and, of course, languages. As a translator and language enthusiast myself, I figured: when in Rome (i.e. Luxembourg), be Roman, right? Aided by friends and the lovely people from the Facebook group Luxembourg Expats, I was able to compile an interesting assortment of idioms that refer to other countries, languages and cultures. It went to show that, regardless of our many differences, we all have one thing in common: a tendency to have things to say about our neighbours!

Idioms: A Linguistic Age of Empires

Since we’re on the topic of idioms inspired by other countries, the widespread use of the expression ‘all roads lead to Rome’ (present in Czech, Estonian, English, French, Italian, Latvian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian and Swedish) is one vestige among many left by the Roman Empire and its expansion over the span of about 500 years (31 BCE – 476 CE).

The same can be said of the idiom ‘to smoke like a Turk’. The expression is found in Slovenian, Dutch, Croatian, Romanian, Macedonian, Luxembourgish and Italian. It goes to show the influence and breadth of the Ottoman Empire, which spanned more than 600 years and only came to an end in 1922. It is more common to find this idiom in the Balkans, Greece and most of Eastern Europe than in countries like Spain, Portugal or the United Kingdom.

Three national stereotypes walk into a bar

Moving from history to the lighter subject of love and romance, it comes as no surprise that the French lead the way in nationality-based idioms. A kiss with tongue is a ‘French kiss’, not just in English but also Spanish (‘beso francés’) and Estonian (‘prantsuse suudlus’). However, if the topic is men with jaw-dropping good looks, the Italians say he is a ‘statua greca’ (a Greek statue), while the Estonians and the Portuguese kick it up a notch by using the term ‘a Greek god’ (‘kreeka jumal’ and ‘deus grego’, respectively).

But remember: if the cute Polish Adonis you are flirting with at the bar is acting aloof and is unresponsive to your advances, he may only be ‘pretending to be Greek’ (‘udawać Greka’), or, in other words, acting like he doesn’t know what you’re on about. Incidentally, in Croatia and Montenegro they would say he was pretending to be English (‘praviti se Englez’), while in Slovenia he’d be acting like a Frenchman (‘narediti se Francoza’).

If all else fails, forget him and take Napoleon’s advice: get ‘drunk like a Pole’ (‘soul comme un polonais’), pick up what’s left of your broken dignity and go home. It’s okay; we’ve all been there. No one will think less of you if you ‘take French leave’ (to leave without saying goodbye), an expression also found in Portuguese and Spanish (‘sair à francesa’ and ‘irse a la francesa’, respectively). If you run into a German, however, she might argue that this attitude is more Polish than anything (‘einen polnischen machen’, literally ‘to make a Polish one’), only to be immediately interrupted by her affronted Polish colleague, who will insist this particular trait is attributed to the English (‘wyjść po angielsku’, or ‘to take English leave’), an opinion shared by the French (‘filer à l’anglaise’) and the Russians (‘Уйти по-английски’). Good luck staying ‘as calm as a Belgian’ (or, as the Latvians would put it, ‘ramus kaip belgas’, meaning a very calm person) while constantly being stopped on your way out the door.

If an Italian bartender runs after you, angrily pointing out that you are ‘acting Portuguese’ (‘fare il portoghese’), it means that you forgot to pay for service at the bar. And because you are clearly out of luck, as you go back inside to pay, a man who is drunk out of his wits approaches you, asking something you don’t understand because he is ‘speaking English like a Spanish cow’ (in French, ‘parler anglais comme une vache espagnole’, to speak English very badly). Feeling as if you are in a ‘Czech film’ (or as the Polish say, ‘czeski film’, a situation or event that is really confusing), you back away slowly and leave, hoping that by morning your memory will be ‘like Swiss cheese’ (in Polish, ‘być jak szwajcarski ser’, to have holes or gaps), allowing you to forget all about your terrible, terrible night out.

United in diversity?

Admittedly, the first thought that came to mind as I posted my request for idioms on social media was that the discussion could quickly turn sour. There’s no denying that among a wide array of positive to harmless idioms, most languages are rife with expressions based on negative stereotypes about neighbouring countries. After all, countries fight each other, compete and wage wars, and that too has linguistic ramifications.

In fact, a sense of mutual misunderstanding walks hand in hand with the act of bridging the gap between nations. Whether you say that ‘it’s Chinese’ to you‘ (as do the French, Portuguese, Spanish, Lithuanians, Russians, Hungarians and the Finnish), or that ‘it’s Greek’ (as do the Polish, English or the Dutch), or even that ‘it sounds like Spanish’ (German, Czech, Croatian), sometimes what you consider ‘foreign’ makes you feel threatened, condescending, hesitant. You might not have a clue what to say (or, as the Danish say, ‘det er en by i Rusland’: ‘that is a town in Russia’, when you don’t have a clue about a topic) or even know how to approach the big unknown that another nation represents.

I was, however, pleasantly surprised to see that the comment section below my potentially controversial question was full of kind and insightful words rather than contemptuous ones. Participants were willing to share and learn more about how fellow countries perceive them; they were curious, humorous even. In our Golden Age of information and globalisation, providing a space for this kind of dialogue to flourish is hardly akin to ‘building castles in Spain’ (in French, ‘construire des châteaux en Espagne’, when something is too ambitious and impossible to accomplish).

Bigotry, as we all know, stems from isolation and ignorance. Wouldn’t we all be ‘as happy as a pig in Palestine’ (‘hy is so gelukkig soos ‘n vark in Palestina’, an Afrikaans expression meaning extreme happiness, because, obviously, pigs will never be eaten in Palestine) if we opened ourselves to that exchange more often?

(Originally posted in The Language Room blog, in 2016)

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