All languages make use of idiomatic phrases as a regular feature, whether spoken or written, so of course whenever you set out to learn a foreign language, such as English, you will be faced with these often enigmatic expressions. They certainly give zest to sentences, and sometimes express ideas with great concision and brevity, which is fine for native speakers, yes, but their precise meanings are often difficult to discern and may produce disastrous results if used incorrectly.
It's fascinating to note, however, that there is a handful of idioms which have crossed borders and languages with little, or sometimes no, change except for the language itself. The first example of this is: “butterflies in my stomach” which is used identically to describe jittery nerves in French as: “des papillons dans le ventre”. The next example extends across three languages and concerns substantial financial loss: “I lost my shirt”, which is rendered identically in French as: “J'y ai laissé ma chemise”, and is almost the same in German: “Ich habe mein letztes Hemd”.
The next one is another animal idiom: “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, which is identical in Italian: “Un uccello in mano vale due nel cespuglio”. When we come to the French version the birds have disappeared, but it is functionally the same idiom: “Un tiens vaut mieux que deux tu l'auras”.
The final example is here in four languages and certainly exists in others. It refers to the situation in a marriage where the woman is dominant: “His wife always wears the trousers”, is the same in French: “C'est elle qui porte la culotte”, Italian:“Mia moglie porta i pantaloni sempre”, and in German: “Seine Frau trägt immer die Hose”.
What has brought these intriguing continuities about? All of these idioms refer to situations that could have happened hundreds, or even thousands of years ago, and may all have origins in Latin, which prior to English, was the most broadly spread language in common use across Europe. While travellers may have spread them to some extent, it is likely that they have been in circulation for a very long time and evolved into their differing forms in place.
Elsewhere, there is one case of an idiom which has all but died out in use by English native speakers, but which remains alive, or at least well known, in European English. This is another animal idiom whose origins have been disputed for many years and never resolved for certain, despite some plausible theories. Its departure is a sad fact as English has nothing as colourful to substitute for the wonderful: “it's raining cats and dogs”. All that's left to us that isn't vulgar is: “it's tipping down”, or “it's pouring down”, or perhaps at best “it's bucketing down”. French at least has the intriguing “il pleut des cordes” which translates as “it's raining ropes”.
By Gregory Edwards, Tutor at OISE London