An idiom a day …

I am fond of proverbs and idioms as they reveal so much about a culture and its people. Being a translator, I am particularly interested to see whether they can or cannot be translated, since it provides a glimpse into the differences and similarities of two cultures – in my case the English and the German. For some reason, I seem to have a particular affinity with idioms involving food. So here is another harvest of food-related expressions – and some of their roots.

Have you ever noticed that it is easier to share food with some people than it is with others? If someone is not easy to get along or deal with, you would say in German: you don’t want to eat cherries with him! (Mit dem ist nicht gut Kirschen essen.) This German saying goes back to the Middle Ages, when cherries were very expensive and only wealthy people could afford to eat them. If they noticed any uninvited, less well-off bystanders joining in the cherry-eating feast, they would humiliate and chase them away by spitting cherry stones at them. Charming.

At the other end of the price scale, we have food-related expressions on both sides of the Channel: something that is cheap as chips in English only costs an apple and an egg (‘n Appel und ‘n Ei) in German. Speaking of apples – someone or something that we treasure is the apple of my eye (mein Augapfel) in both languages too. This expression stems from an Old English text that describes the pupil of the eye as an apple because of its round shape and presumably also because both the fruit and good eyesight were highly valued. Oh, and the word ‘pupil’, which is of Latin origin, did not yet exist in the English language at the time.

One of my favourite English idioms is the nonchalant expression cool as a cucumber. You would get some funny looks, though, if you would try to use this literally translated into German – not so cool in Cologne. Staying with salad ingredients: if you don’t see what is right in front of you, the Germans would say that you have tomatoes in both eyes (Tomaten auf den Augen), whereas in English we would probably declare that person to be blind as a bat (which, to be fair, is on the menu in some places too). Apparently, the figurative tomatoes derive from the bloodshot red eyes of someone who is tired and therefore not able to see properly.

One of my favourite German expressions is the rather comical Rhabarberohren: someone straining his ear to listen to what someone else is saying, even if it is not intended for him, is growing ‘rhubarb ears’. In English we would rather say that someone’s ears are flapping, without any culinary connotation. I like the mental picture of the two combined.

It is only natural, I suppose, that food-related phrases are popular in both languages. Something as fundamental as food and drink will always be talked about and used for reference. Who knows what we will come up with next?

Do you have any favourite food-related idioms and expressions?