"Horse-Horse-Tiger-Tiger"

From: https://www.writtenchinese.com/10-useful-chinese-chengyu-and-idioms-for-beginners/
@owlwings (39229)
Cambridge, England
May 16, 2017 6:06am CST
I was reading a discussion (by a Chinese member) about the difficulty of understanding English idioms and it occurred to me that every language, and especially Chinese, has many idioms which are difficult or impossible for people who are learning the language to understand. I once met someone whose bedtime reading was Chinese novels. Curious, I asked him if he spoke Chinese and he confessed that he couldn't speak a word of it but that he could understand the writing pretty well. That is not as impossible as it may sound because, as you perhaps know, Chinese characters represent an idea or a thing, not the way the word sounds. I was reminded of this whilst I was researching Chinese idioms and came across one which my friend might well have used if he was asked how well he understood the book he was reading. Literally translated, it means "horse-horse-tiger-tiger". Can you guess what that means? I don't think I would have done in a million years! Just looking the individual words up in a dictionary probably wouldn't have helped me at all (unless there was a note under the words for 'horse' and 'tiger' which gave the meaning of the common idiom). The corresponding English meaning is 'just so-so', 'fairly good' or 'not bad'. I have no idea how this expression might have come about but I think you'd have to know what the Chinese think of when they talk about horses and tigers. Now that I look at it (and it hadn't occurred to me before), the words "just so-so" would make just as little sense as the Chinese expression if all that you knew were the meanings of the words "just" and "so" (and you would be utterly confused if you only knew the word "just" as it is used when talking about 'justice' or a 'fair and just man'!). We all use idioms in our own languages, often without realising that they don't mean at all what the dictionary might say the individual words mean. Sometimes it is quite difficult to consciously avoid using them when I am writing for an audience who I know doesn't have English as a first language and it's not easy to think of idioms in English which might be funny or just plain puzzling to foreigners! How often have you come across these expressions? "Donkey's years" - (="a very long time") "All mouth and no trousers" - (describes someone who promises a lot but delivers little - a 'windbag' or someone who is 'full of hot air') "Pardon my French" - (used as an [ironic] apology for using rude or blasphemous language: "He needs a kick up the ass, if you'll pardon my French!) "Pigs might fly!" - (= "never". Often used to express sardonic disbelief about someone else's statement. "When I get my raise, I'm going to buy a new car!" -- "Oh yeah! And pigs might fly!" What expressions or idioms do you know in your own language (please translate them literally into English!) and can you explain why they mean what they mean? Are there expressions you've met in English which have amused or puzzled you (or still puzzle you)?
19 people like this
17 responses
@MALUSE (40148)
• Germany
16 May 17
I love using idioms in my native language and use them a lot. I may know more than other people. If I started writing them all down, the comment box would explode. I remember telling an Englishman that I didn't want to talk about a certain subject because it was 'a hot iron'. He couldn't follow, poor man. It means something you'd rather not touch. Once we had a Russian language assistant at our school. The Russian ones always had the highest level of German compared to the ones coming from England, France or Italy. Yet, idioms are one of the trickiest parts of any language. Anyways, one day, she was sitting in the classroom watching how I was teaching. I asked a pupil something. When he tried to answer, only a hoarse croaking could be heard. He cleared his throat. I asked him if he had a frog in his throat. He said, "Yes", and I asked someone else. The Russian assistant's eyes nearly popped out. A frog! And the pupil had said 'yes'! And the lesson moved on just like that! No calling the ambulance! The expression is used when you can't talk clearly because you've got some phlegm in your throat. I often had problems making my pupils understand that idiomatic expressions belong to one language and can't be translated literally. There are a few which are nearly alike in German and English but then the languages are near to each other anyway. When I marked a test and gave a pupil a mistake for the sentence, "He fell out of all clouds", he was miffed. All the words were correct, weren't they? Well, yes, but no English speaking person can understand that this means 'He was surprised'. And so on, and so on.
8 people like this
16 May 17
The frog in the throat is common over here too. It's interesting how some are used in more than one language.
3 people like this
@marlina (73884)
• Canada
22 May 17
@MALUSE, in Quebec, we say that we have a little cat in the throat insted of a frog.
2 people like this
@ramapo17 (24002)
• Melbourne, Florida
20 Apr
I have heard about the frog in the throat but not it fell out of the clouds.
1 person likes this
@LadyDuck (157411)
• Switzerland
16 May 17
"Gettare la spugna" (to throw the sponge) = to give up, to surrender (I think from box matches) "Trovare l'America" (to discover America) = to find a great place, or a great opportunity "Lavarsene le Many" (to wash hands) = not caring for something (from Pontius Pilate of course)
7 people like this
@owlwings (39229)
• Cambridge, England
16 May 17
We also have the expression "to throw in the sponge" and, of course, "to wash one's hands of the matter". I haven't heard "to discover America" but I think that if an English person used it, it would more than likely be used rather sardonically to mean that someone had gone off 'on a wild goose chase' (there's another!) or was 'reinventing the wheel' (yet another!), the reason being that people here maybe still associate America with the Gold Rush in the 19th Century where some made their fortunes but many failed.
6 people like this
@LadyDuck (157411)
• Switzerland
16 May 17
@owlwings I think that Italian associate "to find America" more to Columbus, who made a living thanks to the King of Portugal and "by accident" discovered the new world. In Italy we have not a great esteem for Mr. Cristoforo Colombo.
5 people like this
@MALUSE (40148)
• Germany
16 May 17
I like 'fumare come un Turco'= smoke like a Turk'. :-)
5 people like this
@rebelann (41279)
• El Paso, Texas
16 May 17
Holy smoly, those first 2 examples I haven't heard being used in American English, maybe because of where I live, but the other 2 are totally familiar. The last example is just a little different here in the US, I've heard "When pigs fly....." It isn't just people who are translating from a different language that have problems with idioms, I've learned there is a huge difference between British and American English, I'm currently trying to understand how it's used in the UK or Australia.
6 people like this
@owlwings (39229)
• Cambridge, England
16 May 17
'Holy smoly' is an interesting one. It seems to be a conflation of 'Holy smoke' and 'Holy moly', the first of which is probably a reference to the smoke of religious sacrifices and the second being either a dumbing down of 'Holy Moses' or of 'Holy Mary'. I have also heard 'Holy Schmoley' but whether it's a genuine Yiddish import or a mock one made up in imitation of the Yiddish accent, I have no idea! There is also "When Hell freezes over!". This can be ironic if you live in Michigan where there is a very small town called Hell which really does freeze over in cold winters!
7 people like this
@rebelann (41279)
• El Paso, Texas
17 May 17
I'll have to ask a friend of mine if she's ever visited Hell @owlwings she lives in Lansing MI.
3 people like this
@Fleura (7191)
• United Kingdom
17 May 17
@owlwings @rebelann There's a Hell in Norway too, I visited it many years ago when inter-railing (remember that??)
3 people like this
@GardenGerty (99323)
• United States
16 May 17
How about "sleep like a baby" which is supposed to mean a deep and relaxed untroubled sleep, but that is not how may babies slept.
5 people like this
@owlwings (39229)
• Cambridge, England
16 May 17
I often wonder, too, why people say they "slept like a log". It seems to me that waking up stiff and wooden and slightly damp would not be the nicest of experiences! When my children were younger a baby-sitter who was becoming exasperated with one who couldn't settle, remarked "Why don't you lie on the edge of the bed? You'll soon drop off!". I was told that she was so puzzled that she was quiet for the rest of the evening trying to work out what it meant and soon fell asleep!
4 people like this
@Fleura (7191)
• United Kingdom
17 May 17
@GardenGerty I could never understand that either, since most parents seem to spend their entire time trying to get their babies to sleep. But since having my own I now understand... they won't go to sleep when you want them to, but once they are asleep they cab sleep through anything if they want to!
1 person likes this
@BarBaraPrz (19846)
• St. Catharines, Ontario
21 Oct
@Fleura And they look so peacful... not a care in the world. Maybe that's what it really means to sleep like a baby.
1 person likes this
@shebish (791)
• Egypt
16 May 17
Interesting post,as I am English all I will say is I would of understood horse,horse,tiger,tiger, to mean get out fast there`s trouble heading this way or get a move on.
4 people like this
@owlwings (39229)
• Cambridge, England
16 May 17
Yes, very good! I might have thought of that meaning, too, but I guess that it would depend on the context!
3 people like this
@inter4 (323)
• Nanjing, China
16 May 17
@owlwings That phrase means just-so-so and not bad no matter the context.
2 people like this
@shebish (791)
• Egypt
16 May 17
@owlwings So true .
1 person likes this
@MALUSE (40148)
• Germany
16 May 17
The horse looks very much like a pig to me. :-)
4 people like this
@owlwings (39229)
• Cambridge, England
16 May 17
I couldn't tell what kind of animal it was meant to be. Maybe a wild boar without the tusks?
2 people like this
@MALUSE (40148)
• Germany
16 May 17
@owlwings In case it is a wild boar, it's still not a horse!
2 people like this
@celticeagle (118255)
• Boise, Idaho
16 May 17
I like the "Pigs might fly!" one. Can't think of any.
4 people like this
@Fleura (7191)
• United Kingdom
16 May 17
We have loads from different sources don't we? And for many people who use these idioms, the original meaning is completely lost. Some of my favourites are the many that come from sailing days, such as to be 'three sheets to the wind' (meaning drunk; originally meaning that you have lost control of the ropes in stormy weather), 'money for old rope' (meaning to get easy money for doing nothing much; originally because people did collect old rope and sell it for caulking boats), to be 'scuppered' (meaning that you are stuck in some sort of trouble; originally meaning that your boat had sunk so low in the water that water was coming in through the scuppers - the holes that are meant to let water out when a big wave washes over the deck)... there are loads more in the same vein. One of the things I find most confusing though is not an idiom but a seemingly simple word - 'quite'. It has taken me a long time to realise that British speakers, American English speakers and other foreign speakers of English use this in the same way but may not mean the same, and it's hard to explain because even in English it has different meanings, even in the same phrase. For example if you see a play and you say it was 'quite good!' you may mean it was very good and probably better than expected, but if you say it was 'quite good' you may mean it wasn't terrible, but it wasn't great either, and it's all in the way it's said!
3 people like this
@owlwings (39229)
• Cambridge, England
17 May 17
Some brilliant nautical ones. Thank you! There's also 'turn turtle' and not having a drink until 'the sun is over the yardarm' (to me it seems that that depends very much on where you are standing on the ship and what season of the year it is but, apparently, it is supposed to coincide with the noonday 'stand down' when officers would retire to the officers' mess for the first tot of rum of the day). The way one says 'quite good' is very important, too. If it is said with a slight emphasis on the 'quite' (and with various tones, rising or falling, on the 'good') it indicates several different shades of mediocrity but when the emphasis is slightly on the 'good' (with a falling tone on the 'good') it indicates that it was better than you expected. Just the word 'Quite' on it's own would likely cause some confusion because, as a response to a statement, it indicates more or less complete agreement!
2 people like this
@Fleura (7191)
• United Kingdom
17 May 17
@owlwings How do you explain that to someone learning English? For years I have been asked to evaluate documents for a Japanese company and one of the categories is 'quite good'; it's only recently that I have realised that they probably don't mean what I think they mean!
1 person likes this
@MALUSE (40148)
• Germany
17 May 17
I've only ever understood 'quite good' as 'not bad, but not brilliant'. The German translation only has this meaning.
2 people like this
@JudyEv (123167)
• Bunbury, Australia
17 May 17
Since being on myLot I am much more aware of idioms and my writing is often riddled with them. It is really hard for me to submit a post that doesn't have at least a few idiomatic expressions.
3 people like this
@owlwings (39229)
• Cambridge, England
17 May 17
I sometimes include oddities out of naughtiness (mostly) but I'm always ready to explain them if people ask!
2 people like this
@JudyEv (123167)
• Bunbury, Australia
18 May 17
@owlwings I'm never quite sure which ones to explain. Some that I think would be commonplace turn out to be unknown to many.
1 person likes this
@owlwings (39229)
• Cambridge, England
18 May 17
@JudyEv I would hope that people would ask if they are not clear, though not everyone does, I suppose.
1 person likes this
@YrNemo (12657)
16 May 17
I feel sorry for the French! (re: Pardon my French)
3 people like this
@YrNemo (12657)
17 May 17
@owlwings Thanks for the above.
2 people like this
@BarBaraPrz (19846)
• St. Catharines, Ontario
21 Oct
The Quebecois say "pardon my English"...
2 people like this
@inter4 (323)
• Nanjing, China
16 May 17
"yi ma ping chuan" it's original mean is a vast plain. But since the meeting between Jack Ma and President Trump, we use this idiom to represent that Jack Ma pacified Trump. In China, we call trump "chuan pu"
3 people like this
@owlwings (39229)
• Cambridge, England
16 May 17
I understand (i don't know how good my sources are) that "chuan pu" refers to the sort of Mandarin which someone from Sichuan speaks so that we might render that in English as "funny accent". I have heard that foreigners who ask for their name to be rendered in Chinese can sometimes be unaware that the characters which they may proudly display as a neclace or some other jewellery are sometimes very uncomplimentary!
2 people like this
@inter4 (323)
• Nanjing, China
16 May 17
@owlwings Do you have a Chinese name?
2 people like this
@dpk262006 (56170)
• Delhi, India
16 May 17
Your post makes an interesting reading. All mouth and no trousers idiom has equivalent in Hindi - "Napna 100 gaz aur phadna 1 gaz." If translated it would mean - When you measure a big piece of cloth, you measure 100 yards and when cutting the piece from the big lot, you just cut one yard of it. Its meaning is - some people make tall promises but when the time comes, they do not deliver, what they promise.
3 people like this
@Sreekala (22955)
• India
16 May 17
That was a lovely reading of your post. I really enjoyed it and learnt something worth. Right now I can't recollect any idioms in my native language. I will be back when I remembers any. Thank you again for your wonderful post.
3 people like this
@Ruby3881 (2012)
• Canada
28 May 17
I can see where the meaning of the Chinese idiom comes from. It's a little like "six of one, half a dozen of the other." A little longer to write than, "Meh!" but the imagery is far better I think the idiom I probably use the most is "slower than molasses in January." I think it's fairly obvious what it means, as long as one knows it's cold in January in much of the Northern Hemisphere.
2 people like this
@youless (91498)
• Guangzhou, China
17 May 17
There are also many Chinese idioms come from ancient Chinese stories. So you may understand it well when you heard about the story. I can understand it is very difficult for foreigners to guess its meaning. I think it is the same for me to some English. I know each word but I just can't guess its meaning
2 people like this
@Chantiele (440)
• Johannesburg, South Africa
21 Oct
This is an interesting conversation. I am from South Africa and although we have 11 Official Languages I can only speak two. That is English and Afrikaans. So I will leave you a few in Afrikaans. (Dis Ver Bo My Vuurmaak Plek) Direct Translation (Its Above My Fireplace) Which does not make sense. Correct translation. It is way above my level of understanding. (Geen kat se kans hĂȘ nie) Direct Translation (No Cat Has A Chance) Properly Translated. There is absolutely No Chance. (Die lakens uitdeel) Direct Translation (Giving Sheets Out) Properly Translated. Playing The Boss
1 person likes this
@owlwings (39229)
• Cambridge, England
21 Oct
Three very colourful expressions. I especially like 'Die lakens uitdeel'. I know people who do that, almost literally! The first would confuse an Englander. If something is 'over the fireplace' here, it usually means that it has pride of place on the mantelshelf! Now I am idly wondering why, in Africaans, you call it the 'place where you make fire' but in English the making seems to be of no consequence. Perhaps, England being a cold country, the fire is always kept burning, day and night, year round!
2 people like this
• Johannesburg, South Africa
21 Oct
@owlwings The fireplace only burns when it gets very cold. However, here in South Africa it hardly gets used. I think the braai gets used more here. A Braai is something similar to a BBQ.
1 person likes this
@BarBaraPrz (19846)
• St. Catharines, Ontario
21 Oct
"Sleep like a log" -- Logs don't move, so I guess it really means to sleep heavily without tossing and turning. "Logging zeds" -- Canadian idiom, means sleeping. "Sawing logs" -- snoring, but I didn't during the past hour it took me to get through this interesting post!
1 person likes this