Traveling Translation: Idioms And Slang

imgresSometimes there’s nothing more surprisingly embarrassing than explaining what you would consider to be a commonly used word or phrase to someone who’s never before heard it in their life. I run into this all the time with my Vienna friends who are wanting to improve their English, and yet I still feel both embarrassed and amused when we run into a translation issue. This mainly happens with slang words and idioms, of course. I do my best to steer clear of those as I never want to mess up anyone who’s trying to learn English, but every now and again a “y’all” or “whatcha” slips out. Then our conversation takes a brief pause while I attempt to explain the weird sounding noise my mouth just made and why. I said “y’all” because I’m from the South and we’re too lazy to say “you all” so we shove ’em together to make one word. And then I have to explain why I just accidentally said “’em” instead of “them”. It gets tricky.

But sometimes it’s not all me. A few of my friends take English classes and afterwards bring me their classwork so they can ask questions. Almost every worksheet I’ve looked at includes some sort American idioms list which can be potentially helpful, but I feel like these lists do more humorous harm than good when there are no explanations of the idioms provided. For example, the first idiom I ever explained to someone when helping with their homework was “muffin top”. Used in a sentence, I think the worksheet said, “She’s always got an obvious muffin top.” That’s no help. My friend thought perhaps this idiom was referring to a hair style which was a really good guess in my opinion. But as good of a guess as it was, I couldn’t let her go back to the U. S. complimenting women’s muffin top-style hairdos, so I quickly explained the actual meaning of muffin top. She was very surprised by its actual meaning and laughed a lot, and then we moved on to the “birds and the bees” list of idioms her teacher had given her to learn and my face was most definitely red the entire rest of our meeting.

Photo credit: Rod Anderson
Photo credit: Rod Anderson

Another instance of embarrassment was during a walk in the city. I can’t remember what my friend and I were discussing, but for some reason I used “chicken” to describe someone. She had never heard of someone being a chicken before, because why would anyone be a chicken? This had never occurred to me – why we call people chickens when they’re scared:

Me: Huh. Umm… I dunno, actually. I mean people who are scared to do something – we just call em’ chickens. Like if you were too scared to talk to a boy, I could use that moment to call you a chicken. And if I really wanted to pressure you to talk to him, I’d start… (embarrassment hitting… now) err… clucking. Like a chicken. 

Friend: So… you act like a chicken to tell a person they are a chicken?

Me: …. Yes? 

Friend: That is strange.

Me: Yes I’m realizing that now. thank-you-chicken The latest word I’ve had to explain to someone is “selfie” which was personally unenjoyable as it is purposefully nowhere in my vocabulary. Though I’ve just read we can all blame thank our Australian friends for the existence of this word.

In your time abroad, have you encountered something like this? Which phrase or word did you find yourself explaining?

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  1. The muffin top hair styles completely made me laugh, although there is a very distinct hairstyle that’s fashionable here, kind of half shaved off, the other side long and usually in a bob. I think that deserves a name! Being lost in translation can be funny can’t it? 😀

    1. Author

      That sounds like a sweet hairdo. Yes, translation mixups are funny (until I’m the one making the faux pas).

  2. I had no idea “selfie” was one of ours, although now you say it it does sound a bit like something we’d make up.

    I seem to recall it meant something different when I was in high school… or maybe that was just my high school…

    1. Author

      Yeah! It was apparently first said in 2002 but didn’t take off until 2012. I had no idea that “selfie” had such a history.

  3. Hahaha, this is too funny, but a problem I know too well. I definitely had to explain idioms and weird slang to friends and my boyfriend too on an almost constant basis. I don’t mind, but it does make you pause and think about how weird English is sometimes. The worse was when we played Cards Against Humanity. There were some things even I didn’t know! So now my friends have a very colourful vocabulary. Thanks for linking up to the #SundayTraveler again.

    1. Author

      Haha a “colorful” vocabulary. Some of the idioms on these homework sheets sound nuts and I’ve never used them before in my life so I don’t know how to define them. I just tell my friends to avoid them just to be safe. I love #SundayTraveler!

  4. Great post Holly! Chicken! Ha ha! Never thought about that one. I did hear selfie on Ö3 the other day though. I am so glad you started linking up here too!

  5. Funny post! I love languages and find the situations like this very amusing. In Croatia we call somebody a chicken (or more a hen) if a person talks too much and nothing really smart.

    1. Author

      I think Croatia’s use of chicken makes more sense. Thanks for reading!

  6. Very funny post! I’m a Texan living in Malaysia and say “y’all” constantly. I think that the next time someone comments on my muffin top, I will just assume they are talking about the incredible volume of my usually flat hair. I once tried to explain “There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” to a Chinese person. He was wondering 1) why we would skin a cat; and 2) why are multiple ways required.

    1. Author

      That’s hilarious. Yet another idiom I’ve never thought about. Thanks for reading!

  7. This is hilarious! Sometimes we use so many common phrases that would be difficult for someone that’s learning the language to understand. I probably use so many without even thinking about it!

    1. Author

      The confused look on people’s faces is what lets me know I’ve said something seemingly bizarre. Thanks for reading, Lauren!

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