The euphemisms of Europe

One of the interesting linguistic ways of giving color to the variety of cultures that are the very essence of Europe is to compare and contrast their idioms.

Sometimes idioms come in handy. Especially when it comes to tricky subjects and then we often resort to euphemisms to gloss things over. Nothing is more taboo than the subject of death. In English we talk of kicking the bucket, popping our clogs, pushing up the daisies, biting the dust or turning up our toes. However, often this final act of the body is also something that people prefer not to confront directly in other European languages. They have equally highly inventive euphemisms. Especially the French with sucrer les fraises (to sugar the strawberries); passer l’arme à gauche (to pass the firearm to the left) and, best of all, avaler son bulletin de naissance (to swallow one’s birth certificate).

Typically commenting on the weather requires, if not euphemisms, then certainly colorful language. Rain is essential, but most of us complain about it and when it “rains cats and dogs” we have every reason. The phrase dates from at least the middle of the seventeenth century and implies that in the severest of rainfalls one can expect every possible thing to fall out of the sky. In old Norse weather lore, the cat is associated with storms and the dog with the wind, and although one of these weather elements is usually accompanied by the other, cats and dogs certainly do not fall out of the sky, though fish and frogs have done so on many occasions in different countries. Dismissing the many tales in folklore about this, more scientific explanations suggest that fish and frogs can be lifted by waterspouts that then deposit them some distance away. There are many instances when fish and frogs have fallen in heavy rainstorms in gardens. For the Czechs it’s padají trakaře (raining wheelbarrows); for the Danes det regner skomagerdrenge (it’s raining shoemakers’ apprentices); it rains pipestems for the Dutch; chair legs for the Greeks; while in Spanish it’s estan lloviendo hasta maridos (it’s even raining husbands).

Likewise imaginative solutions are sought to describe another of the unenviable but well-known situations “between the devil and the deep blue sea.” This comes from being faced with a dilemma, or two dangers of equal peril. The phrase comes from classical Greek mythology and refers to the treacherous waters near the narrow Straits of Messina, between Sicily and Italy, through which the galleys of Odysseus had to pass. On one side, there was the dreaded sea-monster Scylla whose six heads were capable of reaching out from her cave and seizing six crew members at a time from the decks. On the other side, there was the terrifying cliff of Charybdis on which another fearful monster lived. The latter monster sucked in the sea and then poured it out in a giant whirlpool, three times a day, hurling ships and crews to ruin, from which there was no escape. The Portuguese are entre a espada e a parede (between the sword and the wall); the Russians between hammer and anvil (byt mezhdu molotom i nakovalnyei), while the somewhat more prosaic Dutch say tussen twee vuren staan (between two fires).

As for the troublesome subject of what to wear! To be dressed “up to the nines” means to be dressed elaborately. In its other sense, it can refer to having a great deal of work on hand while getting as close as possible to perfection. In former times, the nines alluded to classical scholars seeking this perfection through learning — represented by the nine muses of Greek and Roman mythology. Of the nine muses, Calliope was the muse of epic poetry, Clio of history, Erato of love poetry, Euterpe of music, Melpomene of tragedy, Polyhymnia of sacred poetry, Terpsichore of dance, Thalia of comedy and Urania of astronomy.

In these days of intense email use, it seems amazing that there is still no official name for @. It is generally called “the at symbol.” Other languages have come up with all kinds of mostly animalistic nicknames. Polish calls it małpa, meaning monkey, German (Klammeraffe) clinging monkey and Dutch (apestaartje) little monkey’s tail. The Finns and Swedes may see it as a cat curled up with its tail. Swedish has kattsvans and Finnish has at least three names for this idea: kissanhäntä (cat tail), miaumerkki (meow sign) and miukumauku, which means something like “meow-meow.” In French, Hebrew and Italian it can be a snail. In Turkish and Arabic it’s an ear, in Swedish it can also be an elephant’s ear (elefantora) and in Danish it is an elephant-style trunk (snabel-a).

Europe is historically rich in neighborly comparisons. When the English can’t understand someone’s English they call it Double Dutch, while the Danes call a gray cloudy day Swedish Sunshine. Everyone misunderstands each other all the time. It’s interesting to discover that the English idiom “it’s all Greek to me” has counterparts throughout the languages of Europe. To the Germans it’s Spanish, to the Spanish and Hungarians it’s Chinese, to the French it’s Hebrew, to the Poles it’s a Turkish sermon. And there are more elaborate examples with je to pro mne španělská vesnice (Czech for “it’s a Spanish village to me”); das sind böhmische Dörfer für mich (the German for “it is all Bohemian villages to me”) and ich verstehe nur Bahnhof (another German idiom meaning “I only understand station”).

In the Czech language they describe the people from outside their country in intriguing caricature. Originally all foreigners were called Němec (from the adjective němý meaning mute); now the suggestion that outsiders are deprived of speech applies specifically to Germans, whose country is known as Německo. Hungary in Czech used to be Uhersko, and a Hungarian Uher, literally “a pimple.”

The Italians, meanwhile, are called makaróni for obvious reasons, while Australians are known as protinožcí, “legs placed in an opposite direction,” as they would be on the other side of the globe. Other cheerfully frank generalizations include: opilý jako Dán, to be as drunk as a Dane; zmizet po anglicku, to disappear like an Englishman; and when the Czechs really don’t understand something, je to pro mně španělská vesnice — it’s all a Spanish village to me.

Relatively self-explanatory is “carrying coals to Newcastle” given that the city in the north of England is synonymous with the great center of mining in the age of the industrial revolution and Victorian commercial expansion. I like this idiom particularly as each European language finds its own equivalent and it speaks volumes about their preoccupation. So in Russian it is yezdit’ b Tulu s svoim samovarom (he’s going to Tula taking his own samovar); in Italian it is vendere ghiaccio agli eschimesi (selling ice to the Eskimos); in Spain they say echar agua al mar (to throw water into the sea) and more parochially es como llevar naranjas a Valencia (is like taking oranges to Valencia), while in Hungary they say vizet hord a Dunába (he is taking water to the Danube). Most intriguingly perhaps is the German Eulen nach Athen tragen (taking owls to Athens).

In Italy, syphilis is known as the French Pox. In France, it is known as the Italian disease, the English sickness or the Spanish gout. The Poles call it the German Disease and the Germans call it the Polish Disease. The Japanese call it the Portuguese Disease, and the Portuguese call it the Dutch Pox. The British and Spanish also blame the French, the Russians blame the Poles and the Persians are in agreement with the Japanese that the Portuguese are to blame. Mainland Greeks called it the Corinthian sickness.

As awkward as any is to make a judgment on someone’s questionable wits. Across Britain we say both as bald as and as crazy as a coot. This comes from the common coot, which is a water bird, measuring 15 to 18 inches in length, has a white bill that extends to form a conspicuous white plate on the forehead, which has given it the name of bald coot. The phrase originated in the fifteenth century and arose from this bald-headed appearance that is particularly prominent against its sooty black plumage. Coots are generally deemed to be shy birds and normally prefer quiet ponds and more isolated areas but, in the winter, they can often be seen in large numbers on lakes, reservoirs and estuaries. They tend to squabble and fly at one another for no apparent reason, which accounts for the other phrase, “as crazy as a coot,” used to describe anyone who behaves in an odd or erratic manner. I am not even going to start exemplifying the extensive range that you can no doubt imagine for offerings on sanity from the continent.