• Jack

Take a Stab at These Idioms

Think about how many idiomatic expressions you use in a day. These are the types of phrases that cannot be taken literally and are used to convey something that the words alone don't actually say.

In English, you might say something like, "I'm killing two birds with one stone," or "I'm feeling a bit under the weather." I've never literally killed a bird with a stone. And aren't we always under the current weather conditions? If you were not a native English speaker, these things would require someone to explain what they meant. How would you explain why you call it a "wild goose chase" or why you just said there was an "elephant in the room"? (Animals tend to come up often in these types of expressions.)

But every language has them. Frequently, they are used to discuss topics that may otherwise be sensitive, such as death, love, or even just awkwardness in general. We all know creative phrases for death like "kicked the bucket" or "pushing up daisies." While we probably don't use those in everyday conversation, this is the reason that saying someone "passed away" is a gentler way to talk about death than just saying "he died." And those nuances are really hard to get right in a second language!

Often there are equivalent expressions in different languages for the same meaning, but the words don't match at all! For instance, in English, if you are talking about someone, and they walk in the room you might say, "Speak of the devil!" But in French, you would say "Quand on parle du loup..." (When you speak of the wolf...). And in Spanish, the phrase is "Hablando del Rey de Roma." (Speaking of the King of Rome).

You can imagine the implications for how translation works. Often, a sentence in one language is trying to convey a certain meaning that would be lost if we just translated it word-for-word. If we translated "It's raining cats and dogs" into another language, the speakers of that language would give you some strange looks.

Or worse yet, what if the same idiom can mean two different things? This can affect how people understand the Bible. Luke 2:51 says, "...his mother kept all these things in her heart." In the Kilba language in Nigeria, this would mean that she was holding a grudge! So for this translation project, the intent of the idiom was kept but not the words. It was translated, "His mother went on thinking about these things." (Katharine Barnwell, 1986) Translating idioms is no simple task, but these things are a part of really immersing yourself and the Bible in someone else's language.

And so, we had some fun in class this past week learning some French "expressions idiomatiques". These kinds of things will help us get to a new level of conversational French, and they also happen to be really fun.

See how many of these expressions you can guess! (Answers will be at the end, but you'll be able to see all the answers, so try to guess them all before you look!)


1. French: Poser un lapin

English: To pose a rabbit

a: to be caught unaware in a picture

b: to stand someone up for a date


2. French: Ne vendez pas la peau de l'ours avant de l'avoir tué

English: Don't sell the bearskin before you've killed it

a: don't put all your eggs in one basket (another idiom!)

b: don't believe that something is certain until it happens


3. French: Un temps de chien

English: A time of a dog

a: really good weather

b: really bad weather


4. French: Se faire un sang d'encre

English: To turn your blood to ink

a: to make an oath with someone

b: to be worried sick


5. French: Connu comme le loup blanc

English: Known like the white wolf

a: incredibly misunderstood

b: very well-known


6. French: Monter sur ses grands chevaux

English: To get on your big horses

a: to brag and look down on others

b: to get worked up about something


7. French: Avoir le coeur sur la main

English: To have the heart in the hand

a: to manipulate someone

b: to be very generous


8. French: Essayer de noyer le poisson

English: To try to drown the fish

a: to make futile attempts at something

b: to anger or confuse someone


9. French: Quand les poules auront des dents

English: When chickens have teeth

a: very, very soon

b: when pigs fly (another idiom!) - never


10. French: Balayer devant sa porte

English: To sweep in front of your door

a: to be anxious to leave

b: to worry about your own problems

Some of those sound pretty crazy to us as English speakers, but phrases that sound totally normal to us would seem just as bizarre to speakers of any other language. These become a part of the identity of a language and can make you sound much more like a native speaker...if you use them right!

We're continuing to enjoy language learning (as you can probably tell). We all feel like we're understanding more and more of what's going on around us and are able to participate in conversations. This week, Lindsay and I will be serving on the worship team at church, so that brings a whole new level of language use that we're excited to explore.

We are thankful for your continued prayers and encouragement on this journey. God has given us a great team behind us and we are grateful for each one of you.

(the answer to all the idioms is 'b')

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