Looking Glass Language

a word bird reflects on life & language

Wordy Wednesday: idiom

PauloHere is Paulo, one of my loveliest friends. A Brazilian who came to London as a teenager and lived here for 20 years, Paulo speaks perfect English, but I have to admit that I love it when the words falling from his lips retain a flavour of his home town, Rio. Here are a few of the Brazilian / Portuguese idioms that find their way into his conversations in English:

“Caught the tram already going,” meaning to misinterpret a conversation you’ve joined mid-way through.

“Sand got inside,” refers to things going wrong, someone putting a spanner in the works (to use an English idiom), or something being really grating.

“This is too much sand for my truck,” meaning, this is more than I can cope with.

“The cows have gone to the swamp,” meaning you’re getting bogged down; you’re stuck; nothing’s progressing.

“You’re letting water in,” you’re making no sense; you’re making an idiot of yourself.

The thing with idioms is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts (that’s an idiom, too…): you can’t translate them word for word and get to the meaning, which makes them tough for non-native speakers to get their heads around (that’s another one). But I love them because they enrich the language, act as shorthand and reflect the attitudes and culture they originate from…

idiom |ˈidēəm|


1 a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g., rain cats and dogs, see the light).

• a form of expression natural to a language, person, or group of people : he had a feeling for phrase and idiom.

• the dialect of a people or part of a country.

2 a characteristic mode of expression in music or art : they were both working in a neo-Impressionist idiom.

ORIGIN late 16th cent.: from French idiome, or via late Latin from Greek idiōma ‘private property, peculiar phraseology,’ from idiousthai ‘make one’s own,’ from idios ‘own, private.’

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