6 Idioms Linguistically Identical in Afrikaans, German, English and Romanian

Because idioms can be fun, here are 6 phrases linguistically identical in Afrikaans, German, English and Romanian, with a little historical background too. How else? 🙂

1. Hit the nail on the head – as old as the Bronze Age

(AFR) Slaan die spyker op die kop
(GER) Den Nagel auf den Kopf treffen
(ENG) Hit the nail on the head
(RO) A pune punctul pe i.
Meaning: to do exactly the right thing and also to know that acting differently will cause a great deal of pain. Ouch!

The origin of the phrase ‘to hit the nail on the head

Carpentry comes to mind and thus this expression must be as old as, well, the Bronze Age – bronze nails dating to 3400 BC were discovered in Egypt.

Searching for the use of hit the nail on the head in writing, The Phrase Finder mentions a medieval text, ‘The Book of Margery Kempe’ written during the 1430s. The book is a dictation of the life and divine revelations experienced by a woman, an English Christian mystic and pilgrim, yet not a nun, and is considered to be the first autobiography in the English language.

“If I hear any more these matters repeated, I shall so smite the nail on the head that it shall shame all her supporters.”

The Book of Margery Kempe, 1430s (in modern English)

In this context, the expression ‘hit the nail on the head’ probably means to speak severely.

idioms Afrikaans German English Romanian, Hit the nail on the head - as old as the Bronze Age

2. When the cat’s away, the mice will play – in Ancient Rome

(AFR) As die kat weg is, is die muis baas.
(GER) Ist die Katze aus dem Haus, tanzen die Mäuse auf dem Tisch.
(ENG) When the cat’s away, the mice will play.
(RO) Cand pisica nu-i acasa, joaca soarecii pe masa.
Meaning: when any kind of authority is lacking, someone will always take advantage.

When the cat’s away, the mice will play – its history

When the cat’s away, the mice will play is an idiom / proverb originated from the Latin dum felis dormit, mus gaudet et exsi litantro (when the cat sleeps, the mouse leaves its hole, rejoicing). The idiom was also encountered in 14th century France, ou chat na rat regne (‘Where there is no cat, the rat is king’). Surely, at any time throughout history it was observed that without moral standards, chaos ruled.

idioms Afrikaans German English Romanian. When the cat’s away, the mice will play - in Ancient Rome

3. Take the bull by the horns – in Ancient Greece

(AFR) Die bul by die horings pak
(GER) Den Stier bei den Hörnern (an)packen
(ENG) Take the bull by the horns.
(RO) A lua taurul de coarne.
(SPANISH) Coger el toro por las astas
Meaning: to face a difficult situation head-on.

Take the bull by the horns – its history

As many would have guessed, the rodeo practices of West America have bulled this saying into the everyday English vocabulary. During the 18th century, wrestling steers (castrated bulls) was part of the everyday working life of American ranchers.
Yet the practice of bullfighting and cattle wrangling originated with the sixteenth-century conquistadores, the conquistadors (soldiers and explorers of 15th – 17th centuries Spanish and Portuguese Empires), and the Mexican vaqueros, cowboys.
Obviously, a cowboy of any origin would be quite handy at controlling a bull by its horns, thus the literal use of the expression ‘to take the bull by the horns’ was long in use before it gained a figurative meaning.

What I love about idioms is that they seem to have an invisible connection with literature. And I remember now The Twelve Labours of Hercules (Heracles in Greek), especially the seventh one: capturing the Cretan bull.

Thus, could the expression ‘to take the bull by the horns’ originate in 600 BC with The Labours of Hercules written by Peisander of Camirus?

idioms Afrikaans German English Romanian. Take the bull by the horns in Ancient Greece
Detail – mosaic with the Labors of Hercules, 3rd century AD, found in Liria (Valencia), now at National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid, photo Luis García for Wikimedia

4. To have someone wrapped around your (little) finger – during the Middle Ages

(AFR) Sy draai almal om haar vinger
(GER) Jemanden um den Finger wickeln
(ENG)To have someone wrapped around your (little) finger
(RO) Il are la degetul mic
Meaning: to exert total emotional control over someone, but without a lot of effort, to have someone under total control without no effort

This phrase ‘to have someone wrapped around your (little) finger’ is my favorite of these six idioms linguistically identical in Afrikaans, German, English, and Romanian – because of its origin. You see, it could originate in sewing or… falconry!

A seamstress would reel thread on her index finger, then draw out the yarn as needed in her sewing work – taking stock for later use.

In hawking, the hunter will have a leash tied to the bird’s foot. After the bird lands on their arm, the falconer would wind the leash around their little finger so the bird won’t take off again that easily.

hawking, a possible origin for the idiom 'To have someone wrapped around your (little) finger' - during the Middle Ages
Goshawk Falconry, Lord Lilford on Birds, 1903. Hutchinson & Co. – wikipedia

In writing, a 1743 letter appears in The Colonial Records of the State of Georgia could be the oldest known mention of the idiom ‘to have someone wrapped around your (little) finger’:

“Watson could wind Parker round his finger; yet he was ready to swear twas all false.”

The Colonial Records of the State of Georgia, 1743

5. To walk (tread) on eggshells – during the revolutionary 16th century

(AFR) Op eiers loop
(GER) Auf Eierschalen laufen
(ENG) To walk (tread) on eggshells
(RO) A calca / a merge ca pe ace
Meaning: to act cautiously as to not upset someone.

The oldest known written mention of ‘to walk (tread) on eggshells’ is in the 1591‘s translation of Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso by Sir John Harington:

“So soft he treads, although his steps were wide,
As though to tread on eggs he were afraid.”

1591’s translation of Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso by Sir John Harington

Surely, the expression is much older than that, dating from a time when humans would tread carefully looking for the places where (wild) hens and birds would have built a nest (or not) and hid their eggs.

Madonna-with-Child-Portal-of-the-Virgin-and-a-bird-nest-Notre-Dame-Cathedral-by-Lysandra-Furstenberg - To walk (tread) on eggshells - an idiom as old as the revolutionary 16th century
Madonna with Child, Portal of the Virgin and a bird’s nest, Paris Notre Dame Cathedral, Photo by Lysandra Furstenberg

6. To hang onto every word during the Industrial Revolution

(AFR) Aan iemand se lippe te hang
(GER) An jemandes Lippen hängen
(ENG) To hang on to (someone’s) every word / hung on her every utterance
(RO) A atarna de fiecare cuvant
Meaning: to listen very intently to someone.

I think this might be one of the youngest idioms in use, as it originated with the phrasal verb “hang on”, which came in use during the 19th century, when the cloth hangers were invented: 1860, hang on, meaning “to remain clinging.”

Although, here is a of beautiful quotes from the Bible, from Luke:

“and they could not find anything that they could do, for all the people [stayed close to Him and] were hanging on to every word”

The Bible, Luke 19:48

An idiom is a group of words that has a deeper, figurative meaning, other than its literal, word for word, denotation. But I think that an idiom also reflects the times when it surfaced, carrying even a minor historical aura around it.

Transylvania’s History A to Z: 100 Word Stories
Transylvania’s History A to Z: 100 Word Stories

I hope you enjoyed these 6 Idioms linguistically identical in Afrikaans, German, English and Romanian.

55 Replies to “6 Idioms Linguistically Identical in Afrikaans, German, English and Romanian”

  1. Beautiful, thanks for this. In the 6th example, the Romanian expression you list (A atârna de fiecare cuvânt) is usable but is not often used – it would be seen more as a modern adaptation from other languages.
    Alternatively, we have:
    “a sorbi fiecare cuvânt” (to swallow each word – meaning to wait impatiently for anything the other has to say)
    🙂

    1. Servus, Florin, şi îţi mulţumesc frumos pentru mesaj 🙂 Vezi, eu nu-mi sorb cafeluţa de dimineaţa, mai degrabă o dau pe gât 🙂

      Eu m-am gândit la un acuzat, care atârnă de fiecare cuvânt rostit de judecător, cu speranţa (vagă) ca nu va atârna şi în ştreang.

      Pe când doi îndragostiti şi-ar sorbi cuvintele de pe buze, unul altuia.

      But I see what you mean, that one is rather a neologism. This is something I’d definitely want to delve into 🙂

      O zi frumoasa îţi doresc.
      Patricia

  2. Thanks for your research on the varied uses of idiomatic expressions which remind me yet again, that learning another language is not only about grammar and vocabulary, but also the need to understand and use idiomatic expressions correctly. I suppose that is where the real skill of using a foreign language is displayed. And as your research shows, the culture of that land is highlighted during the development of idiomatic expressions. Warmest regards, Maretha

    1. Ah, Maretha, such a delight to see you again.
      Aren’t languages incredible, like a puzzle one has to assemble only with one’s mind. Yes, idiomatic expression must be one of the final proofs that a language has been absorbed, not only learned. But what incredible stories they reveal for us, isn’t it 🙂

      With apologies for not having visited your blog lately.
      Hugs, and lovely day to you, Maretha 🙂

      1. Aww, thanks Pat! Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to do a lot of blogging over the past few months. I hope to improve things somewhat, but I’m still quite busy and also battling with my hands (‘tunnel syndrome’) not sure, and what with the pandemic and its restrictions, I’ve not had it seen to for more than a year. Nevertheless, I often read your blogs, but sometimes I’m not on my PC and when I am asked to remember passwords to leave a comment, I give up. 🙂

        1. I hope your hands will feel better too. Blogging takes a lot of time, you are right.
          Ah, those passwords, I also comment on blog posts only when I;m at my laptop, and for the same reason 🙂
          Stay well, and a happy Autumn to you!

  3. Your article was very informative. An interesting follow up to the last one, about the Romanian language. I’m not surprised that the European languages have so many Greek or Latin common phrases. The surprise was Afrikaans. Yet again it has Dutch origins so in the end the odd one here is Romanian, the only Latin language. But with such old sayings nothing is surprising anymore. 🙂 I learned new things today. Thank you! ❤️

    1. Beautifully summed up, Jo, and well spotted – as always 🙂 ❤️
      Yes, my grade 8 history teacher would be so pleased to discover my obsession with the past. Ha ha 🙂

  4. Very interesting and “you know how to pick them!” I didn’t do so well in that department! But out of your grouping I have to say I have much experience with the Hitting the nail on the head; well I literally didn’t a few too many times and you’re right, OUCH!!! My poor thumb and index finger got slammed when pounding in those nails!
    Thanks Patricia; this was a nice sidetrack to get me away from the main entree of horrible things going on!

    1. Thank you, Lawrence. I think this is something humankind still has in common with its ancestors, no matter where we like to see ourselves on the evolution ladder 🙂
      Glad it brightened your day.

      1. Smiling at you! How are you Patricia? I hope and pray that all is well with you! And yes we are all in a process that we didn’t begin nor will we end it; but it’s our job while among the living, to live it to the best of our God given ability! Amen.
        Bless you and yours!
        Lawrence

        1. I think we ought to willingly look for the silver lining, each and every day 🙂
          With thanks and best wishes.

        2. This is true, there is a silver lining even if we don’t see it or recognize it at the time! Because the good and bad times are our opportunity to achieve the best possible outcome imaginable; when all is said and done!

  5. Pat, a fascinating post and I love exploring languages and partiuclarly their similarities! An interesting collection of idioms across the four languages – with the English and German presence in South Africa I’m not surprised they exist there but impressed how these sayings are common in Romania as well. My mother and I often throw sayings back and forth between Swedish and English, I realise I’ve translated some of the Swedish ones to English and they really make no sense here!

    1. So glad for your visit, Annika 🙂
      Yes, comparing languages is a great way to learn. The language game you and your mom play sounds like so much fun. Romanian language is like that, some expressions lose their meaning once translated in another language or the subtext is purely indigenous, thus requiring a deep knowledge of the local culture for the idiom to be grasped. How beautiful, isn’t it?
      Stay well 🙂

    1. Vielen Dank, Martina. Ich freue mich sehr, wenn du meinen Blog besuchst.
      Gut gesagt, ja, und danke!

      Redewendungen haben mir sehr geholfen Deutsch zu lernen. Aber es war einmal vor langer Zeit 🙂 Ich habe so lange kein Deutsch mehr gesprochen, aber diese Redewendungen haben mich sehr Spaß gemacht. 🙂

      Bis bald 🙂

    1. Wonderful to hear it, Jim. Yes, a discovery that made me smile.
      I seldom take the time to weave a sentence in more than the two languages I used daily, English and Romanian. But I am lucky enough to be able to find my way around French and German, and my daughter helped with Afrikaans 🙂 so this one was a really fun blog post to put together. A good workout for my brain too 🙂

    1. I thought so too. Usually idioms life barriers, but these are the living proof that human intellect shares common platform.
      Happy for your visit, Sally 🙂 Hugs.

  6. These are great. May I steal them as a fun opening for an ESL class of Latin immigrants next week in Minneapolis? They would get a kick out of them!

  7. Thank you, glad you discovered them.
    If you think they will help,then do use them. Where do your students originate from?

    Best wishes,
    Patricia Furstenberg

  8. Each idiom has an interesting and unique origin. The links to literature are fascinating. And the way the meanings of some have evolved is really a brilliant example of finding meaning in the present moment. Many times, we modify according to our own logic and conveniences.
    You really spend a lot of time and effort on research. I’m not good at it but hope to get better. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Terveen 🙂
      Isn’t it amazing? Especially for a writer 😉 – stories everywhere! I think it makes for a fresh look on languages. We over-use them, overlook them, yet look how gems they hide.

      Research, Terveen, I often fall down that rabbit hole 🙂

  9. Quite amazing that there are 6 idioms that all “work” the same in 4 languages. I am grateful that I had to learn Latin and French at high school. The little Latin I can remember helps me follow the threads to find the meaning and origins of some obscure words I come across. And I learned more about grammar when re-learning French as an adult than I did learning English grammar at school.

    1. Languages ARE multifaceted, isn’t it.
      You were lucky to have had the option of two languages in school, one of which international. I was one of the lucky ones too, in this regard. I took French and German in school and had one year of Latin too. Only now do I appreciate the advantage it gave me.

      It is commendable that you picked up French again. 🙂 Well done!

      Glad for your visit, Peter 🙂

  10. Nice list, thank you! Allow me to complete it with their French equivalents, as some of them exist in French too.

    1 No equivalent

    2 Quand le chat n’est pas là, les souris dansent. (It’s still used today, it’s the GER version: the mice dance).

    3 Prendre le taureau par les cornes

    4 No equivalent that I know of : we would say “mener quelqu’un par le bout du nez,” which is a thoroughly different picture.

    5 Marcher sur des oeufs (same as GER AFR versions)

    6 Etre pendu aux lèvres de quelqu’un (GER AFR versions)

  11. Oh, qu’elle est beau, la Français!

    Pour #4, Oui, on roumain on dit aussi “te-a dus de nas”, et ça veut dire tromper quelqu’un, mentir à quelqu’un.

    Merci beaucoup pour votre contribution significative à ce papier. 🙂

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