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.
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.
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?
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.
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,1591’s translation of Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso by Sir John Harington
As though to tread on eggs he were afraid.”
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.
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.
I hope you enjoyed these 6 Idioms linguistically identical in Afrikaans, German, English and Romanian.
Subscribe to my e-Newsletter for fun and informative content on dogs, books, history, folklore and a castle or two: