Ice on the Danube

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Europe is historically rich in neighbourly comparisons. When the English can’t understand someone’s English we call it Double Dutch while the Danes interpret a grey cloudy day Swedish Sunshine. Without excellent translation, everyone could misunderstand 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’.


There are more elaborate examples with je to pro mne španělská vesnice (Czech for ‘it’s a Spanish village to me’); das sind boehmische Doerfer fuermich (the German for ‘it is all Bohemian villages to them’) and ich verstehe nur Bahnhof (‘I only understand station’).


Interpretations for syphilis is wonderful at shifting the blame! In Italy, it is known as the French Pox. In France, it is known as the Italian disease. 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.  The disease of syphilis was called the “French disease” by the Germans. For their part the French called it the “English sickness,” or sometimes the Neapolitan sickness” or the “Spanish gout.” Mainland Greeks called it the “Corinthian sickness”.


“Carrying coals to Newcastle” is an idiom where each European language interestingly finds her own equivalent. So in Russian it translates as 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 its Eulen nach Athen tragen (taking owls to Athens).


As awkward as any is to make a judgement 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 and 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 15th century and arose from this bald- headed appearance that is particularly prominent against its sooty black plumage. Coots are 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 going even to start exemplifying the extensive range that you can no doubt imagine for offerings from the continent!

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