Colourful language isn’t only about swearing. Comparing idioms, in many ways, is the best device for enjoying the variety of cultures that is at the very essence of Europe. An idiom is defined as “an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements”.
Typically, interpreting the weather has brought on its fair share of idioms. Rain, essential though it is, is what many of us complain about or break the conversational ice with.
When it rains cats and dogs we have every reason. The phrase dates from at least the middle of the 17th century and implies that in the severest of rainfalls one can expect every possible thing to fall out of the sky. In old Norse weather lore, the cat is associated with storms and the dog with the wind, and although one of these weather elements is usually accompanied by the other, cats and dogs certainly do not fall out of the sky, though fish and frogs have done so on many occasions in different countries. Dismissing the many tales in folklore about this, more scientific explanations suggest that fish and frogs can be lifted by waterspouts that then deposit them some distance away. There are many instances when fish and frogs have fallen in heavy rainstorms in gardens.
For the Czechs they talk in terms of padají trakaře (translating as raining wheelbarrows); for the Danes det regner skomagerdrenge (it’s raining shoemakers’ apprentices); pipestems for the Dutch; chair legs for the Greeks, while in Spanish it’s estan lloviendo hasta maridos (it’s even raining husbands).
Likewise imaginative idioms are sought to describe another of the unenviable but well-known situations, namely between the devil and the deep blue sea. This translates to the notion of being faced with a dilemma, or two dangers of equal peril. The phrase comes from classical Greek mythology and refers to the treacherous waters near the narrow Straits of Messina, between Sicily and Italy, through which the galleys of Odysseus had to pass. On one side, there was the dreaded sea-monster Scylla whose six heads were capable of reaching out from her cave and seizing six crew members at a time from the decks. On the other side, there was the terrifying cliff of Charybdis on which another fearful monster lived. The latter monster sucked in the sea and then poured it out in a giant whirlpool, three times a day, hurling ships and crews to ruin, from which there was no escape.
The Portuguese think of this dilemma in terms of estar entre a espada e a parede (to be between the sword and the wall ); the Russians between hammer and anvil (byt mezhdu molotom i nakovalnyei) while the somewhat more prosaic Dutch are tussen twee vuren staan, between two fires.
As for the troublesome subject of what to wear: to be dressed up to the nines means to be dressed elaborately. In its other sense, it can refer to having a great deal of work on hand while reaching out as nearly as possible to perfection. In former times the nines alluded to classical scholars seeking this perfection through learning: represented by the Nine Muses of Greek and Roman mythology. Of the nine muses, Calliope was the muse of epic poetry, Clio of history, Erato of love poetry, Euterpe of music, Melpomene of tragedy, Polyhymnia of sacred poetry, Terpsichore of dance, Thalia of comedy, and Urania of astronomy. The French prefer to say tiré à quatre épingles (literally, drawn to four pins).
As awkward as any is to interpret on someone’s questionable wits, in English we say both as bald as and as crazy as a coot. This comes from the common coot, which is a water bird, measuring 15 to 18 inches in length, 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 to list the extensive range that you can no doubt imagine for offerings from the continent!