Tag Archives: an idiot’s guide to idioms

The Idiot’s Guide to Understanding English (and Romanian) Idioms


There are some hard to learn languages out there: Arabic (tried, and gave up), Hungarian (would rather start all over with Chinese–no offense, Balazs), Farsi. Then some lesser challanging languages: Chinese (I know, right?), Spanish, French or Romanian. Trust me, I know. I speak all of the latter ones fairly fluently.

English? Easy by comparison. But what makes it really hard for me to understand, is the logic behind certain English idioms. I am also baffled by homonyms, similar-sounding words that really mean different things. I can write and explain eloquently what “grandiloquence” means, yet I am baffled by “tweezers-Twizzlers”.

About three weeks after getting married I was getting a bout of flu. I tried to get my husband to commiserate with me and told him I was feeling sick. When he failed to come up with the right response,  I put my hands on my hips, leaned over to him and asked: “Did you hear what I said, I feel obnoxious!!”  His swift response: “Honey, I think you mean nauseous“. No, I think I mean you get off your bum, fetch me some tea and cater to my every wish.

And then there is my husband’s ten year high school reunion. Dressed up to the nines (another illogical idiom, if you ask me), and you know, feeling good about myself. Long, flowing hair, tight (really tight) dress, flashing smile. Feeling Angelina Jolie-ish and imagining walking the red carpet (it was dirty green) at the Oscars (it was the Arvada Double Tree hotel). Paparazzi fighting to get my pictures (it was an overweight sweaty old man), giving the queenly wave to the adoring fans (ok, so there was a Silver Sneaker convention happening at the same time). But I digress. When I suddenly noticed my spanking new (is this appropriate??) husband looking intently at this… woman. Yeah, she may have had a smokin’ body, really low cut spandex dress and dripping in cubic zirconia, but which,  in my modest opinion, could not compare with yours, truly. I asked my husband, rather discreetly and through clenched said-flashy smile, who was the object of his intent staring. He played really surprised. Yeah, um, I do the acting in this family, and honey, you make the money. Anyway, later on, during dinner, I catch him looking sideways at the woman. Mad by now, but still trying to save face and make a statement, I declared that I don’t understand men. “It seems to me”, I said haughtily, “that men always think the neighbour’s goat gives more milk than their own.” The husband choked on his food and with an embarrassed laugh explained to the rest of the table: “I think she means the grass is alwasy greener on the other side“. Yeah, whatever. I hope you found the grass is always greener on the other side of the doghouse.

Four years ago, I had sent out invitations on my office’s behalf, to a black-tie event. I was asked by Jamie, our co-worker, what the dress code will be. Without hesitation I told her it would be befitting her to dress in a white nightgown. Still reeling from the shock, she asked: “You mean evening gown, perhaps?”.  Americans are well known for their ingenuity. Couldn’t they find another term for sexy pajamas?? Did we have to use same time of day and come up with confusing terminology?? Think about the foreigners, people, think about the foreigners.

Oh, yes. Diana at our office has her favorites. She  insisted I write about hers. You know about our Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show, right? Two years ago we had Eric Hutchinson, a young singer, coming to perform. We gathered two nights before the event to talk about gift baskets. We found ourselves at a cross point, when we found out the guy is vegeterian. I say, good for him. Point was, well, what would we replace the Perky Jerky with??  I followed logic and I thought about something chewy. So, loud and clear, I spoke my mind: “What about tweezers?”. Confused looks around the table and finally, Diana, who by now understands my English scarily well, explained: “She means Twizzlers“. I have never seen or heard Ellen snort before in my life. My favorite part of the story though is the next day Emily and Diana ceremoniously presented me with a Costco-size box of Twizzlers. I hated them. Still do.

We sometimes have long meetings at the office. Some people drink coffee, others check their blackberries. Well, Emily likes to draw. I asked her in one of these meetings what was she grazing. I don’t think I can accurately describe the reaction in the office. It was more like hollering.  Please y’all tell me doodling is more logical and than laugh at me.

And then there is my own way of describing surprise. I was trying to convey to Diana that I was taken by surprise by an unexpected event. Romanian language is very rich, and colorful, and sexy. And so yes, I sometimes inadvertently revert to ad-litteram translation from Romanian to English. Remember the goat example? Well, this time, my explanation sounded like this: I felt like a cow staring at a new gate. I can still hear the crickets in the background as she was trying to make sense of what I said. It just means that I looked completely shocked and bewildered. Cows get scared of new things. Get it?

Anyway, I have many more examples, but I think you had enough. I hope you will try to put yourself in my shoes and walk a mile in them (No, literally, I want to see it, I wear 6 inch stilettos). I dare you to follow my logic and I am sure you will commensurate with me.       Wait. Um. Commensurate? Commiserate?? Where is Diana?? D-I-A-N-A !!!!!!!!