Have you ever had that frustrating feeling of being at a loss for words? You know what you want to say - the perfect idiom exists in your own language - but you're speaking English, and English sadly lacks the very turn of phrase you love so much! This time, we bring you a special edition: E&M writers, editors and proofreaders from across Europe tell you their favourite idioms, and reflect on their roots along the way.

Image: Cover of the 1888 edition of "Goody Two-Shoes" (copyright free)
The English phrase for an overly virtuous person was popularised by an anonymous children's story. "Goody Two-Shoes" was the nickname of an orphan girl who was originally so poor that she only had one shoe.

Ziemowit Jóźwik, E&M writer

Ziemowit, who comes from the Holy Cross Mountains in Poland, has inherited his favourite phrase over several generations: Gdzie ci radzi mało chódź, gdzie nie radzi wcale nic. He says, "It's a catchphrase in my regional dialect. I like it not only because of specifically amusing Holy Cross Mountains syntax and wording but also because it's quite witty. Literally it means: where they're glad to meet you, don't go too much, where they're not glad (to meet you) - not at all.

"I like it also because it reminds me of my grandpa, who tend to repeat it after his mother. Even though she was illiterate, the phrase shows that she wasn't a fool!"

Emily Duggan, E&M proofreader

Emily comes from England and is studying translation in France - so she knows what it's like to search for the equivalent of an "untranslatable" phrase. One British idiom expresses her current everyday life very well: there's not enough room to swing a cat, which refers to a very narrow or cramped space. She says: "Having lived in a tiny room in Paris for several months now, I've often wished there was a picturesque equivalent for this expression in French. It pops into my head whenever anyone asks me about where I live. It always struck me as a bit silly, because I can't see why anyone would want to swing a cat around... But I don't need to experiment to know it would be very hard to do so in my rooftop garret!"

Emily is also likes the strange phrase goody two-shoes, which describes someone who is virtuous in a smug manner. She says, "it conjures up a funny image in my head of a prim and proper little girl standing with her feet together in pretty shiny shoes. The meaning always seemed quite obvious to me, until I stopped to think about it for a minute and realised that having two shoes and acting smugly are not logically connected at all! Apparently it dates back to a Cinderella-style fairytale from the 18th century, in which a virtuous orphan is given a pair of shoes by a rich gentleman."

Leire Ariz, E&M writer

A few years ago, when she was back in high school, Leire took part in a "traditional sayings" competition in Basque. "It was as weird as it sounds" she says. "And quintessentially Basque! We went in teams from bar to bar (Basque activities necessarily imply drinking and eating) and in each of them, a group of traditional singers would sing a short poem, for which we had to find a suitable saying. Long story short: I love Basque sayings!"

Leire's Basque saying is Nagusi askoren astoa gosez hila. It literally means the donkey that belongs to many owners dies of hunger. She says, "I like it because I can often use it. When many people are in charge of updating our organisation's facebook page and no one does it, thinking someone else already did it. Or when everyone is supposed to bring the drinks to a party and no one does. I aaaaaaaalways say it, no matter which country I am in. People never know what I'm on about."

In the Basque country, there is also a specific type of saying called atsotitza, which literally means "words of the elder." These are shorter and rhyme. One of the most popular is Non gogoa, han zangoa. "It's a bit hard to translate," says Leire, "but I would say it means there where the will is, the leg follows." It is quite self-explanatory, meaning your steps will follow your desire. It is popular because a brand of mountain clothes uses it as its slogan. And you know someone is Basque when you see them wearing these clothes. People will dress as if they were going to the mountains even to go to a bar."

Leire's final favourite is txapela buruan eta ibili munduan, which translates as the beret on the head and walk around the world. "The beret is the traditional Basque hat," says Leire, "and the saying means that when you travel, you should be proud of your roots and who you are. You can see it on various tshirts, and even politically."

This advert points out how important the txapela (beret) is to Basque culture - even the way it's worn is significant!

Marta Martinez, Heart editor

Marta is fluent in both Spanish and Catalan, and she thinks the different idioms in the two languages say a lot about regional character. Her favourite in Spanish is de perdidos, al río (from lost, to the river). She says, "it basically means, "now that we've come so far, or that we don't have control of the situation anymore, let's go for the maximum, let's take the risk." I think it describes very well this Spanish attitude of not caring too much about conventions, not being too tied to things, and being open to trying unexpected things."

Marta's favourite in Catalan is S'ha acabat el bròquil (the broccoli is over): "I just love how it sounds in English! It means "the fun is over, now it's time to get serious". Which is kind of the opposite of the Spanish one, which also says a lot about the Catalan character, compared to the Spanish character..."

Juliane Schmeltzer Dybkjær, Diaphragm editor

Photo: Quistnix (CC)
A mural near the entrance to Freetown Christiana in Copenhagen - home of the flower children.

Like Ziemowit, Juliane has a favourite phrase which reminds her of her family. She says, "my favourite phrase in Danish is actually just one word: Blomsterbarn. It directly translates as flower child, and was originally used to describe hippies who hung out in the squares in Copenhagen with flowers in their hair during the 60's. Nowadays, it's used to describe a free spirit, someone perhaps a bit naïve but definitely a nice, open-minded and creative person. My mother used to call me her blomsterbarn affectionately when I was a child: she was one of the "original" flower children, as she was involved in the hippie movement in the 60's and 70's. Flower children are also associated with the free city Christiania, a part of Copenhagen, which has always had a very special meaning for me."

Do you have a favourite phrase in your language? Share it with us in the comments section below!

IN -1131 DAYS