Lost In Translation: 10 Words And Idioms Not To Be Taken Literally

Published on February 12, 2024

Credit: Thiébaud Faix

Many expressions and terms from foreign languages lose their essence in translation when uttered or written in English. Language is not merely a tool for communication; it encapsulates cultural nuances and unique experiences.

Join us as we dive into the intricacies of linguistic diversity, revealing the beauty and subtlety that can be lost when these foreign gems are transposed into the English lexicon.



Credit: Jay Wennington

In the American culinary context, Entrée commonly refers to the main course of a meal. However, the true essence of the word in French translates to "entrance" or "entry," which refers to a first course or an appetizer.

English speakers may unknowingly miss the nuanced French understanding, but French tourists in America are probably already well aware of this situation before ordering food.


En masse

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Keeping on with the French language exploration, we come across the term En Masse , which, in its original language, means "in a mass". While English speakers commonly understand it as a collective gathering or action, the original French expression goes beyond mere numerical quantity, implying a unified, synchronized movement, emphasizing harmony and cohesion within a group.

Lost in translation, this nuance of orchestrated unity is often overshadowed by a simplistic focus on numbers when suggested by its English counterpart.



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Originally an abbreviation for Fliegerabwehrkanone , meaning "aircraft defense cannon" in German , "Flak" in English has been repurposed to signify criticism or disapproval, particularly in informal contexts.

The shift from a military, technical term to a colloquial expression alters its essence, losing the gravity and historical context embedded in its German roots. This transformation not only obscures the connection to anti-aircraft weaponry but also dilutes the term's inherent seriousness, giving it a lighter meaning.



Credit: Jan Tinneberg

When we take a deeper look into the linguistic intricacies between Japanese and English, we unravel the essence of the term sayonara and the nuances that evade an exact translation.

While commonly interpreted as a simple farewell, "sayonara" in Japanese carries a weight of finality and a sense of parting that transcends the casual connotations of the English "goodbye." Rooted in cultural context, this term signifies a more permanent departure, often linked to deep emotions or farewells of a more profound nature.



Credit: Braden Collum

Élan is definitely not the most used French word amongst English speakers, but it does pop up occasionally in conversation. It makes this list because, while commonly translated as "enthusiasm" or "momentum" in English, élan in French encapsulates a more profound sense of spirited energy and impetus.

The original term carries a connotation of a dynamic force, an internal drive that propels action with ardor. Lost in translation, the subtleties of this emotional fervor are often diluted. "Élan" embodies a spirited passion, an inner zeal that goes beyond mere enthusiasm, and its unique cultural resonance can be overlooked when expressed in English.


Look for the cat´s fifth leg.

Credit: Manja Vitolic

If expressed literally, some foreign terms aren’t simply lost in translation but beyond translation. The Argentinean expression buscarle la quinta pata al gato , translates to "look for the cat's fifth leg". This curious expression, rich with cultural flavor, denotes the tendency to overcomplicate matters or seek unnecessary complications.

In its native Spanish, the phrase carries a humorous undertone, emphasizing the absurdity of searching for an extra leg on a cat. However, when translated into English, the idiom loses its playful charm and becomes a literal quest for a nonexistent appendage, missing the cultural context that infuses it with humor and insight.


Like playing piano to a cow

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Literally meaning "like playing the piano to a cow," this Chinese idiom conveys the futility of explaining something to someone who lacks the capacity to comprehend or appreciate it.

The inherent humor and cultural resonance in the original Mandarin phrase may elude English speakers, as the idiom plays with the absurdity of attempting a futile task.


To sing the apple

Credit: Edward Cisneros

In the world of French Canadian expressions, the intriguing phrase chanter la pomme carries a cultural resonance often lost in translation. Literally translated as "to sing the apple," this idiom extends beyond its literal interpretation in English.

In its original context, the phrase conveys the act of sweet-talking or praising someone to gain favor or approval. The metaphorical association with singing to an apple adds a whimsical touch to the concept of flattery. Yet, when transposed into English, the idiom loses the playful imagery, and the cultural charm embedded in "chanter la pomme" may be overlooked.


Let a frog out of your mouth

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The Finnish expression "letting a frog out your mouth" makes no sense when uttered in English, but it does have a logical explanation in its native tongue, where it means "to say something wrong by mistake which can embarrass or upset someone".

The metaphorical picture of releasing a frog adds a playful touch to the idea of articulating something inconvenient. However, when translated literally into English, the charm of the metaphor is lost, and the idiom's cultural richness escapes comprehension.

If you´re born to be a tamale, the leaves will fall from the sky

Credit: Stefan Lehner

The Mexican phrase Si naciste para tamal, elote caerá del cielo , means "If you're born to be a tamale, the leaves will fall from the sky".

This idiom is a poetic way of expressing destiny and the idea that if something is meant to be, the universe will conspire to make it happen. The imagery of tamale-making, a cherished tradition in Mexican culture, adds a layer of metaphorical richness.


A dog in church

Credit: Jamie Street

An idiom that makes no sense in English, the Italian phrase un cane in chiesa , meaning "a dog in a church," describes a sense of discomfort or feeling out of place in a particular situation.

The humor and vivid picture of a dog in a sacred space add a fun touch to the expression. However, when directly translated into English, the idiom loses its cultural connotations.


Pour water over someone's head

Credit: Jamie Street

While the literal translation of "pouring water over someone's head" might seem senseless in English, the actual meaning in its original Tamil is "to cut off a relationship", which could very well be a logical outcome if someone pours water over somebody else's head.

Beyond the literal interpretation, this Tamil idiom carries a symbolic weight, signifying a moment of frustration or exasperation. The act of pouring water over someone's head becomes a vivid symbol of releasing pent-up emotions or expressing discontent. However, when rendered in English, the idiom loses its cultural depth, and the resonance of water as a cathartic release may not be fully grasped.


10 Of The Wackiest English Words That Are Totally Not Made Up

Published on February 12, 2024

Credit: Will Myers

There are thousands of words that somehow made it to the dictionary but that we rarely use today. While many were completely forgotten, some occasionally enjoy sudden bursts of popularity, and some are still used in a few English-speaking regions.

From the frankly bizarre to the actually useful to remember, there is something for everyone. To keep you bumfuzzled and, of course, to help keep these wonderful words alive, we made this list of the strangest ones we could find!



Credit: Alexis Mora Angulo

To be bumfuzzled is to be in a state of bewilderment. If this article leaves you perplexed, then you are truly bumfuzzled! Its origins are not known for sure. It might have obscure Scottish roots, stem from a mix of bamboozle and fuzzle , or have evolved as an alteration of the word dumbfound.



Credit: Konstantin Evdokimov

Gubbins are bits and pieces of something, scraps, or general gadgetry. You probably bring all your gubbins when you are trying to fix a leak under the sink. It can also refer to someone foolish or gullible, a simpleton.



Credit: Ksenia

In the English Midlands dialect, a pebble or any small rounded stone. Sounds kinda similar, doesn’t it? Among geologists, it has more specificity: it is still a rock, but one with a diameter of ⅛ to 2 and ½ inches. In Australia, it can refer to a troublesome person or animal - so don’t be a bibble, mate, yeah?



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A big racket or commotion over something. Might have originated in Northern England, likely as a rhyming duplication of the word hello .

All that hullabaloo for a bibble? It left me bumfuzzled.



Credit: Esther Tuttle

To lollygag is to fool around, or to spend time aimlessly. You can lollygag with a friend, or even at work–although we do not advise it!

According to etymologists, lollygag originates in American English, likely from the dialectal words lolly (tongue) and gag (trick).



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Counterclockwise, or in a direction opposite to the sun’s course. In old Scottish, this was considered unlucky. The related Middle Low German word weddersinnes , literally means "against the way".



Credit: Heidi Kaden

If you live in the Southern United States, and see something that is askew or in disarray, you can use this delightful adjective without fear. Hailing from 19th-century America, there is an ongoing debate regarding the formation of this particular word.



Credit: Markus Spiske

Gibberish, nonsense, or a speech or piece of writing that is made unintelligible by excessive use of pompous or over-complicated language. Economists and government officials are often very proficient in this kind of speech. It was coined by a Texas politician who famously threatened to use violence on anyone who used gobbledygook in official bulletins and memos.



Credit: Abbie Bernet

Go tell Elmer Fudd it’s not wabbit season. Actually, wabbit is a real word that means to be weary or exhausted. We really hope you don’t feel this way about this article! In any case, it’s almost over.



Credit: Julian Hochgesang

Literally zero, nothing . It can also be used to refer to someone insignificant, as in "a Joe Zilch." It’s not clear where this word comes from, but it might have originated with Mr. Zilch, a 1931 comic character who appeared in the popular humor magazine "Ballyhoo."

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