Metaphors and their Meanings

Languages and cultures. The more you learn, the more you see the similarities and differences. Swiss German and English both use figures of speech or metaphors to say something. More times than not the metaphors are similar but sometimes not. Here’s a list of a few German sayings with their American counterparts.

It’s not a Big Deal

German: Don’t make an elephant out of a mosquito.
English:   Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.

Both mosquitoes and molehills are pesky. But with elephants and mountains we are talking completely different dimensions. Imagine trying to swat a flying elephant that wants to land on your arm or head to sting you. Or how big does a mole have to be to dig a mountain? Yep, now those would be big deals.

To do Something you don’t Want

German: Bite into a sour apple.
English:   Bite the bullet.

These two expressions conjure up two different visuals. While biting into a sour apple may not be very pleasant, it’s not that bad. You usually get through it unscathed. As far as I know the term biting the bullet comes from the days when surgeons preformed surgery without anesthesia. The patients would get a bullet to bite and possibly alcohol to drink to subdue the pain, unfortunately neither did.

There is no contest between which is worse; biting into a sour apple or biting a bullet. Apples are generally considered healthy, think of the havoc biting a bullet could wreck on your teeth.

To Die

German: To bite the grass.
English:   To bite the dust.

The biting continues. In case you are not familiar with these sayings, these are not euphuisms! It is another way to say something but not necessarily nice. Do not try to console someone who has just lost a loved one by saying something like “I’m sorry he bit the dust”.

To be Crazy

German: To have a bird.
English:   To be as crazy as a loon.

Wow, I know lots of people who have birds. Does that make them crazy? I don’t think so. A loon is a bird, so for some reason birds seem to denote silly or foolish people. Loony-bin is also a derogative way to call a place with many loonies.

To Not Understand

German: That sounds like Spanish to me.
English:   That’s Greek to me.

That’s obvious enough, foreign languages are difficult to understand. But there is another expression that is used in Switzerland. It has no counterpart in English. The first time I heard it I was baffled.

Someone said “I only understand train station.”
I said, “What? I don’t understand!”
The answer I got was “Exactly!”
“I don’t get it!”
“Train station, train station!”…

Believe me, this has great possibilities to turn into a bad standup comedian routine. After awhile I was able to grasp the idea and I even use the idiom occasionally.

As far as I know, the origins of this are European. It means “I don’t understand because I can’t or don’t want to think about anything but getting home. Getting home starts at the train station.”

The idea isn’t that far off, either. Ben has told me that in the 1960s Italian immigrants in Switzerland would often gather at the train station. That way they could be closer to home. They would see the tracks that lead right to their hometown. That is no longer the case these days. No one gathers at the train stations to look at the tracks and feel homesick. You would probably be considered a loony-bird if you did. Travelling by train isn’t the main way to travel any more so the tracks have lost their lure.

But I digress.

The Eyes have it

German: No eyes were left dry.
English:   There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Laughing and crying are closely related. Someone could laugh so hard that they would start to cry or cry because they were so happy. Of course, crying because you are sad happens, too. These two sayings sound similar but their meanings are just a smidge different. In German it means the people were laughing so hard they started tearing up. In English something was so sad or moving that everyone was crying. Whichever way you look at it, the people were crying.

To do Something Quickly Without Thinking (like falling in love)

German: Neck over head.
English:   Head over heels.

This one got a huge conversation going at work once. I was talking to someone and because I didn’t know the German saying I translated the English one directly into German. After they finished rolling on the floor laughing they got up and told me the right way to say it. All the while I was thinking “Head over heels, head over heel, that is the way you say that in English”. They successfully convinced me that head over heels must be wrong. That’s not an unusual position but if your neck is above your head, well, that is. The German way to say it is correct and much better than the English.

I left it at that always being careful what I said. Today I looked it up in Google. Their explanation runs along the lines of head over heels is the finishing position after doing a summersault. So, in essence it is a full turn. Much more exciting and daring than standing on your head.

It’s a nice little explanation but I don’t buy it completely. I think the lesson to learn here is to say it correctly in whichever language you are speaking. No one will rip it apart unless you get it wrong and it just doesn’t sound right.

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