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11 International Idioms That Sound Downright Hilarious in English

Updated: Dec. 16, 2022

If you think English idioms sound weird, try wrapping your mind around these strange phrases from other countries.

1 / 11
to tie a bear to somoene
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Tie a bear to someone (German)

Fooling people is a universal trick. In English, we say “pulling a fast one” or “pulling the wool over someone’s eyes.” In German, you might say you’re “tying a bear on someone.” It seems like they’d notice that a bear was tied on them, but maybe not. Give it a whirl in English: “Good job tying a bear on your boss with that lateness excuse!” Check out these 9 everyday idioms you may be using wrong.

2 / 11
to swallow camels
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Swallow some camels (Norwegian)

Don’t “swallow some camels”—stay the course and ride it out. In Norwegian, this bizarre phrase about camels means to give in to something. It’s a great phrase to use when whatever you’re giving into is absolutely impossible to swallow. Remember it’s not just one camel, it’s at least two! The challenge is clear from Paul Blow’s illustrations, courtesy of Viking blog’s “International Idioms.”

3 / 11
cheeks are falling off
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My cheeks are falling off (Japanese)

Imagine eating something so delicious that your cheeks absolutely fall right off. If you say the phrase in Japanese everyone will know that you believe your meal is delicious. Go ahead and try this phrase out the next time you’re partaking of a mouth-watering treat. Here are the surprising origins of 14 common phrases.

4 / 11
when chickens have teeth
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When chickens have teeth (French)

Sure, that’ll come to pass—when pigs fly! When speaking French you can offer the same sentiment by saying “when chickens have teeth,” meaning something that is never, ever going to happen. Flying pigs is such a lovely, whimsical image. Chicken with teeth sounds scary, but maybe that’s part of the point.

5 / 11
as cool as a cucumber
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As cool as a cucumber (English)

You’ll probably recognize this common phrase, used to describe someone calm and composed no matter the circumstances. But it comes from England and likely derives from the actual make-up of cucumbers. The crisp veggies are able to stay about 20 degrees cooler (on the inside) than the outer temperature.

6 / 11
not all donuts come with a hole
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Not all doughnuts come with a hole (Italian)

It’s so disappointing when your plans “jump the tracks” or when life “throws you a curve ball” or when “there’s a monkey wrench in your spokes.” In Italian, the idiom goes that not all doughnuts come with a hole. That’s not that bad when you think about it. More donut! But it means that things aren’t going as well as you’d like. Check out 12 more Italian phrases everyone should know how to use.

7 / 11
the raisin at the end of the hot dog
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The raisin at the end of the hot dog (Icelandic)

Most of us want a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. If you’re conversing in Icelandic, you’d talk about an unexpected surprise at the end of something through a food metaphor. You’d refer to the raisin at the end of the hot dog. Hopefully, the real surprise is actually better.

8 / 11
mustard after lunch
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Mustard after lunch (Polish)

You’ve probably said “that ship has sailed” or that something “missed the window.” That’s what you say when it’s too late to act because the opportunity has already passed. In Polish, that’s referred to as “mustard after lunch.” It must be a real disappointment to have lunch without mustard. That’s the only way that idiom makes sense.

9 / 11
break a fast with an onion
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Break a fast with an onion (Arabic)

Imagine being so hungry, and then your next meal after fasting consists of an onion. If you’re speaking Arabic, that idiom means that you get less than you were expecting. If something is a raw deal, just call it “breaking a fast with an onion.” It makes the right point. These are the slang words no one outside of your state will understand.

10 / 11
to slide in on a prawn sandwich
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Slide in on a prawn sandwich (Swedish)

You may not have heard of a prawn sandwich before, but it sounds like a great idea, kind of like “being born with a silver spoon in your mouth.” In Swedish, “sliding in on a prawn sandwich” means you have an easy life. Kind of like living on easy street. Either way, good deal.

11 / 11
to be self-assertive
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Have hair on your teeth (Dutch)

This one does not make a lot of sense. In Dutch to “have hair on your teeth” means that you’re self-assertive. It seems like that condition would make you settle down and keep quiet. Great to know that in some places, hairy teeth means you’re ultra-confident and ready to take charge.