I’ve been interested in idioms ever since I overheard my primary school teacher telling her colleague that she was fed up because “the kids in the class are always berwi fel caws pys”. I knew of course that this meant the children were ‘boiling like pea soup’, but I had no idea what it meant. Only later did I discover that she was annoyed that the class wouldn’t stop talking.
It was then that I realised that every language must have its own idioms, and that they probably make exactly as little sense to foreign learners as our own:
“I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth! She left him high and dry, but at least he’s got her off his back now.”
Shortly before I moved to Germany, I received a book of German idioms from a colleague as a leaving present. It was quite old, but provided an interesting insight into the German mindset, for example, the German equivalent to ‘all good things must come to an end’ is „alles hat ein Ende - nur die Wurst hat zwei“ (lit: ‘everything has an end, only the sausage has two’ - It’s hard to imagine any race stereotyping itself more effectively!).
Aside from confirming what we always knew about Germans and their eating habits, the book was sadly a bit dull. It was technically a dictionary which listed an idiom followed by a short explanation, for example:
Der Apfel fällt nicht weit vom Stamm
deutet an, daß ein Kind Eigenschaften und Verhaltensweisen von den Eltern übernimmt
means that a child takes certain characteristics and behaviours from their parents
which whilst useful, isn’t really interesting. For my 23rd birthday however, I received a fantastic French idiom dictionary called «Nom d’une Pipe!» which was not only fully illustrated with Blake and Mortimer comics, but also contained literal, word-for-word translations into English:
Lécher: to lick
Ours mal léché toi-même ! : Badly-licked bear yourself!
“You’re a big oaf!”
Idioms are what make languages interesting. They not only give an fascinating insight into the people (such as confirming that Germans eat only sausages or that the French are prone to licking bears, though sometimes not very well) but they also give the language itself a new depth and richness. Sure, ‘he ran away’ works, but ‘he legged it’ is far more descriptive.
As I’ve mentioned, the “big” languages have not only idiom dictionaries but also books about them, analysing them and generally making them interesting. Sadly however, smaller languages do not. Welsh, for example, has only three books of idioms, all of which were written before 1979. And useful though they are, they’re very boring.
Another problem with smaller languages is that, when the native idiom gets forgotten, it often gets replaced with a translation of that of a more dominant language - in the case of Welsh, the English. For example, the perfectly good ‘dw i'n yfed cwrw ond unwaith yn y pedwar amser’ (lit: I drink beer only once in the four seasons) has been all but replaced with the English ‘unwaith yn y leuad glas’ - once in a blue moon.
This is a shame, as the father of the Welsh Nationalist movement, Emrys ap Iwan, so eloquently put it: “As shall be the language, so shall be the man, and so shall be the nation. Good language promotes civilisation, and poor language, or language that is not used well, hinders it.”
So to prevent the richness and interestingness of Welsh idiomatic speech dying out, I present you with 10 of my favourite Welsh idioms:
Welsh: “Mae hi’n bwrw hen wragedd a chyllyll a ffyrc!”
Literally: “It’s raining old women and knives and forks!”
English: “It’s raining cats and dogs!”
Welsh: “Rhedodd e i ffwrdd gyda’i wynt yn ei ddwrn”
Literally: “He ran away with his breath in his fist”
English: “He ran away as fast as he could”
Welsh: “Dw i’n roi’r ffidil yn y tô”
Literally: “I’m putting the violin in the roof”
English: “I’m giving up”
Welsh: “Dw i’n teimlo fel tynnu blewyn o’i ddrwyn!”
Literally: “I feel like pulling a hair out of his nose!”
English: “I feel like hurting him / doing something cruel to him”
Welsh: “Mi rown fy mhen i’w dorri”
Literally: “I give my head for breaking”
English: “I’m certain”
Welsh: “Mae e yn llygad ei le yn ei barn”
Literally: “He’s in the eye of his place in his opinion”
English: “He’s quite correct, in his opinion”
Welsh: “Roedd hi’n freuddwyd gwrach”
Literally: “It was a witch’s dream”
English: “It was wishful thinking”
Welsh: “Paid â chodi pais ar ôl piso!”
Literally: “Don’t lift your coat after pissing!”
English: “Don’t cry over spilled milk”
Welsh: “Mae e’n ar gefn ei geffyl gwyn”
Literally: “He’s on the back of his white horse”
English: “He’s up to no good”
Welsh: “Mae hi‘n siarad fel melin pupur”
Literally: “She speaks like a pepper mill”
English: “She talks non-stop”