A Colombian in love is “swallowed like a postman’s sock.” A Norwegian up to some dubious business may be “caught with his beard in the mailbox.” An irate Russian might threaten: “I’ll show him where the crayfish spends the winter!”
Colorful idioms like these speckle languages across the globe. These “culturally specific expressions are precious insights into other lives across oceans, or in deserts,” says Ella Frances Sanders, the author of The Illustrated Book of Sayings, a new volume cataloging 52 of the strangest verbal gems from around the world.
In 2013, Sanders, an artist who grew up in the English countryside, was living in Morocco and interning for a global storytelling company. She occasionally contributed to the blog; for one post, she illustrated 11 untranslatable words from other cultures. Her intricate pen-and-watercolor sketches captured waldeinskamkeit, the German word for the feeling of being alone in the woods, and mångata, a Swedish description for the reflection of the moon on the water. Sanders’s post went viral; a book editor in the United States contacted her, and she drafted her first book, Lost in Translation, which more deeply explored the idea.
The Illustrated Book of Sayings was a natural successor to that first project, Sanders says. It’s by no means a comprehensive guide to the world’s expressions—that, Sanders says, would take thousands of pages, and several volumes. But she hopes the handful she illustrates “will breathe some magnificent life into the everyday—color the view different[ly] so that you might be able to see the previously unseen.”
The 52 idioms in the book hail from nearly as many languages (Sanders repeats a couple, like Dutch and Japanese). In trawling through so many countries’ idioms, Sanders unearthed some commonalities. The natural world inflects many of them. “We’ve been surrounded by landscapes and animals since before we can really remember,” Sanders says. “Our languages developed alongside them.” So in Korean, for example, the tendency to correlate two coincidences is expressed as: “When the crow flies away, a pear falls off.”
Researching the book, Sanders uncovered explanations for some truly inscrutable expressions. The French “To pedal in the sauerkraut,” means to have lost one’s train of thought; to be stuck in a rut. It’s bizarre, but the expression has its origins in the early Tour de France races. When cyclists unable to finish the route would fall behind the pack, the wagons that picked them up often featured billboards advertising sauerkraut. The very proper English admonition to “Mind your p’s and q’s” originated in the early days of the printing press, when the two letters looked very similar in certain fonts, and type setters had to be especially careful not to mix them up.
There are also vast cultural variances on idioms that may be more familiar to English-speaking readers. The Portuguese version of “To cast pearls before swine” is “To feed a donkey sponge cake”; the Hindi take on the philosophical question of whether a falling tree in a forest makes a sound is, “Who saw the peacock dance in the jungle?”
The Illustrated Book of Sayings, Sanders says, “is a manual of openness, an antidote to the high walls we are determinedly building around ourselves.” Cultural differences “can leave mouths dry and conversations stunted,” she says, but these idiomatic barriers to communication are actually quite beautiful. Learning about them, Sanders hopes, will leave a person “with a lighter, more human heart.”
The Illustrated Book of Sayings, $14.99 at Amazon.