Eat Bird or Die

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Years ago I had a funny conversation with a friend who told me about some Russians she knew that fancied themselves master translators. They played a game to prove it: she was to whisper something in English into the ear of one, he would whisper it in Russian to the next, then that guy would whisper it to the next, and that last person would then translate it back to the group in English. So, English to Russian, then Russian down a small line, then translated back to English.

In this manner “I have to hit the sack” became “It is necessary I strike the bag.”

There were several other examples, but for some reason I recall only this one, which wasn’t even the funniest. Nevertheless, we laughed like crazy and started collecting idioms. We also liked to borrow German expressions and use them, translated literally, and say them in English for what we wanted to express. But they had to be special ones, sentences that made no sense in English. “They go like warm rolls,” when talking about something really popular, for example, wouldn’t suffice, because to an English speaker that still makes sense.

So we aimed for the wackiest ones we could come up with and used them on innocent, unsuspecting citizens. The variety of responses was hilarious, and reminds me of why there are so many reasons to love words and the millions of ways in which people use them.

Here are some literal translations and what they actually mean in English –

To be a boiled, slit ear – never miss a trick

With a monkey tooth – at breakneck speed

“Pull rope!” – “Get lost!”

To be able to steal horses with someone – to be super reliable

You’ve seen horses vomit – anything can happen

Pour one onto the lamp – drink a lot

I have a lot around my ears – I have a lot on my plate

Adopt the salami tactic – to do things in small steps

“He has hair on his teeth.” – “He’s bossy.”

To be on the wooden path – barking up the wrong tree

A stone has fallen from my heart – that’s a relief

Spoon out the soup – face the music

The last shirt has no pockets – You can’t take it with you (when you die)

Add a tooth – speed up

Milk girl calculation – naïve assessment

Vogel Drei (Meister der Spielkarten) – ein lustiger Vogel

There are loads and loads more, and a few websites even explain the etymology of some, which makes for quite fascinating reading because one can learn so much about a culture by studying their idioms. German, for example, seems to utilize a lot that give pigs much more love than most other countries do. And birds…there’s something slightly mysterious about how often Vogel shows up in German expressions. In fact, I went looking for one I could swear was something like Eat bird or die, meaning take it or leave it. I couldn’t find it anywhere, though, which made me a bit sad because I also used to have a bookmark that splashed those words across the length of it. Well, between what I could remember and those I looked up, I had to be satisfied.

But we’ll re-visit at some point, for sure. On this evening, however, we must recall that everything has an end. Only the sausage has two.

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7 thoughts on “Eat Bird or Die

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    1. Hi, Amber! I know, I love that one with the teeth! I agree “the last shirt has no pockets” makes sense, though perhaps mainly if one knows what it means or is used in a fairly clear context. We used to go around saying this and other literal translations of foreign idioms to people very out of context on purpose to confuse them, and it was even more hilarious to us back then. Imagine the responses we got when we said people had hairy teeth!

      I also like to adopt certain foreign phrases as my own when I find them meaningful, as you did with the one here. I think it’s a great practice and contributes to the appreciation of other cultures even more.

  4. “Eat Bird or Die” What a title! Lol
    The Russians are clever.
    What cool idioms! Adding them to my collection! I’m trying to decide which one is my favorite. Ha! Great post, Lisl!

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