Food and Language – the Inextricable Links

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The English language is full of comparisons and analogies. They are an integral part of our speaking, writing, and storytelling. One result of this obsession is that our language has become peppered with idioms – word combinations that have different figurative and literal meanings. And nowhere are idioms more prevalent than when it comes to talking about food.

It seems that food and language are inextricably linked. Have you ever been called a couch potato? Have you ever wondered if something was difficult only to discover it was a piece of cake? People who work in language translation services are met with challenges such as these phrases every day.

We don’t often stop to think about how these figures of speech came about, or even why we use them. Imagine, if you will, how harder it must be for those trying to learn English to navigate the 25,000+ idioms present in the English language.

The literal translation of many of these phrases makes no sense at all! If you want to learn more about how crazy English can get, here’s an interesting article that lists out some examples of hilarious English words. Despite that, these expressions provide an excellent opportunity to enhance the learner’s understanding of a new culture and cuisine. 

Idioms are not reserved for the English language either. French, Spanish, and Chinese have been dubbed equally as difficult to translate due to the frequency of idiomatic expressions in everyday conversation. In this article, we look at some of the most interesting food-related idioms around the world and what they bring to their respective languages.

Seemingly Innocent Phrases that Translate into Significant Insults

In all languages, food phrases can serve as a suitable insult, some more serious than others. Cuisine-related insults seem to be the grown-up version of a food fight, only less messy!

If you want to call someone a jerk in French, for example, there are plenty of foodie idioms to help you with that translation:

Espèce d’andouille! is to call someone a piece of sausage. Une vraie courge! denotes them as an utter squash. If you really feel offended, ferme ta boîte à Camembert! seems to be impactful. It translates into shut your Camembert mouth! And avoir un petit pois à la place du cerveau! means that you have a pea instead of a brain (this sounds like more of a medical issue than an insult).

In Polish, Grødhovede, or “porridge head,” labels you as a confused person with no brain. Meanwhile, to call someone “sausage arms,” or Pølsearme, is to tell them they are weak. 

In Germany, if someone doesn’t have all of their coffee cups in the cabinet – Er hat nicht alle Tassen im Schrank it means they aren’t too bright. And if you want to call someone as thick as a brick, you would say dumm wie Bohnenstroh, which in literal translation means they are as dumb as a bean straw. 

In China, if you are “a big-headed prawn who has just had your rice bowl broken,” you’ve been fired for being careless. In English, we have an equal number of insulting idioms, ranging from calling someone a “rotten apple” (a bad person) to saying they are “out to lunch” (dim-witted).

High Praise Food Translations 

Now that we’ve gotten the food fight out of the way, we can move on to something more positive. There are so many food idioms to describe good people, one hardly knows where to begin. It seems that goodness is synonymous with sweetness in many cultures. Professionals working in the translation services sector work overtime to decipher popular idioms like: 

In English, being as sweet as pie, honey, or sugar refers to someone who is genuinely nice. In French, if you are la crème de la crème (“the cream of creams”) you’re the nicest and best person of all. In German, if you show your chocolate side – Schokoladenseite zeigen – you are someone who only sees the good in things.

Other foods are used to describe the goodness in people as well. In Italy, if you’re as good as bread, you are as good as gold, which of course means that you are very, very, good. In Japan, Sansho ha kotsubu de piririto karai means “a Japanese pepper is small but hot enough.” This translates to “even though someone is small; they are so cheerful and talented they can’t be ignored.” English translation services may find the same compliments to be a bit lackluster in comparison. We simply refer to people as “good eggs” or “smart cookies!”

Butter – A Smooth Translation

Butter is a word that translation companies often see. It is used quite a bit in idiomatic expressions across several languages. For the most part, it is associated with favorable situations or outcomes. Consider how we use butter to compare things in the English language:

  • Your bread and butter is your primary source of income
  • As smooth as butter indicates that something is going well or that it is easy
  • To butter someone up means to flatter them to gain favor
  • To butter your bread means to secure a good living
  • If your bread is buttered on both sides, you live in wealthy surroundings
  • If you know what side your bread is buttered on then you know what is good for you
  • As happy as a clam in butter sauce means you are joyful and content
  • Referring to someone as butter says they are good, or very fine
  • A thank you note is sometimes called a bread and butter letter

In polish, Bułka z masłem, or “It’s a roll with butter,” indicates something is easy.

In French, you “put butter on the spinach” or mettre du beurre dans les épinards to make things better.

If you are in Russia, “a little butter won’t spoil your porridge” (Кашу маслом не испортишь) means there can never be too many good things.

Money Translates Universally

There are lots of idioms related to food and money, or the relative cost of things. In English, we say something is “cheap as chips” to indicate that it is inexpensive.

In Lithuanian, the same sentiment is expressed as Pigiau grybo or “cheaper than a mushroom.”

Une bouchee de pain means “a mouthful of bread in French” – i.e. something very inexpensive.

In Dutch, Iets voor een appel en een ei kopen “Buying something for an apple and an egg” means you purchased it cheaply

In Portuguese, the idiom is related to fruit as well: “A preço de banana” means “As cheap as a banana.”

In Croatian, the phrase KOŠTALO GA K’O SVETOG PETRA KAJGANA is at the opposite end of the spectrum and means something is very expensive. The literal translation is: “It cost as much as St Peter paid for his scrambled eggs.”

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Many of these phrases are quite comical in nature, each with its own rich history. You can check out this article by the History Network if you want to learn more about the historical origins of specific English phrases. You can then have a clearer understanding on the fact that even most ridiculous and nonsensical phrases in all languages didn’t just come from nowhere. 

Within the translation industry, experts have to work hard to sort out each of these phrases in order to provide the best translation for them. Language truly is an amazing study.

Even in English, it is difficult to explain the idioms we use. It’s easy to see how translating them into other languages – or vice-versa – can quickly become extremely complicated. Sometimes, idiomatic expressions are so ingrained in a culture that the translation behind them has long been lost. 
Despite this, translators and professional localization experts need to find their meaning before they can translate and localize them. Further, what may be acceptable in one language might be insulting and culturally inappropriate in another, meaning that care must be taken when delivering food-related expressions in other languages.