Did you know these idioms refer to countries and nationalities?

These often involve assumptions and biases that non-native English speakers may not share

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 25 May 2023, 7:23 PM

The English language is full of idioms, many of which refer to countries and nationalities — and often involve assumptions and biases that non-native English speakers may not share. Why, for instance, is unauthorised absence “French leave” in English and “filer à l’Anglaise” in French? Because for many centuries, the two nationalities didn’t much like each other, and each was only too happy to attribute unattractive behaviour to the other. Similarly, colourful language, full of expletives, is often preceded by a request to “excuse my French”. The words used are blunt Anglo-Saxon, but the intent is to apologise for using swear words and other inappropriate language, which the Englishman implies only the French would do.

Similar cultural prejudices are involved in the expression “going Dutch” for sharing the bill or “Dutch treat” for a meal at which the guest discovers he has to pay his own share. (The English clearly thought the Dutch weren’t very generous, which is, of course, untrue.) There’s also “Dutch courage” for the false bravado expressed by someone who has had too much alcohol to drink. The expression goes back to the days when English and Dutch soldiers were fighting each other in the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) and the Anglo-Dutch Wars (1652–1674), when Dutch soldiers allegedly fortified themselves with gin before going to battle. The result of those hostilities is a number of English terms that had ‘Dutch’ added to them as an insult: a “Dutch bargain” is a contract made by someone drunk, a “Dutch feast” is a social occasion where the host gets drunk before the guests, a “Dutch concert” is one where several tunes are played at the same time, and if something is “Double Dutch”, that means it’s nonsense. Though the English and the Dutch are the best of friends now, many of these expressions linger in the language as popular idioms, often used by people without any intention to offend.

Mere unfamiliarity lies behind some idioms — “it’s all Greek to me”, for instance, means you can’t understand something at all (the unstated assumption is that there are not many English speakers of Greek). Similarly, something complicated or difficult to comprehend is said to be “like Chinese arithmetic”. One can understand why an unsound or incomplete argument or theory is said to have “more holes than Swiss cheese” — since there is a Swiss cheese made with holes in it. Or that a period of unusually warm weather during a Northern hemisphere autumn is called an “Indian summer”. But why a disagreement or confrontation during which no agreement can be reached is called a “Mexican standoff”, I have no idea.

Some idioms are, of course, free of prejudice and easy enough to understand — if you refuse to do something and say “not for all the tea in China”, it’s obvious that nothing could induce you do it, not even a vast quantity of something. However, it’s not clear to me why China gets the blame for “Chinese whispers”, the process by which a message or piece of information (especially gossip or rumours) is distorted when passed on from one person to another, so that the final version is often very different from the original. As a children’s game, it’s a lot of fun, but why do the poor Chinese have to bear the burden of having their name attached to it?

Countries are not the only places that feature in English idioms — many cities do, too. None more so than Rome, now the capital of Italy. The expression “all roads lead to Rome” means that multiple methods can be used to achieve the same goal, but is also an allusion to the glory days of Imperial Rome, when all its far-flung citizens desired to reach the great city. That greatness is implicit in saying that “Rome was not built in a day” to convey that major achievements cannot be accomplished in a short period of time. The Roman Emperor Nero, who was said to have played the fiddle while his city burned to the ground, prompted the expression “fiddling while Rome burns”, which means that someone is doing trivial or irrelevant things instead of attending to extremely serious problems or crises. Time to get back to work!


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