Monkeys in sleeves and other delightful idioms

In English, the cat is out of the bag. But our Dutch-speaking friends talk of monkeys coming out of sleeves.


I was at a dinner party with a Dutch guest who at one point during the conversation exclaimed, “Now the monkey comes out of the sleeve!” All the non-Dutch speakers were stumped by this phrase, which clearly illustrates Merriam-Webster’s definition of idiom: an expression that has “a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements.” 

It turns out that this is the Dutch version of the English idiom “The cat’s out of the bag,” or “Now the truth is revealed.” Idioms trip up language learners because they tend to use short, common words that even beginning students know – but make so little sense. Inspired by monkeys in sleeves, I looked for similarly puzzling idioms in other languages. Here are some of the wonderful ones I found.

Many languages express “It’s never going to happen” with an idiom involving animals doing something impossible. In English, we can say “I’ll do that when pigs fly.” In French, it’s “when hens have teeth.” The Russian version takes the cake, though – “when the lobster whistles on top of a mountain.”

Common animals feature in idioms around the world, and while the animals themselves are the same, they are deployed in very different ways. In English, “to get your ducks in a row” means “to get organized.” In Brazilian Portuguese, people sometimes end up “paying the duck” – accepting responsibility or blame for something they didn’t do, like ... well, nobody quite knows what this has to do with waterfowl.

If someone tells you “There’s no cow on the ice” in Swedish, they mean “relax!” This is not to be confused with the Dutch “when cows dance on ice,” i.e., never. Cats rarely get treated well idiomatically. “I have other cats to whip” means you have “other fish to fry,” in French. In Japanese, “wearing a cat on one’s head” is pretending to be nice, perhaps because of a cat’s habit of keeping its claws sheathed until it wants to shred the furniture. 

Food is another source of idioms. When French speakers say, “The carrots are cooked!” they mean that nothing can be done about a situation. “It’s a carrot,” on the other hand, means “of course” or “obviously” in Korean. Germans have quite a few sausage sayings, which sometimes contradict each other. “That’s sausage to me” translates to “I don’t care; it’s not important,” but when someone says, “Now it’s about the sausage!” it’s very important, referring to a crunchtime when a decision finally has to be made, something like “It’s now or never.” 

My favorite comes from Polish: “Not my circus, not my monkey.” Or as we say it less eloquently in English, “Not my problem.”

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