Choosing your next summer holiday destination is not easy - there are too many wonderful places to choose from. If you need a source of inspiration and at the same time you’d like to expand your English vocabulary, our list of English idioms and phrases related to nations and countries will surely come in handy!
“It’s all Greek to me”
Have you ever been in a situation when someone started talking directly to you in a foreign language or perhaps in a language you do know but with a very strong, unfamiliar accent? Or maybe you read a text that is so badly-written or difficult that it feels as if it’s not English? Or maybe you’re listening to a pair of doctors or engineers having a conversation using lots of specialised jargon. You understand the words, but you don’t know what they’re talking about. The idiom it’s (all) Greek to me can be used in such situations - when a text or a dialogue is incomprehensible, difficult to decipher, to understand.
“Bring owls to Athens / Send owls to Athens”
And while we’re on the subject of Greece, you might also encounter a somewhat obscure but nonetheless interesting idiom which is connected to the Greek capital. The city of Athens was named for the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena, who in art was often accompanied by an owl - a symbol of wisdom and knowledge. You could find the owl depicted on murals or vases but also on city coins, so the animal was almost omnipresent. Given their number, bringing or sending even more owls to Athens would be futile; and this is exactly what the saying indicates - a pointless, unnecessary task or action.
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”
Going west from Greece, we now reached the Italian Peninsula which housed another ancient civilisation - the Romans - who formed the Roman Empire. Its main capital city, just like of Italy today, was Rome and there are several idioms related to it.
Whenever you go abroad it is always a good idea to study local customs and observe local people so as to fit in and avoid making any faux pas. Every culture and every social group has its own expectations and set of appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, so should you enter a different group of people, because you’re moving out to another country or start working in a new company, try to blend in and follow the local rules, so when in Rome, do as the Romans do.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day”
Working in a company can be really stressful at times, especially if you do huge projects that require good team coordination and time management. However overwhelming deadlines might be, you need to remember that reaching a high quality requires a lot of time and patience. This applies to other areas of life, such as language learning, competitions, or romantic relationships. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so you need to be patient before you can see some satisfactory results. Another similar expression I really like in our culture of instant gratification: “Overnight success takes years.”
“Fiddle while Rome burns”
In 64 AD, a great fire broke out in Rome, raging for five days and destroying multiple districts of the city. The emperor at that time was Nero. Rumor has it that instead of fighting the fire, he preferred to use it as a source of inspiration for his work. Just as Nero ignored the dire situation his people were in, you might use the idiom fiddle while Rome burns in relation to someone who doesn’t respond adequately in the case of an emergency or an urgent situation, and who keeps doing the unimportant tasks, ignoring the greater problem.
“Pardon my French / Excuse my French”
England had a longstanding rivalry with France, which was reflected in the language as well. We can find some French-related idioms and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they are not positive. It seems that the animosity between the two nations was so strong that the French language didn’t sound too pleasing and became synonymous with foul language and obscenities. If you find yourself using swear words while talking to someone, you might say pardon my French, so as to apologise for using a crude language.
You’re at a party that is the complete opposite of fun - bland food, bad music, nobody to talk to - or maybe you’re just not in the mood for partying and you came only because you wanted to make someone happy. While it might be rude, in such a situation sometimes the best thing to do is to take the French leave and just go home without notifying anybody. The idiom can be used in other situations as well, such as when you leave an important business meeting, an obligatory conference, or a military post. Surprisingly, it seems that the English are more notorious for leaving without saying goodbye, since several languages (for example Italian, Polish, and obviously French) call such an act the English leave instead.
Eating out with your friends is a very pleasant way to spend your free time but when it’s time to leave, things might get complicated if you ordered many meals. Counting how much each person paid and then trying to distribute the change equally can be troublesome. Nobody wants to sit at the empty table for 20 minutes - sometimes it’s just better to go Dutch instead and let everyone pay for themselves.
Need some encouragement before making a decision or taking action? For some people there’s no better way to boost their self-confidence and muster their strength than a shot of vodka or any other strong alcohol beverage. The idiom Dutch courage refers to a) the act of drinking alcohol in order to do something that requires bravery or a lot of confidence in one’s abilities, or b) the newly-found courage gained by being drunk. The phrase can be traced to the Anglo-Dutch rivalry of the 17th and 18th century, which shows us how various conflicts are reflected in language as well.
Further east, we reach China, an enormous place where gunpowder, paper and the compass were invented, among other things. The Chinese were indeed very crafty and apart from many inventions, they also created many clever puzzles consisting of interlocked elements that need to be moved around and rotated in order to separate all the pieces and solve the puzzle. Finding a solution to such a puzzle is not easy, since these objects are designed to be complex. So when a situation, a problem, or an idea is (like) a Chinese puzzle, it is complicated and difficult to understand. But don’t worry, sooner or later you will find the right solution!
In case of a conflict, there are several approaches and strategies you can take. You can collaborate and try to find a solution that will profit everyone, you can reach a compromise that will leave both parties unsatisfied, you can also try to avoid the conflict and withdraw, but if it’s not possible you might as well give in and fulfil the demands, or you can be unforgiving and try to have it your way. If both parties decide to be competitive and assertive, we might reach a Mexican standoff - a stalemate or a situation where neither side wants to attack or go first, but at the same time neither side wants to retreat, and any aggressive action by any party can result in everyone’s demise.
“As American as apple pie”
Last but not least, we reach the United States of America! There are many things the USA is famous for - baseball and American football, the Grand Canyon, the movie industry of Hollywood, NYC, Las Vegas. But there are also less commonly known aspects of American way of life - cultural traditions and customs, such as throwing baby showers, writing dates with month number first, and obligatory tipping in restaurants. If something is very American in nature, characteristic of American culture, society or politics, you might say it is as American as apple pie.