Sayings from around the world

He slid in on a shrimp sandwich

In an international community, you may be confronted with weird and wonderful sayings from other countries. But what do they mean? ‘Your grandmother is in a cast.’
20 February om 16:41 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 21 February 2024
om 11:07 uur.
February 20 at 16:41 PM.
Last modified on February 21, 2024
at 11:07 AM.
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Door Eoin Gallagher

20 February om 16:41 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 21 February 2024
om 11:07 uur.
Avatar photo

By Eoin Gallagher

February 20 at 16:41 PM.
Last modified on February 21, 2024
at 11:07 AM.
Avatar photo

Eoin Gallagher

‘My favourite proverb has to be: Wie goed doet, goed ontmoet (He who does good, will meet good)’, says lecturer in Old Frisian and Frisian language history Anne Popkema.

The beauty of the proverb lies in its poetry, he says, in its positivity and the universality of the message. The idea that doing good things will bring good things to you is a wisdom that is repeated in lots of different languages, whether it be ‘reaping what you sow’, or the subtle reminder that ‘what goes around comes around’. 

Our everyday speech is so full of proverbs that we tend to forget we are using them at all, until you hear someone from another culture using words of wisdom from their country – just as witty and wild and often confusing, but translated to English, suddenly brand new. 

Because maxims are commonplace in languages everywhere, Popkema says. ‘It is a way to pass general wisdom on to the next generation or on to each other.’


The researcher has studied proverbs and even coined a little Frisian proverb of his own: Better hjoed goed as moarn better (Better good today, than better tomorrow). He also wrote a book about them, with his colleagues Jan Willem Bolderdijk and Saskia Peels-Matthey. In Outdated truths? Sense and nonsense of proverbs, they researched the level of truth of Dutch proverbs. Which still hold today and which ones need updating? ‘Although proverbs don’t need to be literally true to convey wisdom.’  

Proverbs, he says, are often confusing and take a little deciphering to understand. However, that’s an advantage, Popkema feels. ‘It’s just better that way, isn’t it? If they were literal, where is the fun in that? To make it cryptic makes it universal.’

They also make big truths and complicated ideas easy to express in daily conversations, while showing you have mastered a language, says Popkema: ‘I read it, I write it, and I even know to use the right proverbs.’


But they are also an expression of a country’s culture. ‘Holland of old – and Fryslân today – is quite agricultural and rural, so a lot of our proverbs have to do with cattle: cows and sheep.’ The sun, on the other hand, is not a big character in Dutch proverbs.

Of course, different languages can have similar sayings. If they share a root language, like Dutch and German do, then proverbs can be carried along and survive as the languages change. 

But separate cultures may find unique ways of saying the same things, Popkema says. ‘A certain truth might be said in many different words, in different cultures, because it is a general truth shared by all of mankind.’

Achteraf kijk je een koe in zijn kont dutch

Afterwards it is easier to look a cow in the ass 

Naturally, with the Netherlands’ farming culture, this saying involves cattle. Apart from painting a fun picture of someone looking happily into a cow’s backside, it means that it is easy to say what should have been done in a situation after it has already happened. An English cousin would be ‘hindsight is 20/20’.

Photo by CC BY-SA 3.0

Rana guda daya narke kakin zuma shima yana iya taurare yumbu nigerian

The same sun that melts wax is also capable of hardening clay 

This proverb is a little reminder that situations in life are what you make of them. It means that when a challenge comes, you can look at it as a negative or observe it as an opportunity to change and grow. In the face of daunting times, hard work and perseverance will help you make the most of the obstacles in front of you.   

Oppe og gråter ikke norwegian

I am up and not crying 

Up in the great north of Norway this is a common way to reply when someone asks you how you are doing in the morning. This phrase, packed with whimsical sarcasm, is not to be taken as literal, and a good way to reply when you are trying to shrug off conversation while dealing with those pre-coffee blues. 

Att glida in på en räkmacka swedish

To slide in on a shrimp sandwich 

This phrase is something of an insult and refers to someone who is spoiled, or has not earned what they have. Its roots are from shrimp’s historical perception in Sweden as an upper-class bourgeoisie food. Hence if someone slides easily into a place of success that they don’t necessarily deserve, then they are doing it on a shrimp sandwich.

We are not here to fuck spiders australian

This is brutal Ozzy sarcasm at its best, down under where spiders, snakes, and other critters are a common feature of life. This is a way to tell someone that you mean business. It is easy to imagine some bloke, in his high-vis vest, barking this at the new guy on a sun-soaked building site or a friend hurrying you to drink up at a party. After all, you are not there to fuck spiders!  

Mit sietsz, nem hajt a tatár hungarian

Why are you in a hurry? The Tatars aren’t chasing you

This idiom is a common way Hungarians ask each other why they are in a rush. It comes from the Mongolian conquest of Hungary, where raiders took the country and burned its cities. One of the largest Mongolian tribes in the invasion were the Tatars, hence their inclusion in the phrase.

千里之行,始于足下 chinese

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step

Attributed to the philosopher Lao Tzu, this proverb is helpful to keep in mind for anyone embarking on the harrowing journey of writing a thesis. Sometimes tasks look so big that you are left scratching your head about where you should start, and if you are going to be able to do it at all. Sure, it’s easy to fall into procrastination, but the message here is clear: begin with taking one small step and you are already on your way to success. 

סבתא שלך בגבס hebrew

Your grandmother is in a plaster cast

This is a strange and rather confusing insult and the implication is aloof. That said, it is interesting and will do two things if you can throw it at someone; you will likely leave them mad that you are talking about their grandmother, but also confused, wondering what exactly an old lady in a plaster cast has to do with anything.  

If there was work in the bed, he would sleep on the floor irish

This Irish dig is a slightly more straightforward way to diss someone. It is used by people commonly to describe someone who has no work ethic, or by your parents to let you know when they think you are being lazy – ‘Jesus, if there was work in the bed you would sleep on the floor.’  

Desenmerda-te portuguese

Un-shit yourself 

There is a rough sort of poetry to this one. It is something to say to someone when they are in a bad situation, and you need to bluntly – and comically – tell them that they must calm down and get themselves out of it. Essentially, you are urging someone to find a way out of the ‘shit’ that they have found themselves in.