One of the fascinating things about languages is the way that idioms form. Writers will take an animal or a body part and then create a unique series of words that often requires some great leap of imagination to understand. Consider such English idioms as “he’s hitting the books” or “she twisted my arm” and it’s no surprise that Japanese people struggle with their English classes.
Luckily, humans are humans and the thinking behind some idioms is similar even in languages as unrelated as English and Japanese. To prove this point, without looking what do you think the following general word combinations might mean*?
- 足 (leg) & 速 い (fast)
- 顔 (face) & 火 (fire) & 出る (to exit)
- 目 (eyes) & 丸くする (make round)
(*Although you likely don’t need them, the answers are at the end of this article.)
One of the problems with this approach, of course, is that sometimes the Japanese images and the Western ones are very different. Good examples of this are: 鼻が 高い (“holding your nose high”) and 鼻にかける “letting your nose hang”).
While “holding your nose high” is similar to its English equivalent as it describes a sense of pride about something, its opposite — “letting your nose hang” — isn’t found in English. In Japanese, it means to boast or brag.
Intriguingly, these aren’t the only terms about raising or lowering body parts. There are also: 目が高い, meaning that someone has a discerning eye and 頭が上らない, which means that the speaker cannot raise their head to someone’s level — in this case because their opponent is so skilled it’s pointless to even attempt to match them. If you could pull even with that person, you might be able to say: 肩を並べる (“your shoulders are level with them”).
Much like English, the ears are unsurprisingly associated with hearing imagery. One of the biggest surprises for me was that Julius Caesar’s famous “lend me your ears” is actually similar to a commonly used idiom in Japanese: 耳を貸す (to lend). I’m sure that the great Roman leader would have appreciated this if, you know, he hadn’t been dead for almost a couple of thousand years.
Luckily, English speakers will easily guess the meaning of some of the other ones such as 耳をふさぐ (to block one’s ears). Slightly more difficult is adding the verb 挟む (to interpose) to make 耳に挟む, which means that one overheard something one wasn’t supposed to hear.
While the meanings of these can easily be guessed by English speakers, Japanese has a uniquely Japanese one with 耳にたこができる. At first this might sound strange as たこ means a callus built up from overuse. The image here is that the listener has heard something repeated so many times that they built up a callus, likely because they are constantly nagged about it!
… humans are humans and the thinking behind some idioms is similar even in languages as unrelated as English and Japanese.
What’s fascinating about the Japanese eye idioms are the verbs that are paired with them. These include very unlikely combinations such as 引く (to pull), 届く (to reach) and 盗む (to steal).
- 目を引く is often linked with strange adverts or surprising events. It means something similar to “eye-catching” in English.
- 目が届く means to keep your eye on something.
- 目を盗む is to do something behind someone’s back.
Idioms related to 口, or the mouth, predictably have something to do with speech such as 口数が少ない (to be at a loss for words). Similar to the earlier ear idiom, 口 can also be combined with 挟む to make 口を挟む, which in this case means “to interrupt.”
While these are pretty easy to understand, it takes a little more imagination to work out the meaning of 口から先に生まれたよう, which literally means that someone’s mouth was born before them. In fact, this tricky idiom means something similar to someone being “born with a big mouth” in English.
When considering hand idioms, things get a bit more surreal. Instead of literally describing hands, the Japanese kanji 手 often refers to one’s ability to do tasks instead. Therefore, these can be paired with unusual verbs such as 回る (to spin), 足る (to be sufficient) and 負える (to manage) to make:
- 手が回らない, meaning you can’t get round to doing something.
- 手が足らない, meaning to not have enough “hands” to get the job done.
- 手に負えない, meaning to be unable to handle everything.
Neck, shoulders, head and face idioms
Learners will have to be careful learning these idioms involving 首 (neck), 肩 (shoulders), 頭 (head) and 顔 (face) as they have meanings that are very different to English. Adding the verbs 突っ込む (to thrust), ひねる (to twist), 持つ (to hold), 切れる (to cut) and 立つ (to stand) to these bases make these fascinating idioms:
- 首を突っ込む, meaning to poke your head into someone else’s business.
- 首をひねる, meaning to be puzzled.
- 肩を持つ, meaning to take someone’s side.
- 頭が切れる, meaning a sharp mind — one so sharp it can “cut.”
- 顔を立てる, meaning to save someone’s face (from potential embarrassment).
These examples show one of the most fascinating things about idioms not just in Japanese, but in all languages, that the process of creating words can at times be so similar and yet so different. One of the great things about learning these idioms is that it gives the learner a chance to see how another country views the world around them and deepen their knowledge as a result.
Answers to the quiz
- 足が速い is a pretty obvious one as it means that someone runs fast.
- 顔から火が出る is to be embarrassed.
- 目を丸くする is to have wide-eyes — likely in astonishment.
Do you know any other body part idioms? How do these compare to the phrases in your native language if it isn’t English? Let us know in the comments.