What Our Sayings Say About Us: Expressions Around the World

In the ongoing battle to obtain a second language, I recently subscribed to a new podcast – News In Slow Spanish.  As the name implies, it includes an unhurried discussion of current events. However, there is also a section on expressions which they refer to as the “salsa” of the language.  It’s certainly true that the use of sayings and expressions adds spice to our everyday babble.  But I think they also reflect something of the culture, and how people think.

Sayings in Mexico

There are a million sayings in Mexico and I try to salt my paltry Spanish with them as often as possible. Some of them are very Mexican –  “Poor Mexico. Too far from God, too close to the United States” is typical.  Other sayings reflect the Spanish heritage – “Hay moros en la costa!” Literally this means, “There are Moors on the coast,” but figuratively it speaks of trouble ahead.

My favorite new saying is “Te chingas o te jodes.”  I like to swear (I view it as a harmless way of releasing tension) and this saying gives me the opportunity while simultaneously declaring an unarguable truth:  “Chingar” is the oh-so Mexican equivalent of the F-word.  (To better understand the many uses of “chingar”, check out this essay from the famous Mexican writer and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz.) “Joder” is the Spanish F- word.  So… “Te chingas o te jodes.” You’re fucked either way.

The Scary Saying in China

A saying I heard while working as an English teacher China sent chills down my spine.  The current situation in China- a generation of only children- is unique in human history.  Like only children everywhere, they are sometimes over-indulged- Little Emperors.  On the other hand, these children are under a crushing amount of pressure to succeed.  Two parents and four grandparents will be depending on them for financial support in their old age.  Education is seen as the key in this overpopulated, competitive society.  When asked, “How are you?” my students would often answer that they were tired or not feeling good.  When I asked why, they replied that they had been up until midnight doing homework.  Most had classes of one kind or another seven days per week.  By middle-school, the vast majority wore glasses – eyes deteriorated from so many hours looking print.  And parents were constantly telling me to push their kids harder.  Play and non-academic life-skills were low priority.

I hated this and expressed my sadness to a group of adults.  “We think it’s awful too,” one mother said. “But we have a saying, ‘Give them a childhood- take away their future.’”

It’s a Saying Because God Wills It

In the Middle East I was constantly told that things happen “if God wills it”.  Fair enough, but sometimes you want an answer that’s a little more specific.

“Does the train run on Saturday?”

“If God wills it.”

Hmm. Well, okay. Did God will it last Saturday?

My Favorite Saying

Of all the sayings I’ve ever heard, my favorite was plastered throughout S.E. Asia – four little words which describe everywhere I’ve ever been and every person I’ve ever met…

Daveynin's photo of the truest of all sayings

Ain’t it the truth! Photo by daveynin.

Published in Asia, Mexico, Middle East & Africa

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Meet the Author

Seasoned traveler, avid reader, over-eater, clumsy but determined hiker and wannabe Spanish-speaker.


  1. jill

    I LOVE this! Local phrases do tell a lot about its culture and beliefs. There’s a saying in Indonesia that translates roughly to “a drop of poison ruins a whole bucket of milk” – which means that a small mistake can ruin a life’s reputation, doesn’t matter how good of a person you’ve been up to that point.

    1. Jennifer Choban Post author

      Interesting, Jill. Thanks for sharing. We have a simular saying in the US- “it only takes a few bad apples to spoil the bunch,” but I think it refers to lots of good people being influenced by one or two bad ones.

  2. Shayna @ Adventurous Soul

    I’ve always been amused by the fact that an expression for screwing up is “drop the ball” in English (because of baseball/football) but “pisar na bola” – step on the ball – in Portuguese (due to soccer).

  3. OCDemon

    There’s even some study that hypothesized that languages without future tenses result in citizens with better financial planning since they make less of a mental distinction between the present self and the future self. Weird stuff.

    1. Jennifer Choban Post author

      I find this fascinating. I’ve often wondered if people who don’t have a future tense live more in the present- worry and plan less. Would love to learn more about this.

  4. Elmer Cruz

    Growing up in Sydney as a second generation immigrant I was exposed to and have used the local expressions like:
    “Back of Bourke” – situated or come from a remote location, referring to Australian outback
    “Ball and chain” – wife
    “Useful as an ashtray on a motorbike” or “like a hole in my head” – unhelpful or of no use
    “Fair dinkum” – absolutely true
    “Fag” – cigarette
    “Maccas” – McDonalds

    There’s just so much more and I am getting an idea for my next post hehehe.

  5. Roseanna Schwizer

    yay, thanks for educating us a bit 🙂

  6. Michael Jon Falk

    Love reading all these 🙂 You should have employed the “all work and no play makes jack a dull boy” Jenny, lol… Oh well, I wanted to add that one as it fits with our theme…have some fun too! If you don’t you get stuck saying “another day,… another dollar” and who want’s that!

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