Three Idioms Across the World Posted by on Jan 16, 2017 in Archived Posts

In American English, “Joe Average” is your regular guy, “Nowhereseville” is that far-away town, and “when pigs fly” is practically never. Who knew these idioms, or similar ones, were common across the globe?

Itchy Feet: Someone Somewhere Sometime

Not much is more fun than transliterating idioms across languages – that is, translating them literally. By their very nature idioms are culture-specific, since they rely on obscure metaphors, imagery and ideas. So although they don’t carry across to other languages very well, they are fun, and fun to learn! With this comic I received a lot of comments from people across the globe chipping in their local equivalents. Here are my favorites.

In Russian, a placeholder for someone totally average is Вася Пупкин (“Vasya Pupkin”), or “Vasily Bellybutton.” In Germany and Austria, Max Mustermann is like “John Doe,” more a term for someone anonymous rather than average, but in Austria they’re apparently unfamiliar with Otto Normalverbraucher. In Dutch you’d talk about Jan Modaal (“Jan Average”), in Brazil there’s João Ninguém (“Joe Nobody”) and in Portugal you’ll find Zé Povinho (“the People’s Joe”), who is not just an idiom but a very popular folk hero.

In German you’d refer to Hintertupfingen, a meaningless name for a town in nowhere, or Kleinkleckersdorf (“little food-spill village”). One of the versions in Finnish you might come across is hevonkuusi, also a word for “hell,” while in France you might talk about perpète-les-oies (“Faraway Geese”). In Russia, as you might imagine, there are lots of places in the middle of nowhere, and there are many names to refer to them – among these Тьмутаракань (“Tmutarakan”), based on an actual ancient city in southern Russia whose name apparently means “the darkness of cockroaches,” and куда Макар телят не гонял, “the place where Markar did not graze his cows.” Spanish features a number of things that Christ may have lost besides his cap – sandals, his boots, his lighter, his poncho – depending on the dialect and region, while in Mexico you might hear donde no pisó dios, or “where god never set foot.” In that same vein, in Croatia you’d say bogu iza nogu (“behind god’s legs”). In Thai you’d speak about “the land too far away to hear a gunshot,” and in Dutch that’d be verweggiestan, or “very-far-away-istan.”

For this expression meaning “probably never,” things get much more colorful across the world. In Spanish for instance, you might say cuando las ranas críen pelo, or “when frogs grow hair.” In French, more common than “the week of four Thursdays” is to say quand les poules auront des dents – “when hens grow teeth.” In Arabic you might hear “when the bull walks to Mecca on its horns” or “at your mother’s wedding,” apparently a very rare event. In Russianкогда рак на горе свистнет is “when a crab whistles on a mountaintop,” and in Taiwan 除非鐵樹開花 means “unless the cycads blossom” and 除非太陽從西邊出來 is “unless the sun rises in the west.” In Thai you have “when ducks drown” or “in the afternoon of your next life.” In Croatian it’s kad na vrbi rodi grožđe, or “when the willow tree bears grapes,” and in Malaysia they apparently say “when cats grow horns.” German and Portuguese share similar ones: am Sankt Nimmerleinstag (on St. Never’s Day”) in German and dia de São Nunca à tarde (“in the afternoon on St. Never’s Day”) in Portuguese. In Italian things get more obscure, but clever: alle calende greche means “on the Greek calends,” a calends being a Roman day that was never used in Greece – hence, “never.”

Obviously not everyone’s heard of all of these – some may be much more regional than others. But we’d love to hear from you! What phrases / idioms do you have in your local tongue, for these or other funny expressions?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. Helen:

    I like ‘Quand les poules auront des dents’,in French.
    That is :
    When? : When hens have teeth!
    I like the image it evokes. 🙂

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Helen Definitely. That’s a great one

  2. Johnno:

    In Australia, Nowheresville or generic terms for the outback are either Woop Woop, the Never Never, or Beyond the Black Stump.

  3. Eugene:

    In Russian there is also “После дождичка в четверг”—”After rain at Thursday” for “never”.

  4. Olivier:

    Nowereville in french :
    au milieu de nulle part “in the center of nowhere”
    or “perpet-les-oies” “perpet-the-geese”… name parody of little town in the country
    or “Pétaouchnok” parody of far far away name town.. in Russia

    JOE AVERAGE in French
    “monsieur Tout-Le-Monde” mister everybody (or everyone)

  5. Toper:

    in French, we use “on the Greek calends” too (but less often than hens’ teeth).

  6. Cristian:

    In Romanian:
    “Când o face plopul pere (şi răchita micşunele)”
    [when the poplar will make pears (and the willow cyclamen)]

    “La calendele greceşti”
    [on the greek calends]

    “La Sf. Aşteaptă”
    [on St. Wait]
    A play on colloquial day reference, e.g. “La Sf. Ion” [on St. John’s Day].

    A play on the anonymous symbol X, and the traditional Romanian last name “-(e)scu”

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