Someone once said you can tell a lot about a society by the way it treats its women. Well, you can get the same cultural reading from a country's traditional expressions and idioms, such as the ones found in Jag Bhalla's new book, I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears, from National Geographic (the title is the Russian equivalent of "I'm not pulling your leg"). Of course, several of the idioms are outdated, and Bhalla makes it clear that he does not mean to offend (it seems that every country has its own version of "Take my wife, please!"), but it's interesting to note some very anti-feminist phrases that were, well, very old hat back in the day.
Let's start with the most cliched topic -- marriage. Various Spanish's have such romantic notions about the institution as to call it "matricide," "to hang oneself," and refer to their betrothed as "handcuffs," the "War Department," or "The Holy Inquisition." Germans must feel they'll never see the light of day again once the wedding band is on -- they refer to it as being "under a bonnet." They also call a submissive wife a "cricket on the stove"; I just hope they're not lighting the burners to watch it jump -- no spousal abuse, please!
Then there are your classic double standards. An unmarried women over 25 is referred to by the Japanese as "leftover Christmas cake" (Double insult -- Christmas isn't even celebrated by the majority of Japanese. Congratulations, you're leftovers from another country's leftovers). But an unmarried man? He's simply an "old schoolboy" (Yiddish). Of course, aging men still get a resemblance of youth in their idiom while women are compared to stale, crumbling formations of flour and sugar. To make the aging matter worse, there's a Spanish proverb that reads "There are no ugly 15-year-olds." I'm not sure what the laws are in Spain, but here in America there are also no legal 15-year-olds. Yes, statutory rape is oh-so-attractive. This reminds me of that quote from Dazed and Confused about high school girls: The guy gets older, they stay the same age. Please, people, stop fetishizing youth! Twenty-five still has some pretty nice frosting.
And don't forget your He's a Stud, She's a Slut complex: A loose woman is known as "having seven husbands" (Hindi) or is simply, "a potato" (Chilean Spanish), while a womanizer (also a more glorious term than "loose") is said to "have fast hands" (Japanese). The Italians have a remedy for all that womanizing, however. A popular proverb says "leave women alone and go study mathematics." Yes, because there are NO women capable of studying mathematics that will be there to distract you! Numbers = hard!
And while we're at it, let's just talk about the global penis fascination. The French (of course) refer to being eloquent as having a "well-hung tongue" (my vocabulary is a total hard-on), but to mess things up is to "de-testicle" oneself, at least in Mexico. The Russians would at least warn you before this happens, saying, "Don't stir the tea with your penis!" I can't even begin to fathom the logistics.
But what this is telling of is the way that language indicates what's important to a culture at a given time, and what underlying outdated attitudes remain, even when used with the politcally-correct language of today. Kinda makes you go bananas, doesn't it?
For more laughable and loveable idioms from around the world, do check out the book. You'd be a monkey's uncle not to.