Tag Archives: idiom

Bana ba motho ba kgaogana tlhogo ya tshoswane

Text: “Bana ba motho ba kgaogana tlhogo ya tshoswane”

Translation: The people of a family are to share the head of an ant.


B is a middle aged man who was born and raised in Gaborone, Botswana and lives there currently. This is a common phrase in Setswana —the national language of Botswana— used as a metaphor to express the importance of family, sharing, and putting others before yourself. 

B first learned this metaphor from his wife who came from a large single parent household (7 children) It was their reality that the only means through which to prosper is for them all to share and be giving, despite not having much to give. Caring for the entire family is more important than one single individual.


This metaphor is very representative of the greater Botswana community and its cultural norms. It is highly valued in Botswana culture to be selfless and to give freely. This metaphor emphasizes that it is easy to give when you are in abundance, however, even when you only have something as small as an ant’s head, you must still find it in you to share that with the family (or community). This is a distinctly non-western philosophy and way of living. In the US, it is the norm to be extraordinarily individualistic. In Botswana, however, as exemplified by this phrase, the only option is for everyone to prosper, going directly against holding one person above the rest.

Feeling “a box of birds” or feeling “crook”

To say one is feeling a “box of birds” to mean feeling good or “crook” to mean feeling bad

Context: The informant is half-Indian and half-New Zealander, with her dad being an immigrant from New Zealand. At one point, the informant’s paternal great grandmother was over for Christmas and she had caught a cold, so her family took her to the doctor, and according to the informant when the doctor asked her how she was doing she said “Well yesterday I was a box of birds and now I’m feeling a bit crook”.

Analysis: According to the informant, “box of birds” is used to describe someone who’s doing or feeling well, while “crook” is used to describe someone who is doing poorly. The informant’s family is from New Zealand, and the informant only remembers her great-grandmother being the one to use it. In doing some research, I found that “box of birds” is a common idiom in both New Zealand and Australia used to describe feeling good/doing well, due to one “feeling chirpy”, which the informant agreed was accurate to her family’s definition and context of use. “Feeling chirpy” is a similar nature-based idiom, referring to someone who is cheerful and in good spirits, similar to birds chirping excitedly. Having that much energy would logically require one to be in good health. It is unknown if both expressions were derived independently, but if so, that would indicate an instance of polygenesis, with at least two independently derived expressions relating health/energy with birdsong. It stands to reason that birdsong, like other behaviors that are consistently observed by a large amount of people would make their way into the vocabulary. Using them as comparisons would evoke a shared experience and facilitate understanding.

In the same regions, the slang “crook” refers to feeling bad or in bad health but seems as if it has less clear origins; crook comes from crooked, which can mean incorrectly or wrongly shaped, which might be where the slang comes from. Both seem to be instances of folk speech, either evolving from common

Potato, Potato

“Potato, potato” (po-tay-to, po-tah-to)

Genre: modern proverb/idiom

Context/Source: An early childhood memory signified by his (26 year old man) initial confusion with the meaning of the sentiment. 

Analysis: The simplicity of this two-word sentiment confounds it’s meaning. Hearing it for the first time as a young child, the source wondered if there were two names for the same vegetable, or two vegetables with the same name. Over the course of a few weeks he speculated that maybe it was various regional accents that caused the discrepancy in pronunciation, or maybe there was no single way to pronounce it. The more you think about it… potato potato, tomato, tomato, the more the meaning is obscured, the less distinguishable the words become. It shows there’s more than one way for individuals to arrive at the same idea. Though playful, it embodies that, despite language and culture, a potato is a potatoe. 

After further research, I found the idiom seems to be derived from the song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”, written for the film Shall We Dance, released in 1937.

Ren Shan Ren Hai

AW is a 19 year old college student. She is an undergraduate computer science major and is from Los Angeles County. She is Chinese American and has lived in LA all of her life.

Context: AW is a good friend of mine, so we sat down after dinner to discuss folklore she picked up across her life.


AW: There is one saying that my parents say all the time. It goes:


Translation: Ren Shan Ren Hai

English Translation: People mountain people see

Literal Translation: There are so many people here.

AW: The words don’t make sense but when you say it it just means, “woah there is a crap ton of people here”. It can vary from place to place though, like how in the US there are phrases for heavy rain and such.

Collector: Is that a phrase you use personally?

AW: Only when I’m speaking Mandarin and am with my parents and family friends.

Thoughts/Analysis: This idiom is a form of folk speech that Chinese people use to reference large crowds. It is similar to “long time no see”. It shows how folklore is directly linked to language in which the structure is similar. It also shows how language is used to connect folklore in different countries like how language is used to link India and Europe. I typically do not notice how people in America use expressions with the same structure and did not realize it was a universal thing because language changes sentence structure. I have found however that it is universal that many expressions use the natural environment as an idiom or use an idiom to express the natural environment (like rain).

For other variations of Chinese Idioms regarding mountains or seas, see:

Rapatan, N. (2013, May 14). Yu gong yi shan idiom. USC Digital Folklore Archives. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from http://folklore.usc.edu/yu-gong-yi-shan-idiom/

“In bocca al lupo” – Italian Idiomatic Phrase

Description of Informant

AG (18) is an Italian-American dual citizen and high school student from Berkeley, CA. At home, she speaks primarily Italian, and spends her summers in Italy.



Original Text: In bocca al lupo.

Phonetic: N/A

Transliteration: Into the mouth of the wolf.

Free Translation: [See Collector’s Reflection]

Responses: (1) Che crepi. (2) Crepi il lupo! (3) Crepi.

Context of Use

The idiomatic phrase is the Italian equivalent of “break a leg.” However, unlike its English counterpart, in bocca al lupo solicits a response, which may be delivered in several different ways. The phrase is used in place of “good luck” when one is entering a situation they have prepared for (e.g. performance, interview, examination, etc.)— rather than luck, you are wishing someone skill.

Context of Interview

The informant, AG, sits in the kitchen with her father and the collector, BK, her step-brother. Text spoken in Italian is italicized, but not translated.


BK: So tell me about the saying.

AG: Umm so basically when someone has an event, or a test they need to take. Instead of saying “good luck,” which is buena fortuna, in Italy you would say “in bocca al lupo.” Which is, literally translated, “in the mouth of the wolf.” And I don’t know if it has something to do with, like, Little Red Riding Hood or wherever they got it from. But then, the person taking the test, or who got good luck’ed, they respond “che crepi.” Which means like, uhh, how would you translate che crepi? Like, “I hope he dies” or “that he dies”…

BK: Who is “he”?

AG: The wolf. Yeah, that the wolf dies. It’s not super translatable.

BK: What is the appropriate context for this phrase?

AG: I think anytime someone in English would say “break a leg.” Like if I have a dance performance, my mom wouldn’t say “good luck” because it’s not luck for me, I don’t need luck to succeed, I need, you know, to do well, myself. And so she would say “in bocca al lupo” instead.

Collector’s Reflection

Into the mouth of the wolf represents plunging into danger. Often, though, this does not mean physical or life-threatening danger. In the expression’s day-to-day use, danger means the risk of failing a social performance (e.g. interview, recital, examination). The response of crepi indicates the receiver’s acceptance of the wish of strong performance, and their own hopes of success. Killing the wolf is overcoming the obstacle/challenge successfully.

The strong distinction between a wish of luck versus a wish of skill is fascinating. Luck, for Italians, is reserved for moments where circumstances are out of one’s hands (e.g. acts of God). Skill is up to the individual and their preparation. In English, you will often hear the skill-based equivalent, “break a leg,” spoken in the same breath as “good luck.” Though English speakers may understand the difference between luck and skill, their idioms conflate the concepts, while Italian speakers are very strict in their separation.