In day-to-day speech, Romanians often use established expressions learned by hearing them, but whose origin is, most of the times, unknown to them.
Many times when we go to the rural zone, we hear some popular Romanian expressions that are unknown to us and that many times leave us with no answer because we don’t know what they mean and their origin. The old, especially, use idioms which the youth consider bizarre. Let’s look at some of the most common ones and see where they came from:
1. A freca menta (To rub the mint)– Romanian way of saying you’re not doing anything
This is one of the most common and most popular Romanian expressions. Here is its origin:
In ancient Greece, the table on which the food was served up was rubbed with fresh mint leaves to get rid of the unpleasant smells infiltrated, by time, in its wood and to give it a feeling of freshness. Naturally, the servants were tempted to pay much more time to this pleasant and easy activity than it was necessary. In this way, they avoided other house works. Thus, they were wasting time… rubbing the mint.
2. Colac peste pupăză (On top of that, or literally “ring bread over hoopoe”)
A great misfortune, which comes after other problems- this is the meaning we give to this expression which, basically, is related to 2 major events: the wedding and death. Among the people, “the hoopoe” is a bread used during the wedding ceremony. And “the ring bread” is a thank-offering brought to burials and memorial services. Besides feast and joy, any wedding implies a lot of work and many worries- will it go well? will everybody be content? When we get rid of all of these, but, hard lines! another misfortune follows, we are saying huffily: “colac peste pupăză”.
3. Floare la ureche (a piece of cake, it’s a doss/cinch!; literally “flower at the ear”)– Romanian idiom saying that something can be easily done or obtained
A pretty vague explanation refers to a medieval custom of the young British girls: the flower tucked behind the left ear, on the heart side, showed that she has a suitor; the flower worn behind the right ear was a notice towards the admirers that the miss could be more easily approached about a potential relationship.
4. La Paștele Cailor (tomorrow come never, when the devil is blind, etc)
In English, this has many equivalents. This is one of the popular Romanian expressions which is used when talking about something that will never happen and its origin is from Transylvania and comes from the legend in which, when Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ, the horses made an indescribable noise. Then, Virgin Mary would have cursed them to always hunger, except a day a year, respectively Paștele Cailor.
5. În al 9-lea cer (over the moon, on top of the world, etc, literally “to be in the seventh heaven”)
This idiom is used when someone is at the peak of happiness. In bygone days, people thought that the world was divided into more levels, and “the seventh heaven” was destined to “the blessed”.
6. A bate palma (to shake hands with so.; to strike a bargain, you’ve got a deal! etc)
The habit of shaking hands or palming hands and the expressions equal to them come, apparently, from the Ancient times, when 2 persons who met wanted to demonstrate to each other that they both came in peace: none of them was hiding in their hand a weapon.
7. A-și da arama pe față (to give oneself away, to unmask, etc)
In the Middle Ages, the coiners made coins of copper and covered them in a thin layer of gold or silver. After the coins passed a while, the golden (silver) shell was fading and the real material came to light- the copper.
8. A spune brașoave/ a vinde gogoși (to thump, to lie, lit. “to sell donuts”)
“Brașoavele/gogoșile” became synonyms for the lies and the big words, when the fame of the merchants of the Brașov city from the Middle Age who were bragging about their goods lavishly faded away.
9. A se bate cu morile de vânt (to beat the air/the wind, etc)
This idiom applies to those who fight an impossible to knock out enemy. As the famous character of Cervantes, Don Quijote de la Mancha, did: he set off the attack whenever he saw a windmill, which his warm imagination transformed it into a giant filled with cruelty.
10. Ți-a mâncat pisica limba? (Has the cat got your tongue?)
A habit full of cruelty underlies this idiom, on the surface, pretty: in the Assyrian Empire, soldiers captured from enemy lines had their tongues cut off. These became “delicacies” with which the king’s cats were fed.