Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Proverbs & Idioms: Proverbidioms -- From Cantonese to English

Great Proverbs of Hong Kong Cantonese
Painting by 阿塗
Image from Passiontimes.hk
This post traces back months ago, when the painter 阿塗 (coined the Father of Hong Kong Golden Forum by local netizens) published a piece of work capturing 80 Hong Kong's very own greatest Cantonese proverbs amidst the time of uneasiness between the Hong Kongers and the mainland Chinese. Inspired by Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel's Netherlandish Proverbs (1559), 阿塗's
Great Proverbs of Hong Kong Cantonese aims to promote Lingnan culture and educate the public about the importance of Cantonese, hence defending it from dialectic eradication through brutal political gestures.

Pieter Bruegel's Netherlandish Proverbs, 1559
Captured 112 Dutch proverbs and idioms
Image from Wikipedia
Zhimaludoushi's 高登神獸之父阿塗創廣東俗語漫畫集 listed some translations from Cantonese to English which we all can use as reference, but I would like to add a few comments to it.


  1. "Freudian slip is a verbal or memory mistake that is believed to be linked to the unconscious mind", thus it has nothing to do with vision or sight and is an incorrect translation of 鬼揞眼.
  2. 有錢使得鬼推磨 can be translated to an English proverb "money makes the mare go".
  3. 鬼拍後尾枕 has a meaning of saying something you regret because you shouldn't have said it, which could be a secret or something mindless, so a relatively well-fitted idiom is "to put one's foot in one's mouth"
  4. 呃鬼食豆腐 is basically to tell lies, in English there are many such idioms, one of which is "lead sb up/down the garden path".
  5. The one word for 鬼畫符 would be "indecipherable". 
  6. 放飛機 has a perfect translation to the English phrasal verb "to stand sb up".
  7. 兩頭蛇 can be translated into "a two-face", but a more intriguing one, among Transformers' fans, is the Doubledealer, hence a "double-dealer" fits.
  8. "To cry wine and sell vinegar" fits 掛羊頭賣狗肉, though this English version is not well-known among native speakers.
  9. 甩繩馬騮 are kids "on the loose"..
  10. 食拖鞋飯 is "to sponge". A sponge means a person who takes advantage of the generosity of others.
  11. 樹大有枯枝 can be translated to the proverb "there is a black sheep in every flock".
  12. 牛唔飲水唔撳得牛頭低 is "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink".
  13. 捉黃腳雞 is catching sb committing adultery.

阿塗's Great Proverbs of Hong Kong Cantonese is not the only painting inspired by Netherlandish Proverbs. American artist T. E. Breitenbach's Proverbidioms (1975) is arguably the first and the most famous artwork on English proverbs and idioms, capturing over 300 instances on a single 45 by 67 inch wooden panel.

T. E. Breitenbach's Proverbidioms, 1975
Captured over 300 common proverbs and clichés
Image from Wikipedia
If you want to learn more proverbs and idioms in an interactive way, you can download the free game PROVERBidioms from Apple Store and play as you learn, learn as you play. This game is good for children and excellent for adults English learners!

Screen capture of the game
Image from PROVERBidioms app
Do you know what the above proverbs/idioms mean? If you want to know, let's start playing!

Image from greenstonegames

Pieter Bruegel the Elder @Wikipedia

Netherlandish Proverbs @Wikipedia

Saving the Cantonese Language in China @China Decoded

in case you didnt notice - big change coming? @Guangzhou Stuff

高登神獸之父阿塗創廣東俗語漫畫集 @ zhimaludoushi

T. E. Breitenbach @Wikipedia

Proverbidioms @ Wikipedia

Is Cantonese in danger? Hongkongers take steps to protect their heritage @ SCMP

Proverbidioms App @ greenstonegames