Idiom Formation via Transliteration

I have found the following 4 patterns in the formation of [English] idioms.

L1 > transliteration > L1 [ + translations > L2, … Ln ]

Example: Biblical book of Job 19:20
Hebrew B’QoSHi (barely, hardly, with difficulty) > transliteration > Hebrew B’3or SHinai
(using 3 for the letter ayin) > Old Testament translation > (escape) by/with the skin of my teeth
I do not know if Job used this idiom or if the original source was misheard by a later scribe.

L1 > transliteration > L2 [ + translations > L3, … Ln ]

Latin sopor quies (sleep restfully, quietly) > Hebrew SPoR KeVeS > Count sheep! > Modern Hebrew LiSPoR K’VaSiM = to count sheep (plural). Compare English soporific; quiet, quiescent. If you are counting them, there must be more than one.

[ L1 > transliteration > L1 ] > transliteration + translation > L2 [ + translations > L3, …Ln ]

Example 1:
[ Hebrew B’RaKHa (a blessing) > transliteration > Hebrew BeRekH (knee, leg) ] >transliteration + translation > break a leg
Compare German “Hals und Beinbruch!” = break a neck and leg!
Here Hals is a metathesis of Yiddish (from Hebrew) HatSLakha = success

Example 2:
[ Heb PeLeTZ + k’Foo (shiver+frozen) > transliteration > Hebrew P’LiZ + KoF (brass + monkey ] > transliteration + translation > (cold enough to freeze the) BaLLS oFF a brass monkey
Because the peh is transliterated to B, this probably arrived in English via Arabic.
[L1 > transliteration > L2] > translation [+ alt/root translation] > L1 [ + translations > L3, …Ln ]

A target language source term is transliterated to a foreign language term, followed by translation of that foreign term into the target language idiom (that has the meaning of the original target language source term).
[English my secret > transliteration > Heb MiSGeReT] > translation [+ root translation] > Eng skeleton [(in the) closet]

A Google Scholar search retrieved 2 journal articles about the transliteration of Buddhist Sanskrit words/phrases to Chinese idioms:

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Count sheep!

Welcome to the Idioms blog on

I have created this blog to advance the proposition that most idioms (defined narrowly as phrases whose meaning cannot be determined by analyzing the “words” in them) are transliterated (not translated) from a foreign language directly into common words of the target language.

The picture above was selected at random by WordPress. It contains sheep. Therefore, the first idiom to be discussed is “count sheep !” (to help one go to sleep).

Sometimes both transliteration and translation are involved. “Count sheep !” seems to be the translation of a Hebrew transliteration pun, S’PoR KeVeS, on the Latin phrase sopor quies = sleep quietly, restfully (without moving). A soporific is a drug that makes you sleep. Quiescent means quiet, still or inactive. (U and V are the same letter in Latin.) This idiom has been borrowed back into Israeli Hebrew as LiSPoR K’VaSim, to count sheep (plural).

Other idioms will be discussed in later posts.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment