Have a screw loose: When different languages convey the same cultural aspect

During my Erasmus in France I went twice a week in a couple of bars that offered linguistic exchange tables, that is, I went to those places and I began to talk with everyone in different languages.

While I was talking to a French young woman, she told me that there’s an idiom in the French language to describe that someone is crazy: “Ne pas avoir la lumière à tous les étages”, which means “to have a screw loose”. Literally “someone” does not have the light at each floor.

My mind began to think about this new idiom, as in the previous semester I developed a paper about cognitive linguistic studies and idioms. But what’s the point? We all use idiomatic expressions while talking. Idioms may refer to cultural facts that were known in the past, such as “worth your salt”. Indeed, the Free Dictionary (online) states that: “This may refer to the fact that in Roman times soldiers were given an allowance of salt as part of their pay. The Latin word salarium (= the money given to Roman soldiers to buy salt) is the origin of the word ‘salary’”.

Thinking in German, the same idiom is: “Nicht alle Tassen im Schrank haben”, which literally means that “someone” does not have all the cups in the cupboard.

What about the Italian version? “Avere le rotelle fuori posto” = “someone”’s screws are out of their place.

Maybe now you are thinking: “Where does this line of reasoning end?”. Well, the central idea that all the four languages convey is that someone is fool when they have something out of place, or miss something. For French this something is the light (lumière), for English is the screw, for Italian too (rotella), and for German the cup (Tasse). And all these things are not in order in a bigger “container”: A flat, someone’s head, a cupboard. According to these languages, a fool is someone who is in a mess (I mean not well organized, untidy). Isn’t it fascinating that four different languages have a concept in common?

This could mean that four different societies have the same approach to think about a specific situation, and here opens the big book of cognitive linguistic and cultural studies, a field that is really interesting studying but also a little bit tricky or difficult. As a matter of fact, to define the origin of words themselves is not always easy, as ancient documents reporting old nouns and expressions may be not available anymore. Ethymology and origin are fascinating as well as mysterious. So now imagine finding out the accurate origin of an idiom. Dictionaries may help you…or maybe not, as the origin of nouns and expressions may be uncertain.

I wasn’t able to find a common origin of these idioms (see “ethymology and origin” above), but I found out that there are other expressions to convey the same/similar meaning:

  • In German you can say that “someone has a bird” (einen Vogel haben),
  • “He/she is not the brightest light on the Christmas tree”, which I didn’t know before and now it will be one of my favourite idioms,
  • “essere fuori di testa/melone”, literally: to be out of your head/melon.

As you can perceive, an idiom is sequence of words that, put together, they assume a different general meaning. Indeed, the literal translation of each idiom doesn’t make any sense in the other three languages. You can guess the meaning, but the proper translation is different from the literal one.

It is unavoidable that culture and language go at the same speed, which is also the reason why while you are studying linguistics, you have to do at least a couple of literature exams. But also the opposite is real, and usually these two categories do not get along so well. Both language (linguistic) and literature convey culture, and culture is hidden in many idioms, nouns, as well as books and their characters. You only have to track it down.

It took me some hours to write this article and I hope you readers appreciated it! If so, please follow me for more and/or just clap your hands.

Thank you.



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