An idiom is a phrase or saying that has an established meaning, which is not immediately apparent by looking at the individual words. Native speakers use idioms on a regular basis, but they can sometimes be confusing to language students who tend to focus on literal translations, rather than culturally understood phrases. Idioms appear in all languages and there are a huge number to study. Generally, they need to be learned and understood individually, although some idioms are very similar across multiple languages.
Many idioms revolve around things like the weather, so with that in mind, and given that it is the middle of the winter, we have compiled a list of some winter-related idioms seen in English, German, French and Spanish. In each case, we have also provided both the literal translation and the accepted meaning.
English winter idioms
1. Break the ice
As with most idioms, the English winter expression ‘to break the ice’ should not be taken literally, as it actually has nothing to do with ice. In actual fact, breaking the ice refers to starting a conversation with somebody and overcoming the initial awkwardness of not knowing what to talk about. The intention is to create a more relaxed atmosphere.
2. Snowball’s chance in hell
A snowball would not last very long in hell, so if there is a ‘snowball’s chance in hell’ of something happening, it means there is virtually no chance of something happening. To give an example, you might say there is a ‘snowball’s chance in hell’ of Kanye West ever becoming the President of the United States. (Well actually, who knows?)
3. Left out in the cold
Have you ever been left out of a group activity, or found out that you weren’t invited to something that all your other friends were invited to? If so, then that means you know what it is like to be ‘left out in the cold’. It essentially means to be excluded, ignored, or forgotten about.
4. Snowed under
To be ‘snowed under’ means to be overwhelmed by the amount of work you have to do. This could relate to your job, school or even daily tasks around the house. It is often used as an excuse for not being able to do something, so you may tell a friend you can’t go to their birthday party because you are ‘snowed under’ with homework.
5. When hell freezes over
For all intents and purposes, the phrase ‘when hell freezes over’ is just another way of saying something will never happen, in much the same way that hell will never freeze over. It is often said for comedy effect. For example, you might say ‘when hell freezes over’ if a friend asks you when you are going to get back together with your ex.
1. Schnee von gestern
This German idiom translates to ‘snow from yesterday’, or ‘yesterday’s snow’ and is used to describe something that is old news, or which is no longer relevant or important. It is often used to downplay the significance of past events. The closest English equivalents would be expressions like ‘yesterday’s news’ and ‘water under the bridge’.
2. Du siehst aus wie ein begossener Pudel
Literally translated to ‘you look like a drowned poodle’, this saying is used in a very similar way to the English expression of saying that somebody ‘looks like a drowned rat’. You might hear it said to you if you come in from the rain, as it is basically a way of saying ‘you are soaking wet’.
3. Kalte Füße bekommen
Translated into English, this means ‘to get cold feet’ and this is an example of a German idiom which also appears in English. It means to get anxious about an upcoming event and reconsider whether to go ahead with it. One of the most obvious examples of a time when somebody might get ‘cold feet’ is before their wedding.
4. Das Hundewetter
This expression means ‘dog weather’ and is used to describe the sort of dreadful weather that you only get during the winter months. In particular, it describes vicious weather, such as cold, rainy, windy days.
5. Die Kuh vom Eis holen
If you are approaching a strict deadline and still have work to do, you may need to ‘rescue the cow from the ice’, which is what this idiom literally translates to. It is used to describe situations where you have to pull things together at the last moment, or save the day in some way.
French winter idioms
1. Il fait un froid de canard
Translating literally to ‘it’s duck-like cold’, this idiom is believed to stem from the fact that ducks move away from lakes during the colder months, leaving them exposed to hunters. From there, it is pretty self-explanatory and is simply used to describe biting cold weather.
2. Ça caille!
An expression you are most likely to hear during the winter, ‘Ça caille!’ broadly translates to the English expression ‘it’s freezing!’. With that being said, its literal translation is derived from the verb ‘cailler’ meaning ‘to curdle’. It is basically a way of saying that it is so cold that you cannot move.
3. Il pleut des cordes!
Similar to the English idiom ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’, these French winter words translate to ‘it’s raining ropes’. It describes particularly heavy downpour, where it may feel like the raindrops are extremely heavy. Although it can be used at any time of the year, it is most likely to be heard during winter, due to the poorer weather.
4. Noël au balcon, Pâques au tison
This French idiom literally translates to “Christmas on the balcony, Easter at the embers”, this idiom is a way of showing that luck balances out. Essentially, what it is saying is that if you are fortunate enough to have a Christmas where the weather is good enough to spend it on the balcony, you will likely have to take action to warm yourself at Easter.
5. Il fait un temps de Toussaint
This idiom refers to it being ‘Toussaint’, which is All Saint’s Day, a day where people remember the dead. As a result, people’s mood tends to be fairly gloomy. While All Saint’s Day takes place on 1st November, the expression is used to describe gloomy weather in French regardless of the time of the year.
Spanish winter idioms
1. Hace un frío de perros
The literal translation of this Spanish idiom makes little sense, because it means ‘it’s a cold of dogs’. However, it is somewhat similar to the German idiom of ‘Hundewetter’ or ‘dog weather’. It is equivalent to saying something like ‘it is bitterly cold’, or ‘it is freezing’ in English.
2. Ser blanco como la nieve
This idiom translates to ‘to be white like the snow’ and is much the same as saying ‘snow white’ in English. It can be used as a straight forward description of things that are pure white in colour, but it can also be used in a more metaphorical sense, to imply a certain level of purity.
3. A punto de nieve
Literally meaning ‘to the point of snow’, this winter word describes things that are ‘stiff’ and it can be used in a number of different contexts. For example, you may see it used when referring to cooking, but it can also be a more vulgar idiom, related to sexual excitement.
4. Llover a cántaros
This is another variant of ‘raining cats and dogs’, used to describe an extremely heavy downpour in a slightly exaggerated fashion. In this case, it translates literally to ‘rain to the seas’.
5. Romper el hielo
Finally, we have another example of an idiom that crosses over between languages word for word. This literally means ‘break the ice’ and is used in exactly the same way as the English idiom, meaning to break the tension or remove the awkwardness of a situation, usually through conversation.