July 24, 2020 – Ever wondered what some famous Croatian phrases really mean? TCN contributor Ivor Kruljac breaks it down.
Croatian – that Russian sounding language, which isn’t Russian. It is exotic and mysterious with only, give or take, around five million native speakers (plus Serbian and Bosnian speakers who can easily understand it). Apparently, it’s a hard and challenging language to learn for non-Slavic native speakers, but with enough motivation and hard work, you can certainly learn more than ‘dobar dan’ (good day), ‘hvala’ (thank you) and ‘doviđenja’ (goodbye). Fascinating for its rich and diverse vocabulary (foul language in particular), one of the most interesting things about Croatian, as in any other language, is the phrases speakers use to paint a certain situation or express thoughts. Some are very similar or even the same as in English, but some are completely different ways to say the same thought.
Here are 12 phrases to enhance your enthusiasm to dig deeper into Croatian.
1.) Kad na vrbi rodi grožđe / When willow gives you grapes
The phrase ‘When willow gives you grapes’, which is the equivalent to ‘When hell freezes over’, is a suitable phrase to say that something will never happen. Although this phrase will maybe need some alteration once genetic engineering catches its full speed.
2.) Mačji kašalj / Cat’s cough
The easiness of ‘eating cake’ has been replaced with what used to be a typical pet for farmers and today for those who don’t prefer dogs – a cat. ‘Cat’s cough’ means that something is really easy to do, so simple and harmless that you, in fact, don’t even notice it, and it can also be used to describe something as irrelevant. Might sound a bit odd, but think about it, did you ever hear a cat cough?
3.) Pijan kao majka / Drunk as a mother
Translating to ‘Drunk as a mother’, this saying might suggest that Croatians are getting raised with a lot of family issues. However, the phrase comes from the past when hospitals were non-existent and home births were a regular practice. To ease the pain of childbirth, the mother would be provided with the only anesthetic people could find in their household: alcohol. Pending on the pain and the duration of labour, the new mother could be completely hammered by the time she gets to hold her baby in her arms. A bit less fun than for fiddlers who were enjoying alcohol in between their performance, but the end result is pretty much the same: a hard time recollecting last night.
4.) Pušiš kao turčin / You smoke like a Turk
Croatian memory didn’t register that much smoke coming from the chimneys, but they do remember Turkish soldiers during the conquering spree of the Ottoman Empire. Noted as passionate smokers, even today people in Croatia would often say to you that you ‘Smoke like a Turk’, if you light your fifth cigarette before you even put sugar in your morning coffee.
5.) Mi o vuku, vuk na vrata / Speak of the wolf, wolf at the doors
Basically, ‘Speak of the devil’ only replace the king of hell with the wolf that is in front of your door just as you were talking about him. Scary not only because of his fatality for humans, the wolf was also hated among Croatian villagers for slaughtering sheep and other farm animals.
6.) Ispeci pa reci / Bake it and then say it
This is similar to ‘Think before you speak’ with some differences. With the translation being ‘Bake it and then say it’, it is a suitable response to everyone bragging about something while not having any proof they did it or are telling you how to do something even though they are not doing it.
7.) Trinaesto prase / 13th pig
The unlucky ‘Thirteenth pig’ is truly a clever deduction. To attribute someone who always got left behind, people compared him with a rare but very possible scenario when a pig gives birth to 13 piglets. With only 12 breasts for feeding, one always loses a meal.
8.) Točan kao švicarski sat / Precise as a Swiss watch
With its Rolex and Tag Heuer, Switzerland is a known symbol of quality and precision when it comes to wristwatches. Especially for Croatians. The older generations would often say to you that you are ‘precise as a Swiss watch’ when you arrive on time.
9.) U tom grmu leži zec / In this bush lies the rabbit
Not just an observation in hunting, ‘in this bush lies the rabbit’ is a common phrase to describe a situation when someone keeps a secret from you, or reveals his/her secret motives that explain something you couldn’t quite put your finger on.
10.) Pamti pa vrati / Remember and return
‘Remember and return’ at first may sound a bit revengeful, and it is. But it can also mean to return a nice favour to someone. Basically, how you treat others, others will treat you. If someone was nice to you, remember that and be nice as well and if not, remember, so you don’t make the same mistake twice.
11.) Bez muke nema nauke / Without suffering there is no knowledge
The Croatian version that’s most similar to ‘No pain, no gain’ translates as ‘Without suffering, there is no knowledge’. Guess it was easier for Croatians to learn from their own mistakes and not from others.
12.) Što se praviš Englezom? / Why are you pretending you are English?
In the past, Croatian territory was under the rule of the Romans, Austrians, Hungarians, Turks, French and even had close clashes with Tatars during Genghis Khan. The colonial force of the British empire does not go further in Croatia than Vis island, where in the 19th century, the Brits raised fortresses seeable today as you enter St. Juraj port. Despite that, English folks entered Croatian phrasing nevertheless. ‘Why are you pretending you are English?’ is a question for someone who had done something wrong but acted like he/she didn’t do anything and didn’t know what you are talking about. It can also be used to describe someone who acts more important than he/she really is, which might have been inspired by the aristocracy or even the Royal family itself. Good news for Britain, however, is that this phrase is less used among younger generations (which can also, let’s be frank, be said for all of these phrases). Still, don’t be surprised if you meet a cute and wisecracking Croatian group that might remember this and use it as a suitable joke for their English friends.