English and Drama blog

19 February 2021

Weetabix and beans: a linguistic take

by Elliot Sinclair, Web Editor in the Content and Community Team

Weeta

With the latest phenomenon of baked beans on Weetabix triggering heated debates all over the internet, we thought we’d take a look at combinations of things which definitely do not belong together, or are completely different from one another, in idiomatic expressions from across the globe.

And where better to find such a rich mix of languages than among our own staff? So just ahead of International Mother Language Day, we put the question to them…

A few of our favourites...

Language

Idiom

Translation

Amharic (Ethiopian)

ሆድና ጀርባ
"hodena Ǧäreba"

stomach and back

Arabic (Iraqi)

مثل الحية والبطنج 
"mathal al-ḥayah w'al-baṭnaj"

like a snake and betony [a plant]

British English

like chalk and cheese

like chalk and cheese

Chinese (Mandarin)

风马牛不相及 
"fēng mǎ niú bù xiāng jí"

horses and cattle won't mate with each other

Czech

jako nebe a dudy

like heaven and bagpipes

Danish

Hvad er højest, Rundetårn eller et tordenskrald?

What is highest, the Round Tower or a thunderclap?

Estonian

nagu päkapikk ja maja

like an elf and house

Farsi

مثل فیل و فنجان 
"misle feel va fenjan"

like an elephant and a teacup

German

Äpfel mit Birnen vergleichen

comparing apples and pears

Hebrew

כרחוק מזרח ממערב 
"ki-rehok mizrah mi-ma'arav"

as far as the east from the west

Japanese

月と鼈 
"tsuki to suppon"

moon and a soft-shelled turtle

Polish

piernik do wiatraka

gingerbread for the windmill

Portuguese

comparar alhos com bugalhos

comparing garlic with oak apples

Romanian

ca baba si mitraliera

like a grandmother and a machine gun

Russian

Путать Божий дар с яичницей 
"putat’ Bozhii dar s iaichnitsei"

confusing God's gift with scrambled eggs

Serbian

поредити бабе и жабе 
"porediti babe i žabe"

like grandmothers and toads

Spanish

como un huevo a una castaña

like an egg to a chestnut

Turkish

dağlar kadar farklı

as different as the mountains

Ukrainian

як свиня на коня 
"yak svynya na konya"

like a pig on a horse

Welsh

mor wahanol â mêl a menyn

as different as honey and butter    

Yiddish

ווי בוידעם און ציבעלעס 
"vi boydem un tsibeles"

like a loft and onions

Poles apart

How many of you are familiar with the phrase like chalk and cheese? It’s used primarily in British English to imply that two things are an odd match (e.g. ‘that married couple are like chalk and cheese’). Probably soon to be overtaken by Weetabix and beans.

Variants include like an elephant and teacup (Farsi), an elf and a house (Estonian) (both of which contrast the size of one against the other), and the rather dramatic grandmother and a machine gun (Romanian) or grandmother and a toad (Serbian).

Meanwhile the Marmite reputation of bagpipes is unfortunately confirmed by the Czech expression contrasting heaven and bagpipes.

Speaking of Marmite, food, unsurprisingly features a lot in these idioms. For example the fairly ubiquitous apples and oranges (known in various other forms such as apples and pears), the Welsh honey and butter, the Polish gingerbread for the windmill and the Yiddish loft and onions, where the inference is that the items cannot be compared.

Never the twain shall meet

Other variants point to the fact that the two items will never cross paths with one another, such as oil and water, night and day and heaven and earth, which are widespread across many languages.

An equivalent in Iraqi Arabic is like a snake and betony [the plant]. In folklore snakes are repelled by the plant and it is also said to be a remedy for their bite (however nowadays it is more commonly used to flavour Iraqi dishes).

Meanwhile, it has been suggested that the origin of the Mandarin expression horses and cattle won't mate with each other lies in the traditional belief that cattle normally follow the direction of the wind, while horses go against it, so even if they get lost, they would never meet. It was originally used in Zuo zhuan (The Commentary of Zuo) to describe two States in the Spring and Autumn period (771 to 476/403 BC) that were so far apart geographically that they would never have anything to do with each other.

Perhaps you can compare this to the more surreal pig on a horse in Ukrainian, or earrings on a pig in Yiddish?

Other variants include stomach and back (Amharic) (where the connotation is that despite the two being connected, they will always be facing different directions) and as far as the east from the west (Hebrew).

Same same but different

Many variants have an implication that although the items being compared are completely different from one another, it may be possible to mistake them.

In Portuguese we have comparing garlic with oak apples (similar in texture and size), while a Spanish equivalent is eggs and chestnuts (similar in size and shape).

We can also see this in the Japanese expression moon and soft-shelled turtle: both are round, although if you really are guilty of confusing them, you should probably book yourself an eye test.

With the alliteration in chalk and cheese, you might say that even the British idiom draws our attention to their similarities (even only in pronunciation).

The outliers

Of course there are also exceptions to these three neat categories by other languages which take slightly different approaches. In Turkish for example as different as the mountains speculates that the difference between two items is so great that there might as well be a mountain range between them, while the Danish rhetorical question What is highest, the Round Tower or a thunderclap? contrasts the size of the former against the sound of the latter.

What is the equivalent in your language?