Living in Germany years ago, I learned that the translation of crossing your fingers was literally pressing your thumbs. The gesture an English speaker uses—index and middle finger held up, middle crossed over index—conveyed nothing to Germans. The people around me placed their thumbs across their palms and closed their hands with a squeezing gesture. That was their way of indicating they were pulling for me at my next interview.
A news piece on last summer’s World Cup in South Africa said that the locals were squeezing their thumbs for luck. I thought about the close linguistic relationship between German and Dutch and the strong Dutch influence in South Africa, and I suddenly understood where the expression originated.
I was amused to find online stock photos of young women pressing thumbs.
As the most recent wave of immigrants to the United States learns English, listen for expressions that sound odd to you. Ask for the literal translation of the English in their language, and perhaps explain how English translates that thought. You might pick up the translated version and begin using it yourself. We encountered the expression klicks for kilometers in Asia years ago and continue to use it. As cultures and languages rub against each other, we’re all enriched.
The popular TV series NCIS features an Israeli character who sometimes struggles with English idioms. When her boss says to call if something gets “hinky,” Ziva asks what the word means. Her colleague says, “You know, like, when your gut is telling you something.” Ziva nods: “Oh, I see. In my country we refer to that as gas.”
As cultures and languages rub against each other, we’re all enriched.