When English speakers say someone "kicked the bucket," they don't literally mean a person put foot to pail. Instead, they're using an idiom, or an expression with a culturally specific meaning that's not contained in the words themselves.
Jag Bhalla's new book I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears provides a compendium of worldwide idioms. The book's title comes from a Russian expression meaning "I'm not pulling your leg," and though Bhalla hasn't found any Russians who know the source of this amusing image, he says that's not unusual when it comes to idioms.
"Some of the roots of our expressions ... are buried deep in cultural history," he tells Melissa Block.
Take, for instance, the English expression "let the cat out of the bag." The saying is actually left over from the 16th century, when unscrupulous salespeople sometimes tricked purchasers by putting a cat into a bag instead of a pig.
"If you didn't open the bag before you left the market, it would be too late to complain later," says Bhalla. "However, most modern English speakers have no idea that that is why we 'let the cat out of the bag.'"
Often, different cultures will come up with their own idioms to express the same idea. Where English speakers might accuse a hypocrite of being a "pot calling the kettle black," Arabic speakers would observe that "a camel cannot see its own hump."
And Bhalla adds that idioms can be a great indicator of what is important to a culture: "One of my favorite German ones, for example, attests to their great obsession with meat: 'To live the life of Riley' in German — to have a wonderful life, to live a life of luxury — is to 'live like a maggot in bacon.'"