Student: Huynh Phu



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Horses in English and Vietnamese idioms

Student: Huynh Phu

Contrastive Analysis 2010

Class: 4A

Instructor: Nguyen Ngoc Vu

December 2010

“Sam is a real cool cat. He never blows his stack and hardly ever flies off the handle. What's more, he knows how to get away with things ... Well, of course, he is getting on, to. His hair is pepper and salt, but he knows how to make up for lost time by taking it easy. He gets up early, works out, and turns in early. He takes care of the hot dog stand like a breeze until he gets time off. Sam's got it made; this is it for him.”

Having a look at the short text taken from A Dictionary of American Idioms, most of the English learners find it impossible to translate it into their mother language. Even though all those words are similar and widely used in their daily life, learners are unable to understand the meaning of the text by word-by-word translation. The reason is the writer uses idioms to convey the meaning of the text. A construction or expression of one language whose parts correspond to elements in another language but whose total structure or meaning is not matched in the same way in the second language (Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms, 1999). As Wikipedia defined “An idiom is a word or phrase which means something different from what it says - it is usually a metaphor. Idioms are common phrases or terms whose meanings are not literal, but are figurative and only known through their common uses.” It means people can not understand the conversation or the text written by the foreigners if they merely look at the literal meaning of the text. Instead, people need to have a knowledge of idioms in order to figure out the inside meaning of the text. Therefore, the text above should be translated like this:

“Sam is really a calm person. He never loses control of himself; he hardly ever becomes very angry. Furthermore, he knows how to manage his business financially by using a few tricks... Needless to say, he is also getting older. His hair is beginning to turn gray, but he knows how to compensate for wasted time by relaxing. He gets up early, exercises, and goes to bed early. He manages his frankfurter stand without visible effort, until it is someone else's turn to work there. Sam is successful; he has reached his life's goal.”

In Vietnamese language, idioms are known as “ thành ngữ”. According to “Vài nét về thành ngữ tiếng việt và dịch thuật thành ngữ”:

Thành ngữ là cách diễn đạt ý tưởng mang tính cách đặc trưng của ngôn ngữ. Về cấu trúc phần lớn thành ngữ không thành câu với những từ-ngữ mặc dầu có thể phân tích nhưng không thể tách rời. Về nghĩa thành ngữ mang một ý nghĩa không thể thay thế hay sửa đổi bằng cách nói khác để mang cùng ý nguyên thuỷ. Nói cách khác, thành ngữ là cách nói „bóng bẩy“ về một cái gì đó bình thường. Thành ngữ là bậc thang đầu tiên đi vào chiều sâu của một ngôn ngữ mà người nói sử dụng tuỳ theo trình độ ngôn ngữ kiến thức về nền văn hoá xứ đó. Nói theo kiểu phương Tây thì thành ngữ phản ảnh cách cắt chiếc bánh ngôn ngữ của người bản ngữ.

Ví dụ: Chạy đôn chạy đáo

Chạy cơm chạy gạo

It is clear that Vietnamese and English idioms, to some extent, share some common viewpoints. They are short and should be understood through the context and culture where the idioms are spoken. Thus, if people want to use those idioms properly, they need to go inside every single phrase.

There are many kinds of idioms related to animals in both English and Vietnamese. Those idioms are often about dogs, cats, monkeys and so on. For example, we have idioms related to dogs like “as sick as a dog”, “like the dog with two tails” or “dog-eat-dog”. We also have some idioms about cats like “as weak as kitten” or “ cat gets one’s tongue”. Those are some typical examples that people use animals as the means of transmitting the meaning. Among the variety of animals,

horse is also widely used in idioms. Due to the difference of culture and context, English and Vietnamese language may have some similar and different symbolism of horse. Before moving to the idioms of horse, I would like to give some brief descriptions so that people can know why horse is so popular in conversation.

As for Vietnamese symbol, a horse is regarded as a powerful animal. It is because Vietnamese people are greatly influenced by the Chinese tradition. In Chinese history, the symbol of horse always accompanied with many well-known characters “Thành Cát Tư Hãn, Hàn Tín, Tam Tạng” or the images of heroes in Vietnam like “ Thánh Gióng”. Besides, people used horse to carry heavy things or to go back and forth. They assumed that horse is the fastest animals and could help them go to the places they want within a small amount of time. Thus, everything would become quicker and easier. Moreover, horse is strongly believed to bring luck to businessmen. In Feng Shui- a Chinese prophecy, horse is considered as a lucky mascot. It not only represents the success and prosperity but also the confidence, hardworking, resilience and patience. That is the reason why people who are in business choose the horse as their lucky charms; and if you have a chance to visit some offices, especially owned by the Chinese- Vietnamese people, it is likely to see the pictures of horse decorated on the wall. In some regions, horse also has meaning of “elegant”. Some people will find it strange to know that for sure. This word is used to criticize people who pay too much attention on their appearance and try to act fashionably. “horse” in this case means “ngựa đời” or “điệu”. Mostly, this is for women not for men.

In English, a symbol of horse has similar meaning to its in Vietnamese, too. Long time ago, many people had strong belief in superstition. Some symbols or customs could really blow the evils away and bring good fortunes to human. There are many symbols which are renowned at that time such as rabbit’s foot, old boot, wishbone, and so on. Horseshoe is one of them. It has a “U” shape and resembles the symbol of crescent. People think that horseshoe symbolize the fertility and possess the power and strength which can ward off the evil and bad luck. Then, people think that shoe can protect the horse in the long journey and it will work on people as well. Hence, English people always put the horseshoe in front of their houses and put it in an upside down position in order to attain the good fortune and repel the unexpected evils. On the other hand, the horse is categorized into two kinds: white horse and dark horse. Certainly, each type has a unique meaning. White horse is the symbol of “light, sun, day, vitality, illumination, resurrection, and messenger of birth” whereas dark horse carries the meaning of “mystery, death, night, secret, and messenger of esoteric knowledge”. To sum up the point, horse, generally speaking, is notable to most of the cultures and countries. Horse is honored to be an emblem of wildness and freedom as well as a helper, harbinger of spirit and knowledge. It symbolizes the power, grace, freedom, notability, beauty and strength. That is why it becomes one of the history animals to humankind.

We have gone through some remarkable descriptions about the horse. The next part is the discussion about idioms of horse existing in both English and Vietnamese. After spending sometime searching on the internet, it is interesting to for me to find out that positive and negative meaning of idioms of horse appears in two languages.

Firstly, I may take the positive meaning into account. In English idioms, horse carries a lot of meanings. Horse idioms are always used to show something or someone really good or healthy. For instance, to talk about someone who works hard, people may use “work like a horse” or to mention the state of health, they may use “eat like a horse” or “as strong as a horse”. On one hand, in order to describe personality traits, “get off one’s high horse” is used. That means a person is humble and agreeable. On the other hand, horse idioms may be popular in working areas. To illustrate this, I would like to give out some examples “wild horse could not drag someone away”, “straight from the horse’s mouth”, “horse trade”, “ horse with different color” and “hold one’s horses”. Those may make you confusing because you can not find any relation among them. In fact, if you put them in the specific context, the meaning will be clear. If she does not want to be involved in something, no horse can drag her away. It is clear that nothing can change her decision if she does not want to do. Another context is “it is straight from the horse’s mouth that the event will be cancelled because people think that it is horse with different color” or “ you must hold your horses and do some horse trade so that you can buy clothes with less money.” From two examples I have given, it may be not too difficult for you to make out the meaning. When they are put in the right context, you can catch the meaning in spite of your limited knowledge of idioms. Those can be translated like this: “it is from a trustworthy source that the event will be cancelled because people think that it is different from what they are discussing.” Or “you must be patient and bargain in a skillful way so that you can buy clothes with less money”.

Like English, positive meaning of horse idioms also occurs in Vietnamese language. Idioms once in a while show the solidarity “một con ngựa đau, cả tàu không ăn cỏ”. When one person is in trouble, the others will put away everything to help that person. “thẳng như ruột ngựa” is used to describe a person who is honest, straightforward, simple and ready to speak his mind. This idiom comes from the bowel of the horse. It is straight and no curve. That is why people use it for personality trait. In addition, “ngưu tầm ngưu, mã tầm mã” and “ “đường dài hay sức ngựa” are widely used for people’s characteristics. They both means people will soon know whether they are compatible or not during the time they are together. Two people with same style or thinking are easily stuck with each other. Another meaning of horse idiom is to express the willingness of sacrifice in life to save people or do something dangerous: “da ngựa bọc thây”. This idea dates back to the old time when the war took place, the soldiers died and was covered by the horses. Moreover, horse idioms indicates the life of wealthy people “ lên xe xuống ngựa” or “cưỡi ngựa xem hoa”. It refers to people who are rich and lead a carefree life. They use car and horse as means of transportation which are considered luxurious in the early time; and the act of riding a horse to fool around give the image of people who have nothing to worry and just enjoy the beauty of the nature. The last example I want to mention is “ ngựa tái ông”. It is obviously weird if people try to translate it in English or even in Vietnamese. To understand this idiom, people should know the story about the old man who has experienced a lot of joy and sorrow in his life; but he always hold the belief that bad things come from good things and vice versa. In this case, people should understand it “nothing is completely good or bad or nothing is predictable.”

I have pointed out some positive meaning of horse idioms in English and Vietnamese. In some ways, they are the same. In another way, they still have some peculiar meaning. At the moment, I keep on discussing the negative meaning of horse idioms.

Once again, when people start thinking about personality. Good and bad seems to go hand in hand. They seem to be inseparated. There are some typical idioms used to describe people’s bad behavior or characteristics. For stubborn people, we may say “ as stubborn as a mule”- mule looks like horse. People who are always conceited or cocky and look down on the others, then “get on one’s horse” is definitely for them. Furthermore, when people say or do something wrong, not in the right order or it is too late to fix it, these idioms may be spoken: “back the wrong horse”, “bet on the wrong horse”, “put the cart before the horse”, and “ lock the barn door before the horse is gone”. Now and then, some issues have been settled down and nothing can be done. Nevertheless, if people insist on doing the best to change that, we may call them “beat a dead horse” or “flog a dead horse”. They tend to keep on arguing the problems although all are finished. What should we say if we have given a chance for a person to express himself but he refuses to take it? That is what we call “you can lead the horse to the water but you can not make it drink”. In some circumstances, horse idioms are used for criticism or complaint. Imagine you were a boss, your employees would do their utmost to impress you all the time; but you would be depressed by their overreaction. You may say “it is such a dog and pony show”. A show happens to be in the circus instead of at the office. You may feel fatigued the time you have been working for a very long time. You call it “donkey’s years”; and you may have to “look a gift horse in the mouth” if your birthday presents does not come up to your expectation too.

Similar to English, Vietnamese language does have idioms when discussing about bad personality. “ngựa non háu đá” refers to the young people who lack experience usually want to be stand out and show off their limited knowledge or skill. If those people are obstinate or unable to train or educate, they are called “ngựa bất kham”. The special term for the horse and people that are no longer trained. Some people known as “ ngựa quen đường cũ” are those who fail to change their bad habits or life style. For cynicisim, “thay ngựa đổi chủ” is preferable. When you change your horse and your owner, it is the act of turning your head on everything and betray what you used to have. When Vietnam was at war, “kiếp trâu ngựa” was heard everywhere. It means the life of mysery, harshness, darkness and poverty. When people are called by those words, they are treated as poor and terrible by the rich and powerful people. Hence, those are “ đầu trâu mặt ngựa”-the term is dedicated to ones who always use power and money to bully the others. From time to time, they are too greedy to be named “được đầu voi đời đầu ngựa”. they never cease to ask for more than they need. On the other hand, the state of solitude is also described by “đơn thương độc mã”. One spear and one horse give the image of one person who has to stand alone facing the trouble without any help. If you are on the horn of dilemma, you hesitate whether you should carry on something or not. In the end, you must choose only one to continue. We may call it “ngựa nào gác được hai yên”. No one can choose two significant tasks to fulfill simultaneously.

In conclusion, I have given the readers the overall view of horse idioms which are used in English and Vietnamese. They all have positive and negative meaning. Thus, depending on the situation, one can apply those idioms appropriately so as to speak as effectively as possible. Understanding idioms can be one of big advantages to English learners because at times native speakers may add some idioms to make their conversation more interesting. In the international examination like TOEFL, TOEIC or IELTS, idioms may be used as distracters to challenge examinees’ knowledge. For those reasons, it is vital to have a certain amount of idioms in our mind so that we will find it easy when dealing with them.



Application in Teaching

After this research, I realize that there are many useful things that people can apply in their teaching.

First of all, as we know, idioms are not students’ cup of tea. If they want to learn them, the teachers need to work out a suitable method to teach them. Therefore, what the teachers should do is to put idioms into categories and then help the students to use them in context. This will make the students study them easier.

Secondly, as a researcher, I have learned so many good things when I conduct this topic. I have never known that a lot of similarities as well as diversities exist in English and Vietnamese idioms. After the research, I feel more confident in teaching and widening my students’ knowledge; and I think that other researchers may share my viewpoints. I can give a clear explanation and equivalence to my students thanks to my research.

Lastly, being successful in learning idioms can lead to the success of communication. Not only do students understand what people are talking but they also have ability to apply them in their talk. This makes their conversation more fantastic and less boring.

Work cited

Animals idiom.(n.d). Retrieved: December 20, 2010, from http://www.idiomconnection.com/animal.html#A4

Cambridge International Dictionary of idioms.UK: CUP, 1999.

Con ngua trong thanh ngua va tuc ngu Viet Nam.(2009). Retrieved: December 20, 2010, from http://chuviet.com.vn/homep.asp?655=5&658=30&657=334&654=4

Good luck symbol.(n.d). Retrieved: December 20, 2010, from http://www.whats-your-sign.com/good-luck-symbol.html

idiom.(n.d). Retrieved: December 20, 2010, from http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idiom

Loi gioi thieu.(n.d). Retrieved: December 20, 2010, from http://www.tinhhoavietnam.net/book/tntanh.html

Nguyen,Khai. (2007).Cac thanh ngu tuc ngu dien tich dien co Dong Tay noi ve ngua. Retrieved: December 20, 2010, from http://vietnamcayda.com/diendan/showthread.php?8266-Th%C3%A0nh-ng%E1%BB%AF-t%E1%BB%A5c-ng%E1%BB%AF-v%E1%BB%81-ng%E1%BB%B1a

Niem,Quan Tran. (n.d).Nam ngua noi chuyen ngua. Retrieved: December 20, 2010, from http://members.fortunecity.com/tbn2170/q2-ngua-tqn.htm

Oanh,Oanh. (2010).Ngua-bieu tuong cho kinh doanh phat dat. Retrieved: December 20, 2010, from http://www.baomoi.com/Info/Ngua--Bieu-tuong-cho-kinh-doanh-phat-dat/150/5167017.epi

Sher, D Fly.(2008).Seven significant symbols of luck in English customs. Retrieved: December 20, 2010, from http://socyberty.com/folklore/seven-significant-symbols-of-luck-in-english-custom/

Vai net ve thanh ngu tieng viet va dich thuat thanh ngu.(n.d). Retrieved: December 20, 2010, from http://www.dthoi.com/forums/showthread.php?t=9753

Winterman, Denise& Finlo Rohrer.(2009).What does the white horse mean?. Retrieved: December 20, 2010, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7881154.stm



Appendix A



  1. a horse of a different color: another matter entirely, something else, something different than the subject that is being discussed

  2. as strong as a horse/ox: very strong

  3. as stubborn as a mule: very stubborn

  4. back the wrong horse: to support someone or something that cannot or does not win or succeed

  5. beat a dead horse: to continue fighting a battle that has been won, to continue to argue a point that has been settled

  6. bet on the wrong horse: to misread the future, to not choose the winning person or solution

  7. champ/chomp at the bit: to be ready and anxious to do something (a bit is put into a horse's mouth for control of the horse)

  8. change horses in midstream: to make new plans or choose a new leader in an activity that has already begun

  9. dog and pony show: something that you disapprove of because you think that it has only been organized to impress you (like a dog and pony show in a circus)

  10. donkey's years: a very long time

  11. eat like a horse: to eat a lot

  12. flog a dead horse: to continue fighting a battle that has been won, to continue to argue a point that has been settled

  13. get off one`s high horse: to begin to be humble and agreeable

  14. get on one`s high horse: to behave with arrogance

  15. hold one`s horses: to wait, to be patient

  16. horse trade: to bargain in a hard and skillful way

  17. lock the barn door after the horse is gone: to try to deal with something after it is too late

  18. look a gift horse in the mouth: to complain if a gift is not perfect

  19. put the cart before the horse: to do things in the wrong order

  20. straight from the horse`s mouth: directly from the person who said something, directly from a dependable source

  21. wild horses could not drag (someone away):there is nothing that will force someone to go somewhere or do something

  22. work like a horse: to work very hard

  23. you can lead a horse to water (but you can't make it drink):you can give someone the opportunity to do something but you cannot force him or her to do it if they do not want to

Appendix B

  1. Cưỡi ngựa xem hoa:Câu này có nghĩa là qua loa, đại khái

  2. Da ngựa bọc thây: dùng để chỉ sự hi sinh.

  3. Đầu trâu mặt ngựa: Câu này dùng để chỉ những kẻ vô lại, kẻ đại bất lương.

  4. Đơn thương độc mã: chỉ sự đơn độc, lẻ loi trong khi chiến đấu với khó khăn nguy hiểm, không có sự hỗ trợ của người khác.

  5. Được đầu voi đòi đầu ngựa: Nói về người có lòng tham không đáy hay không biết dừng lại đúng mức

  6. Đường dài hay sức ngựa: Câu này ý nói, cùng với thời gian, người ta có thể được những phẩm chất ta một người nào, nhất là khi ở với nhau thường xuyên.

  7. Kiếp ngựa trâu: được dùng trong dân gian để chỉ thân phận nô lệ, bị áp bức.

  8. Lên xe, xuống ngựa: Câu này nói về một người có cuộc sống xa hoa, phú quý

  9. Một con ngựa đau cả tàu không ăn cỏ: Dân gian đã mượn vật nuôi là con ngựa - một con vật vốn thân thiết với người để nói lên một cách sâu sắc một vấn đề về đạo lý con người. "Một con ngựa đau" - Hàm ý chỉ sự hoạn nạn cửa một cá thể. "Cả tàu không ăn cỏ" biểu thị sự sẻ chia của đồng loại. Câu thành ngữ đã nêu truyền thống tương thân tương ái, chia sẻ hoạn nạn của cộng đồng con người một cách cụ thể và hết sức có hình ảnh.

  10. Ngưu tầm ngưu, mã tầm mã: người tốt sẽ tìm đến người tốt để làm bạn thân. Cũng như vậy kẻ xấu sẽ tìm gặp kẻ xấu để kết bè kéo cánh, cùng hội cùng thuyền với nhau.

  11. Ngựa nào gác được hai yên: Chỉ việc người ta không thể đồng thời phụng sự hai sự nghiệp lớn.

  12. Ngựa quen đường cũ : Câu này muốn nói người ta không dễ dàng bỏ được một thói quen xấu.

  13. Ngựa non háu đá: Chỉ những người trẻ tuổi thường có tính cách hung hăng, thiếu chín chắn.

  14. Thay ngựa đổi chủ: Câu ngày dùng để chỉ một người rời bỏ một phe phái để đi theo một phe phái khác.

  15. Ngựa tái ông: chỉ họa phúc khôn lường, được không nên mừng, mất không nên lo.

  16. Như ngựa bất kham: không thể thu phục, không thể huấn luyện

  17. Thẳng ruột ngựa: Khi nói về tính tình của một con người bộc trực, thẳng thắn, nghĩ sao nói vậy, không giấu giếm.




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