Episode 35 – Lebanese idioms

Ever heard a Lebanese phrase or expression that sounded awkward or did not make sense? For example, has someone ever asked you in Lebanese Arabic not to eat their head? Or have you ever heard someone talk about another person and say “the lettuce grew bigger inside their head”! Idiomatic expressions are a common feature in languages in which a group of words have a meaning not deducible from the individual words used. They show the way people choose to express certain ideas, thoughts, and reactions. Join us in this episode with Mariam to learn more about common Lebanese idioms.

Lebanese Arabic Transcript and English Contextual Translation


مصدر فخر لكتير أهل بلبنان إنو تكون بنتن أو ابنن “بياكلو الكتب أكل”. بتسمع مثلا الجيران عم يحكو عن هالولد، سواء بنت أو صبي، ويقولو، “ما شا الله عليه هالولد، ذكي وشاطر وبياكل الكتب أكل.” وإذا الأهل خبرو القرايبين عن علاماتو بالمدرسة، بقولو “والله طلع الأول عالمدرسة. طبيعي، هالولد بياكل الكتب أكل.”

A source of pride for many parents in Lebanon, is when their son or daughter “Eats books”. You hear, for example, the neighbors speaking about this kid, whether a girl or a boy, and say “Mashallah this kid. Smart, clever, and eats books.” And if parents told relatives about his/her grades in school, they say “Wallah (swearing) he/she ranked first in school. Normal. This kid eats books.”


وأكل الكتب، متل ما كلنا واضح عنا أكيد، مش مقصود بحرفيتو. بس هو متل كناية، يعني عبارة معروفة بين الناس بتنقال لتعطي معنى معيّن اتفقت الناس عليه وبكون غير المعنى الدقيق للكلمات الموجودة فيا، لأنو غالباً هالكلمات معناهن الحرفي ما بكون منطقي أو مفيد.

And eating books, as is obvious to us all for sure, is not meant literally, but it is like a metonymy. Meaning, an expression known between people that is said so that it gives a certain meaning, which people had agreed upon, and is different than the exact meaning of the words in it. Because mostly, these words’ literal meaning would not be logical or meaningful.


مستعميننا الأعزاء، معكن مريم بحلقة جديدة عاللانغويج وايف. وبما إنكن خبرتونا بالتعليقات إنكن حبيتو حلقات الأمتال كتير، حسيت إنو صار ضروري نحكي عن شي بيشبه الأمتال بقولولو كنايات أو عبارات اصطلاحية. بياكل الكتب أكل هي مثال عهالعبارات، والمقصود فيا إنو هالشخص أو الولد بيدرس كتير لدرجة إنو بيحفظ الكتب كتير منيح كإنو أكلن.

Dear listeners, this is Mariam in a new episode on Language Wave. And since you have told us in the comments that you have loved the proverbs episodes a lot, I felt that it has become necessary that we talk about something similar to proverbs that is called metonymies or idiomatic expressions. Eats books is an example of these expressions, and what is meant of it is that this person or kid studies a lot to an extent that he/she memorizes books very well as if he/she had eaten them.


ولمن الجيران بيمدحو بشطارة الولد، أو أي حدا بعبر عن إعجابو بحدا، بلبسو أو بشغلو وعلمو، أو ببيتو وسيارتو، فوراً حدا من القاعدين بقول دقو عالخشب.

And when neighbors praise the kid’s cleverness, or anyone expresses their admiration for someone, his way of dressing, his work and education, or his house and car, immediately, someone among those sitting says “knock on wood.”


وفعلاً ممكن تشوف حدا أو كل القاعدين دقو عطاولة خشب دقتين أو تلاتة وضحكو، لأن  عبارة “دقو عالخشب” بتدل عفكرة الحسد والخوف منو لمن الناس يعجبا شي عند شخص وتعبر عن هالإعجاب، فكان معروف من زمان إنو الدق عالخشب بيحمي من الحسد وصيبة العين والأشيا الشريرة، وهاي مرتبطة بقصص وخرافات قديمة، فصارو الناس يقولو هالعبارة حتى لو مش قاصدين إنو عنجد يطلبو من الموجودين يدقو عالخشب، بس كدلالة إنو الشي فعلا حلو وحابين يحموه من صيبة العين أو الحسد!

And indeed, you might see someone or all of those sitting knocked on a wooden table, two knocks or three, and laughed because the expression “knock on wood” indicates the idea of envy, and the fear from it when people like something about someone and express this admiration. So, it was known long ago that knocking on wood protects from envy, the evil eye, and wicked things. This is linked to stories and old myths. And thus, people started to say this expression even if they do not mean to really ask those present to knock on wood, but as an indication that the thing is really beautiful and that they would love to protect it from the evil eye or envy!


أما إذا صادفت بالسهرة مع الجيران وخلال الحكي عن شطارة الولد أو البنت، إنو حدا من هالولاد إجا سلم وبدو يقعد شوي، الأهل فوراً بسكرو الموضوع قدامو وبغيرو الحديث بعد ما يغمزو الجيران إنو كمان هني يقطشو الموضوع. بس ليش ممكن يعملو هيك؟ إذا سألناهن، حدا منن رح يقلنا إنو بلا ما الولد يسمع كل هالمدح عنو، وتكبر الخسة براسو!

Now if it happened that during the evening with neighbors and while talking about the cleverness of the boy or girl, one of these kids came to say hi and wanted to sit for a while. The parents immediately close the topic in front of him. They change the conversation after they wink to the neighbors that they too cut the topic. But why would they do this? If we asked them, one of them will tell us that no need for the kid to hear all this praising about himself and the lettuce grows bigger inside his head!


أول شي، المدح يعني كلام منيح بينقال للشخص عن صفات أو أشيا حلوة بشكلو أو شخصيتو. أما عبارة “تكبر الخسة براسو”، وعارفة عم تضحكو هلأ أكيد، فأكيد مش معناتا إنو فعلياً فيه خسة براس أي حدا، بس هي كناية عن إنو إذا سمع الولد أو أي شخص مدح كتير عنو، ممكن يصير يشوف حالو، يعني يصير مغرور وما شايف حدا قدامو أد ما معجب بحالو.

First, madeh means good words said to someone about qualities or beautiful things in his looks or his personality. While the expression “the lettuce grows bigger inside his head”, and I know you are laughing now for sure, certainly does not mean that there is actually a lettuce in anyone’s head. However, it is a metonymy on that if the kid or any person heard a lot of praising about himself, he will become disdainful, which means he will become arrogant and not able to see anyone in front of him due to how much he admires himself.


رح أعطيكن مثال عن هالعبارة بمحادثة لنوضحا أكتر. خلينا نفترض إنو فيه شخصين اسمن سمر وعلاء وكان عندن صديق كتير بحبوه اسمو ساري وكانو كتير أصحاب هني وياه. إجت فترة ساري انشغل عنن كتير، وصار مدير لشركة. وبيوم من الإيام بيلتقو فيه صدفة بالشارع وبسلمو عليه هني ومبسوطين كتير بشوفتو، بس ساري ما ببادلن الابتسامة وبسلم علين بجدية، وبدون ما يحدثن بيستأذن وبفل دغري. هون، علاء بقول لسمر: “شوفي كيف اتصرف معنا. ولا كأننا رفقة، يبدو كبرت الخسة براسو!”.

I will give you an example about this expression in a conversation so that we clarify it more. Let us assume that there are two people called Samar and A‘laa, and they had a friend that they love a lot called Sary with whom they were very close friends. There came a period where Sary was very busy and he became a manager of a company. And one day, they meet him by coincidence in the street. They greet him while very happy to have seen him, but Sary does not return the smile and greets them with a serious attitude. And without chatting with them, he excuses himself and leaves immediately. Here, A‘laa says to Samar: “Look at how he behaved with us. As if we are not friends at all. It seems that the lettuce grew bigger inside his head!”


علاء قصدو إنو ساري صار شايف حالو ومغرور بعد ما صار مدير لشركة، ولهيك ما ابتسملن ولا حدثن. بس سمر بتقلو لعلاء: “معليش. يمكن يكون ساري عندو ظرف صعب أو متضايق من شي.” يعني سمر طلبت من علاء إنو ما يحكم على ساري من هالموقف ويحاول يعطيه عذر. عذر معناتا متل حجة أو تفسير لتصرف ساري بإنو كان عن غير قصد مثلاً بدل ما يتفسر إنو مقصود وبيهدف للإساءة أو الأذية.

A‘laa means that Sary has become disdainful and arrogant after he became the manager of a company, and this is why he did not smile for them or chat with them. But Samar told A‘laa: “It is okay. Maybe Sary has a hard circumstance or was upset from something.” This means that Samar asked A‘laa not to judge Sary from this situation and to try to give him an excuse.


منروح هلأ من شطارة الولد اللي بيدرس كتير منيح، لصعوبة التربية والولد اللي بناقش أهلو بكل صغيرة وكبيرة. وكل ما طلبو منو أهلو شي ما بنفذو، وكل ما نبهوه عن شغلة غلط بجادلن بألف قصة وحكاية. “يا بابا ادروس منيح مش صح نهمل العلم”. برد الولد عبيو، “شو فايدة الدرس. ما هاي الناس عم تتعلم وتتخرج وتقعد بلا شغل.” أو “يا ماما ما تتأخر لترجع عالبيت. شو بدك بالضهرة بهالوقت!”، برد الولد عإمو وبقلا “شو بعدني ولد صغير بتضلي خايفة علي!”

We go now from the cleverness of the kid who studies very well, to the hardships of raising children, and the kid that argues his parents over every little and big issue. And whenever his parents asked him for something he does not do it, and whenever they warned him about something wrong he debates them with a thousand stories and tales. “Ya baba, study well. It is not right to neglect education.” The kid replies to his father, “What is the benefit of studying? Look at people getting educated and graduating and then sitting jobless.” Or “Ya mama, do not be late to come back home. There is no need for going out this late!” The kid replies to his mother and says, “Am I still a kid that you stay scared for me?”


وقت يكون هيك الوضع مع الولاد بشي بيت، بقولو الأهل عن ابنن أو بنتن إنو جوابن تحت باطن. و”جوابو تحت باطو” هي كناية بتعني إنو عندن جواب سريع وجاهز لكل شي، والنقاش معن بعل أو بوجع القلب وما بجيب نتيجة. ولازم وضح، إنو بلبنان وبأغلب الدول العربية، الأهل بقولو للولاد يا ماما أو يا بابا، أو يا إمي ويا بيي، كل دولة ومنطقة حسب لهجتا، وقت بدن يحكو مع ولادن، خاصة إذا كانو عم يطلبو منن شي أو عم يعطوون نصيحة.

When the situation is such with the kids in a certain home, the parents say about their son or daughter that their answer is under their arm. “His answer is under his arm” is metonymy which means that they have a fast answer that is ready for everything, and that the discussion with them burdens or hurts the heart and does not bring results. I have to clarify that in Lebanon, and in most Arab countries, parents say to their kids ya mama or ya baba, or ya emmeh and ya bayyeh, each country and area according to its accent, when they want to speak to their children; especially if they were asking them for something or giving them advice.


بكفي قصص عن الأهل والولاد، وخلينا هلأ نروح على حديث بين شخصين عم يتفقو على شغل مع بعض. يعني في تجارة ومصاري بالقصة وحسابات ربح وخسارة. خلينا نسمي هالشريكين سارة ومروى. إذا سارة قلقانة ومتوترة من صفقة شغل ومروى كتير مرتاحة وواثقة إنو رح تكون مربحة وبدا تقنع سارة إنو تريح بالا كمان بقلب حديث عم يحكوه عن هالصفقة، فبتقول مروى لسارة: “حطي إيديكي وإجريكي بمي باردة.”

Enough stories about parents and kids, and let us go to a conversation between two people agreeing on work with each other. This means that there is trade and money in the story and calculations of profit and loss. Let us name these two partners Sara and Marwa. If Sara is worried and nervous about a work deal, and Marwa is very comfortable and confident that it will be profitable; and she wants to convince Sara to rest her mind too in a conversation they are having about this deal. So Marwa tells Sara: “Put your hands and feet in cold water.”


وهالعبارة بتدل على إنو اللي عم يقولا واثق كتير من الشي اللي عم يعملو أو يقولو، وبتعني إنو الشخص وقت يتوتر أو يخاف بيحمى جسمو، يعني بيسخن، فإذا طلبنا منو يحط إيديه وإجريه بمي باردة، ما منكون عم نطلب إنو عنجد يجيب مي ويعمل هيك، بس منكون عم نطلب إنو يروق ويبرد جسمو وأعصابو ويطمن لأن ما في داعي للقلق كوننا واثقين ومتطمنين مية بالمية من الشي اللي عم نعملو.

This expression indicates that the one who is saying it is very confident of the thing he is doing or saying, and it means that when a person becomes tense or gets scared, his body heats up. So, if we asked him to put his hands and feet in cold water, we are not really asking him to bring water and do so. But we are asking him to calm down, cool down his body and nerves, and to rest assured because there is no need for worrying given that we are confident and assured a 100% of the thing we are doing.


طيب وإذا ضلت سارة قلقانة وما راقت؟ بتقلا مروى: “اسمعي مني يا سارة. رح تشتري بيت أحلامك بعد هالتجرة.” تجرة كلمة بتعني عملية تجارية. طبعاً مروى ممكن تكون عم تبالغ، تبالغ يعني تحكي أشيا مش كتير واقعية، يعني مش رح يربحو هلأد مصاري كتير، بس عم تحاول تعطي سارة أمل بشي هي كتير حابة تعملو. سارة هون بتضحك وبتقلا لمروى: “يلا يلا. ما تاكليلي راسي.” وهاي صار عنا عبارة جديدة. كيف يعني مروى عم تاكل راسا لسارة بهالحكي؟

Okay, but what if Sara remained worried and did not calm down? Marwa tells her: “Listen to me Sara. You will buy the house of dreams after this deal.” Off course, Marwa might be exaggerating, which means they will not gain this much money, but she is trying to give Sara hope in something she (Marwa) really wants to do. Sara here laughs and says to Marwa: “Go ahead. Go ahead. Do not eat my head.” And here, we now have a new expression. How is Marwa eating Sara’s head with these words?


“ما تاكلي راسي”، أو “بدو ياكلي راسي”، هي عبارة بتنقال وقت حدا يكون عم يعطي شخص تاني وعود كتير عن شغلة ويرغبو بموضوع حتى يوافق عليه وممكن يكون عم ببالغ بالوعود، يعني تكون وعود مش حقيقية وأكتر بكتير من اللي ممكن يتحقق. أو كمان بتنقال إذا كان شخص مزعل حدا تاني وغلطان معو، وإجا عم يصالحو ويحكيه حكي حلو ولطيف ويمدح فيه كتير ليراضيه، فالتاني بيعتبر إنو هالحكي الحلو والمدح هدفو إنو صديقو أو حبيبو “ياكلو راسو فيه” حتى يرضى بسرعة.

“Do not eat my head”, or “He wants to eat my head”, is an expression said when someone is giving someone else a lot of promises about something, trying to get him to like a matter so that he approves it, and might be exaggerating with the promises, which means they might be unrealistic promises and a lot more than what could be achieved. Or also, it is said if someone had upset someone else and wronged him, and he came reconciling with him, speaking nice and kind words to him, and praising him a lot to please him. So the second considers that the purpose of these nice words and praising is that his friend or lover “eats his head with it” so that he gets pleased quickly.


فإذاً، خلينا نرجع نعدد هالعبارات ونتذكرن وحدة وحدة. الأول بالامتحانات الرسمية هو شخص شاطر كتير و”بياكل الكتب أكل”. ولمن حدا ينعجب بشي وتخاف الناس من الحسد بقولو “دقو عالخشب”، والشخص اللي بعد كل نجاح أو تقدم بالحياة بشوف حالو وبصير مغرور بقولو عنو “كبرت الخسة براسو”.

So, let us repeat these expressions and remember them one by one. The first in the official exams is someone very clever and “eats books”. When someone likes something and people get scared of envy, they say “knock on wood”. And the person who after every success or progress in life becomes disdainful and arrogant, they say about him “the lettuce grew bigger inside his head”.


أما اللي جوابو مبكل وحاضر بكل لحظة رداً على أي شي بينقال، بقولو عنو “جوابو تحت باطو.” ومبكل يعني مدروس وقوي كتير. ولمن انطمن حدا من ناحية أي شي ونطلب إنو يكون مرتاح ويوثق بتقييمنا لشي شغلة منقلو “حط إيديك وإجريك بمي باردة”. ولمن حدا يفنص، يفنص هي كلمة ألطف من يكذب بس بنفس معناتا، لمن حدا يفنص على شخص تاني ليقنعو بشي أو يراضيه بقول التاني “ما تاكلي راسي” أو “بدو ياكلي راسي.”

As for the one whose answer is firm and ready at every moment in response to anything said, they say about him “his answer is under his arm.” Mbakkal means well-studied and very strong. And when we comfort someone regarding anything and ask him to rest and to trust our evaluation of something, we say to him “put your hands and feet in cold water.” And when someone Yfannes; yfannes is a nicer word than ykazzeb (lies) but of the same meaning. So, when someone lies to someone else to convince him of something or to please him, the second says to him “do not eat my head” or “he wants to eat my head.”


في كتير عبارات بتنقال باللهجة اللبنانية متل اللي ذكرناهن بهالحلقة. عبارات الكل اتفق على معانيا وبيستعملوا بالأحاديث، بس غالباً ما منعرف كيف ومن وين إجو. رح نكتفي بهالـ 6 عبارات بهاي الحلقة، جربو تفكرو بمواقف معينة شخصية ممكن تسمعوون فيا أو تستعملوون لأن مأكدة رح تلاقو إنو استخدامن كتير يومي. بتمنى تكونو بكل خير وعافية، وعموعدنا بحلقات جديدة دايماً عاللانغويج وايف.

There are a lot of expressions that are said in the Lebanese dialect such as the ones we mentioned in this episode. Expressions that everyone had agreed on their meanings and uses them in conversations, but mostly, we do not know how and where they came from. These six expressions are enough in this episode. Try to think of certain personal situations in which you might hear them or use them, because I am sure you will find that their usage is very daily. I hope you are well and in good health, and we are with you on same dates, in new episodes always, on Language Wave.

Comprehension Questions (try to answer the questions while speaking out loud to yourself and using full sentences in Lebanese Arabic)

  1. How would you describe idioms? Why do you think we use them?
  2. How did you interpret the expression “do not eat my head”? Has someone ever tried to ‘eat your head’? Explain.
  3. Who do you know that “the lettuce grew bigger inside (their) head”? What did you do about the situation?
  4. What is a situation in which you can help others and tell them to “put (their) hands and feet in cold water”?
  5. What do you think is the best way to deal with children who have their “answer under their arms”?

Vocabulary Table

# Lebanese Arabic English Transliteration English Translation
1 قرايبين A’raybeen Relatives
2 معناهن الحرفي Ma‘nehon Al-Harfy Literal meaning
3 عبارات اصطلاحية E‘barat Istelaheyyeh Idiomatic expressions
4 كدلالة Kadaleleh As an indication
5 يغمزو Yeghmzo They wink
6  ببادلن Bebedilon Returns
7 معليش Ma‘lesh It is okay
8 عذر O‘zor Excuse
9 نبهوه Nabbahooh Warned him/alerted him
10 نهمل Nehmol Neglect
11 باط Batt Underarms
12 لهجتا Lahjeta Its accent
13 صفقة Safaa Deal
14 أعصابو A‘sabo His nerves
15 يصالحو Ysalho Reconcile with him

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