Ho chi minh city university of education department of english

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Instructor: PhD Nguyễn Ngọc Vũ

Student: Vũ Hoàng Anh

HCMC, 31/12/2011
Learning idioms play an important part in advancing language skill. Many students have much difficulty in describing their own ideas and feel that they can’t speak fluently or write a complete essay. This happens because they all rely on using separate words leading to make such “fragment” or “run-on” sentences. So, in order to be confident in using foreign language, to understand and use idioms in right way would be good choice for those who have strong desire to advance their level of English. However, learning idioms could cause a lot of obstacles because of culture differences and other afac. Idioms of body parts have high use in daily use and be contrastively analyzied between two languages - English and Vietnamese - as well as some guidelines for teaching in order to make idioms easily remembered and play motivation role in learning language.
Many thanks to my teacher, PhD Nguyễn Ngọc Vũ has given a lot of essential knowledge for the completion of this research.

A/ Contrastive Analysis of English and Vietnamese idioms of body parts

  1. Preface

  1. What is idiom? Idioms of body parts in two languages?

Idiom is groups of words whose meaning is different from the meanings of the individual words.


  • Give your heart to someone = fall in love with someone

  • Give someone cold shoulders = treat someone in unfriendly way

  • Ném đá giấu tay = do evil things secretly

  • Miệng nam mô, miệng một bồ dao găm = pretend to be kind to someone but actually find ways to harm them.

In English, idioms of heart, head, eye, ear, hand, foot have the highest rate of presence, while idioms of stomach, belly, spine, knee, leg, lip have the least rate of presence (under four idioms of each).

Likewise, Vietnamese idioms of heart, head, hand and eye are mostly in use. However, Vietnamese idioms of belly, stomach and leg are also frequently used in real life.

Although idioms function as “describing facts in clever way” and proverbs function as “giving advice/ experience”, there is some idioms of body parts can also play roles as proverbs, which hardly happens in Vietnamese.

Ex: “Blood is thicker than water”

This idiom not only indicates the facts “one’s kins are much more favored than those who are not” but also gives advice in some cases.

For instance: A friend complains to you that he failed in an employment or contest although his final competitor is much worse than him, simply because the guy who wins has his brother as examiner of that contest. So you told him “Blood is thicker than water” showing normal experience “family relationships are stronger than any others” in order to solace him.

  1. How are idioms of body parts used in two languages?

Idioms of body parts play a vital role in describing many important aspects of life such as love, relationship, behavior, work... in the most sophisticated way. Through this type of idioms, the thinking way of people from each country is clearly displayed and many useful things from two cultures can be discovered. Therefore, analyzing idioms helps to building up the image connection between idioms and body parts for easy use and remembering together as well as to prevent students from mistakes in translation due to cognitive view.

  1. Contrast:

  1. In terms of structure:

  • In both English and Vietnamese, idioms are fixed in three typical structures: verb phrase, noun phrase, preposition phrase.

  • Some English idioms are also in structure of whole sentence, while those idioms of this structure are considered as “proverbs” in Vietnamese.

Ex: “Blood is thicker than water” is considered an idiom in English but “Giọt máu đào hơn ao nước lã” is considered a proverb in Vietnamese.
Here is the chart of similarities in structure of idioms of body parts in two languages.

Structure of idioms

English idioms

Vietnamese idioms

Verb phrase

Stab in the back

Have your hands full

Bang your head agains a brick wall

Đâm lén sau lưng

Đầu tắt mặt tối

Đâm đầu vào tường

Noun phrase

Heart of stone

Old head on young shoulder

Trái tim đá

Ông cụ non

Preposition phrase

In the blink of an eye

With the naked eye

Behind one’s back

Trong nháy mắt

Bằng mắt trần/ thường

Sau lưng ai

Whole sentence

Blood is thicker than water

Hands are tied.

Walls have ears.

Giọt máu đào hơn ao nước lã.

Lực bất tòng tâm.

Tai vách mạch rừng

(considered as proverbs)

  • Idioms of body parts in two languages densely appear in two main structures: verb phrase and noun phrase; while the other two are vice versa.

  • Idioms of body parts in English can flexibly exchange between two structures:

  • Noun phrase to verb phrase

Heart of stone  have a heart of stone

Heart of gold  have a heart of gold

Heart and soul  put all one’s heart and soul in

 throw oneself heart and soul into

Sweet tooth  have a sweet tooth

Ex: Little Sue has a sweet tooth, that’s why candies or chocolate would be nice Christmas gifts for her.

Sweet teeth should reduce the amount of sugar in their diet and do regular exercise in order to avoid diabetes.

  • Preposition phrase to verb phrase:

By heart  learn/ know by heart

With all ears  be all ears

With all eyes  be all eyes

Ex: I’m listening to your talk with all ears.

I’m all ears to your talk, go on please!

  • Whole sentence to verb phrase:

There’s more than one way to skin a cat  have/ conduct/ take more than one way to skin a cat

  • Whole sentence to preposition phrase:

One’s heart sinks  with a sinking heart

Ex: My heart sank when I saw how much work was left.

She watched him go with a sinking heart.

  • There is no structural exchange in Vietnamese idioms but some idioms can play both roles as “vị từ” or whole sentence.


  • There are a lot of Vietnamese idioms of body parts that can separate themselves into smaller parts such as noun phrases, “vị từ”, small sentences or even just the same words in order to make statements more concise or impressive because we can easily understand the idea of author based on original idioms when we meet these four kinds of smaller parts.


  • Nhìn thì đẹp trai thật, nhưng cũng chỉ là loại dài lưng thôi. (noun phrase from “dài lưng tốn vải”)

  • Dù sao An cũng là giọt máu đào duy nhất của sếp Huy nên cất nhắc nó vào ghế trưởng phòng cũng dễ hiểu thôi mà” (noun phrase from “giọt máu đào hơn ao nước lã”)

  • Cứ cao ngạo đi, rồi một ngày chú em sẽ gặp móng tay nhọn (noun phrase from “vỏ quýt dày móng tay nhọn)

  • Lấy nhiều đồ ăn vậy chú em, lại cái tật đói con mắt nữa. (vị từ from: “no bụng đói con mắt)

  • Ai bảo chú mày ham chơi cho lắm, giờ sắp thi rồi mới vắt giò lên mà ôn thi nhé (vị từ from “vắt giò lên cổ)

  • Này, cẩn thận với gã ấy, miệng nam mô vậy thôi chứ gã chuyên lừa người trong khu này bán đất cho gã với giá rẻ mạt. (small sentence from: “ miệng nam mô bụng một bồ dao găm”)

  • Thằng Huy nhìn hiền lành thư sinh chứ bụng toàn bồ dao găm mày ạ. (small sentence from: “ miệng nam mô bụng một bồ dao găm”)

  • Hai vợ chồng nó lại thượng cẳng rồi kìa, riết rồi con cái không biết học hành ra sao. (the same words “thượng cẳng” from “thượng cẳng chân hạ cẳng tay”)

  • Many Vietnamese idioms have four words which would be divided into two equal groups of words. In reality, especially in newspaper, sometimes in order to make events/ facts more impressive, persuasive and deeply moving, these two groups of words can only exchange the order providing that they have independent relationship of meaning. We also use this change of order so as to color our stories much attractively and humorously.


  • Cái làng này tay bùn chân lấm suốt ngày, mặt tắt đầu tối quanh năm mà cái nghèo vẫn đeo bám đến tận bây giờ.(from “chân lấm tay bùn”, “đầu tối mặt tắt”)

  • Cật rét bụng đói suốt thời sinh viên nhưng hắn luôn dẫn đầu về thành tích học tập toàn trường. (from “bụng đói cật rét”)

  • Gan sứa miệng hùm, hắn cũng thật to gan khi. (from “miệng hùm gan sứa”)

  • The change of order between two groups cannot take place when there is a chronological or consequential relationship between them.


  • chronological relationship:

vuốt mũi bỏ miệng → bỏ miệng vuốt mũi

tay làm hàm nhai

ngậm máu phun người

giấu đầu hở đuôi

ném đá giấu tay

  • consequential relationship:

máu chảy ruột mềm → ruột mềm máu chảy

chân cứng đá mềm

  1. In terms of meaning:

  • Similarities which are easy to guess meaning.

  • There are so many English idioms of body parts for which we easily find out the right equivalent Vietnamese idioms/ expressions even just based on literal meaning because the images used in idioms are familiarly symbolized for the same matter.


(symbolized for…)

English idioms

Vietnamese idioms


Led by nose

Poke your nose into one’s affair

Bị dắt mũi

Nhúng/ chõ mũi vào chuyện người khác


(thinking, intelligence)

Rack one’s brain

Vắt óc suy nghĩ về



Lose face

Save/ keep face

Laugh in one’s face

Mất mặt

Giữ thể diện

Cười vào mặt



With naked eye

In the blink of an eye

Have eyes in the back of one’s head

With your eyes shut/ closed

Not bat an eyelid

Turn a blind eye to something

Bằng mắt thường,

Trong nháy mắt

Có con mắt sau lưng

Nhắm mắt cũng làm được việc gì

Không chớp mắt

Nhắm mắt làm ngơ

Make one’s hair stand on end

Dựng tóc gáy


(emotion, feeling, the most important part of something)

Your heart misses a beat

Put all your heart and soul into

From the bottom of your heart

Heart of matter

Con tim lỗi nhịp

Dồn tâm huyết vào việc gì

Thật lòng mà nói

Trọng tâm vấn đề



Make my blood boil

Làm sôi máu, điên tiết


(intelligence/ leading position/pride )

Be/ stand head and shoulders above someone/ something

From head to foot/ toe

Hold your head high

Hơn hẳn một cái đầu

Từ đầu tới chân/đuôi

Ngẩng cao đầu

  • There are also pairs of idioms in two languages sending the same messages for one matter when we must base on the figurative meaning plus our imagination to guess meaning.

English idioms

Vietnamese idioms

Two heads are better than one

Four eyes see more than two

To remain a brazen face/ have the face to do something
There’s no venom like that of tongue/ The tongue is not steel but it cuts
Many hands make light work
See star before one’s eyes
One’s eyes are bigger than his stomach
Can’t make head nor tail of something
Lose your head
Be all eyes
Do something standing on your head
Have one’s blood on your hand
Blood, sweat and tears
Be/ In your blood
Have a big mouth
Give a hand
Lend an ear to
Nothing but skin and bone
A thick skin
All brawn and no brain

Make your mouth water

Not have a hair out of a place
The devil make work for idle hands
Old head on young shoulders

Ba anh thợ da hơn Gia Cát Lượng

Mặt dày mày dạn/ mặt trơ trán bong

Lưỡi không xương nhiều đường lắt léo

Đông tay hơn hay làm

Nổ đom đóm mắt/ hoa mắt
No bụng đói con mắt

Không rõ đầu đuôi/ đầu cua tai nheo thế nào

Mất trí
Căng mắt/ chú tâm
Nhắm mắt cũng làm được
Tay vấy máu
Mồ hôi nước mắt/ xương máu
Ăn vào máu/ là máu xương
To mồm/ nhiều chuyện
Giúp một tay
Chăm chú lắng nghe
Da bọc xương
Da mặt dày
Đầu óc bã đậu/ có lớn mà không có khôn
Thèm chảy nước miếng
Sạch không có một cọng tóc
Nhàn cư vi bất thiện

Ông cụ non

  • Due to different culture, some pairs of idioms have close meaning with the same values of content but different images are used reflecting different cognitive view.


  • Vietnamese idioms use image of “bụng”, “ dạ”, “lòng” (belly) and “ruột” (gut, bowel) to refer aspect of one’s thought, emotion, feeling and even moral, while image of “heart” mostly refer these human aspects in English idioms.

English idioms

Vietnamese idioms

Measure others’ feet by one’s own last

Suy bụng ta ra bụng người

Heart is a mystery

You can never see into another heart

Lòng người khó dò

When the blood sheds, the heart aches

Máu chảy ruột mềm

A honey tongue, a heart of gall

Miệng nam mô, bụng một bồ dao găm

Miệng thơn thớt, dạ ớt ngâm

Live a nasty taste in your mouth

Đắng lòng

  • “miệng”, “mồm”, “lưỡi” emphasize the way to communicate with other people in Vietnamese idioms, similarly, “tongue”, “mouth” and are used in English idioms.

English idioms

Vietnamese idioms

Hold your tongue/ keep a still tongue in your head

Giữ mồm giữ miệng

Be all mouth

Miệng hùm gan sứa

Watch your mouth/ tongue

Uốn lưỡi bảy lần

A fool’s tongue is long enough to cut his own throat

Ếch chết tại miệng

  • Other cases when different images are used.

English idioms

Vietnamese idioms

Sweat, blood and tears

Sweat one’s guts out

Work one’s fingers to the bone

Đổ mồ hôi, sôi nước mắt

Làm cật lực

Turn back on someone

Trở mặt

Not harm/ touch a hair of one’s head

Không đụng tới ngón chân của ai

Make my blood run cold

Lạnh sống lưng

It’s not brain surgery

Dễ như trở bàn tay

Turn your head of your success

Vểnh mặt tự đắc

  • Although we often face up some idioms that contain universal images such as “heart”, “hand”, “leg”, we are usually misled to guess meaning simply because we assimilate image used in idioms and how idioms draw different connection in our mind. It’s advisable to take into consider the context before giving the right meaning.


  • “pull somebody’s leg” : misunderstand as making somebody relaxed, while it correct meaning is “to play a joke on someone, usually by making them believe something that is not true”

  • “get your hands dirty” , the word “dirty” misleads us to think “do everything evil or illegal in order to achieve what someone wants by any cost”, while its actual meaning is “do hard physical work without complaining”.

  • “change of heart” misunderstand as one’s betrayal “thay lòng đổi dạ”, a negative meaning but it means “change opinions/attitudes/feelings towards greater friendliness or cooperation”.

  • Differences from cognitive view that leads to different attitudes.


  • “throw somebody a bone” = praise somebody (misunderstood as consider somebody as a dog and give him what he wants)

  • “pay lip service” = strongly approve/ support to do something but show no action to complete that job (misunderstood as pay money to go to bed with someone).

B/ Application to teaching and translation:

  1. Application to teaching

All students desire to get more and more progress in learning English. However, they usually tend to form “fragment” or “run-on” sentences, which sometimes let them down. That’s the reason why idioms plays an essential role in polishing writing and reading skills. Students should learn idioms not only for effective reading and listening but reproduce them to express their own ideas lively in right context and gradually, they will get more confidence in learning English as well as any other foreign language. That’s why, how to make idioms more easily is a vital teaching skill, which requires teachers to:

  • prepare suitable context and prevent student from culture difference. That could be done by creating impressive image describing idioms of body parts or connect them with the equivalent Vietnamese idioms on both literal and figurative meaning.

  • use these kind of idioms in giving lesson or discussing with students.

  • try to help students to use idioms of body parts in daily life and review them regularly.

  • encourage students who use the right idioms of body parts in right context as well as check their meaning in dictionary.

Ex: when expressing honesty: “from the bottom of my heart”

when asking for help: “ give a hand”, “many hands make light work”

when giving advice: “hold your tongue”, “don’t measure her feet by you own last”

  • give clear and brief explanation of some difficult idioms that are due to different thinking process, culture and lifestyle. This can be solved by two ways:

  • translate into another equivalent idioms without using image of body parts:

“put your hands no further more than your sleeve” = khéo ăn thì no, khéo co thì ấm

“like getting blood out of stone” = khó như vắt chày ra nước

“give someone cold shoulders” = thờ ơ, dửng dưng, lãnh đạm

  • use another image of body parts which refer the same reflective value.

“laugh your head off” = cười ra nước mắt

“not turn a hair” = không chớp mắt

“cost an arm and a leg” =đắt cắt cổ

“have your hands full” = bận tối mắt tối mũi

“wet behinds the ears” = miệng còn hôi sữa

“have/ with one’s head in one’s mouth” = sợ líu lưỡi, cứng họng

“let him put in his finger and he will put on his whole hand” = được đằng chân lân đằng đầu.
The devil makes work for idle hands: nhàn cư vi bất thiện

  • motivate students to make a small contrastive analysis of idioms during the course

If the teachers are keen on these guidelines, idioms of body parts would play an interesting partsin learning English and make students feel more progress in learning language.


  1. Hung, N.D. “Tuyển tập thành ngữ-tục ngữ-ca dao Việt Anh thông dụng”.

  2. Vu, N.N. “Conceptual metaphor analysis of English and Vietnamese body part idioms”.

  3. Erich. A Berendt & Keiko Tanita. “The ‘Heart’ of things: A conceptual metaphoric analysis of heart and other related body parts in Thai, Japanese and English”. Assumption University and Seisen University.

  4. TE editors from British council. (July 14th,2010) . “Proverbs and idioms” http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/language-assistant/teaching-tips/proverbs-idioms

  5. “Vài nét về thành ngữ tiếng Việt và dịch thuật thành ngữ” http://www.dthoi.com/forums/showthread.php?t=9753

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