Rome wasn’t built in a day: Phrases with place names

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by Liz Walter

At the end of last year, I wrote a post about phrases containing people’s names, which generated quite a lot of interest. I hope you will also enjoy this post about phrases based on place names.

I will start with adjectives from countries. People say It’s all Greek to me when they don’t understand something at all. Similarly, in British English, we sometimes describe language we can’t understand as double Dutch:

I looked at the contract, but it’s all Greek to me.

The terms they used sounded like double Dutch to me.

Other phrases with ‘Dutch’ include go Dutch, which means to share the cost of something – usually a meal. Dutch courage is a humorous way of describing the confidence that an alcoholic drink can give you:

We decided to go Dutch on our first date.

He needed a bit of Dutch courage before he asked her out.

We use the phrase play Russian roulette in a figurative way to describe taking a dangerous and reckless risk. On a more pleasant note, an Indian summer is a period of warm weather that follows colder autumn weather, in countries where the autumn is usually rather cold:

The government is playing Russian roulette with the country’s future.

Let’s make the most of this Indian summer.

One slightly old-fashioned phrase that contains the name of a country rather than the adjective is not for all the tea in China. This emphasizes that nothing could persuade you to do something:

I wouldn’t take that job for all the tea in China!

Let’s move on to cities now. There are several phrases containing the word ‘Rome’. Rome wasn’t built in a day means that it often takes a long time to achieve worthwhile things. When in Rome, do as the Romans do means that if you are in a different place, especially a different country, you should behave in the same way as the local people, and if you accuse someone of fiddling while Rome burns, you mean that they are doing unimportant things when they should be dealing with a serious problem.

I only have 50 Twitter followers at the moment, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.

She accused officials of fiddling while Rome burns.

In British English, if a group of people sends someone to Coventry, they refuse to speak to them. Brits also use the phrase carry/take coals to Newcastle to describe providing something that someone already has a lot of (Newcastle was a prominent mining area):

His colleagues sent him to Coventry for working during the strike.

Selling cheese to the French is like carrying coals to Newcastle.

I hope you find these phrases useful. What countries or cities are used in phrases in your language?

50 thoughts on “Rome wasn’t built in a day: Phrases with place names

  1. Daniel Renuart

    Stop ” fiddling while Rome burns” reminds me of another striking expression I came across some time ago…
    Stop “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”…
    …nice, isn’t it?
    Speaking of the Titanic, I also read “Stop criticising the paint job on the Titanic”
    (..stop obsessing about trivialities while serious issues must be dealt with)

    1. Liz Walter

      Yes, that’s a great phrase and also quite commonly used – interesting that it’s obviously such a common phenomenon!

      1. Nikki

        ‘Dilli dur hai’ is a Hindi phrase used in India to imply that ‘the destination is still far away’.

        PS- Dilli means Delhi.

      1. Cihan KARA

        Bor market has passed, drive the donkey to Niğde. In Turkish, it is used to express that a job is long overdue.

  2. Baudon

    In French we say also “play Russian roulette”, “Indian summer” and “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, whereas we say “It’s all Chines to me” (instead of Greek). But the funniest one is “filer à l’anglaise” meaning “leave as French” but literraly “leave as English”

    1. Liz Walter

      Ah yes, in English ‘take French leave’! For anyone who doesn’t know, it means to be absent or leave somewhere without permission. Don’t know about ‘filer à l’anglaise’, but ‘take French leave’ is rather old-fashioned now – in fact I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone use it in a real life situation!

  3. Mujahed

    Thanks for this post, Liz.

    In colloquial Arabic, a phrase that means the same as “taking/carrying coals to Newcastle” is “selling out water in the neighbourhood of water suppliers.”

    Also, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” has a very similar meaning in the Arabic “the world wasn’t created in a day.”

    As you may have noticed, we don’t use place names in both expressions above.

    Thank you so much again.

  4. Lucy

    How about the phrase “living the American dream,” meaning to have a prosperous life with a high-end job, a loving family and a big house with a white picket fence.

  5. Ofelia Lubbe

    Good evening, I love this blog and it´s very useful for my classes. I´d like to know if the phrases that appear in the blog are used both in Br and Am English. If not, do you point it out? Looking forward to your reply. Thanks Ofelia

    El mié, 3 feb 2021 a las 8:02, About Words – Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog () escribió:

    > Liz Walter posted: ” by Liz Walter At the end of last year, I wrote a post > about phrases containing people’s names, which generated quite a lot of > interest. I hope you will also enjoy this post about phrases based on place > names. I will start with adjectives from coun” >

    1. Liz Walter

      Hi Ofelia – I’m glad you like it! I do my best to check whether phrases are used in both varieties of English, and as you can see in this post, I’ve indicated where this is not the case. I am a British English speaker myself, so there’s always a small chance that I might be unaware of a difference, but I think you can be fairly confident that if I haven’t said anything to the contrary, the phrases are fine for both.

    2. David Zacch Abiola Ayanlowo

      Thanks. I am familiar with almost all of them. I do not use them so often though. They are very useful.

      Thanks for the post.

  6. Dragica Banjac

    In Serbian, we have a phrase:
    It’s a Spanish village (to someone) in the same sense as It’s all Greek to me. 🙂

  7. Inna Semenova

    In Russian we say “take English leave” speaking about leaving silently, unnoticed and without saying Goodbye )

      1. Seba

        Well, not only the French and the Russian – we do it in Poland as well although it has become quite rare 🙂
        We also often say that ‘Rome (or Krakow) was not built at once’ which of course means it always takes some time to achieve noticeable things. And instead of taking coals to Newcastle, we ‘carry wood to the forest’.

        Thank you for everything you publish here.

  8. Marion

    ‘It’s all Greek to me’, this is a phrases I know in German as ‘These are Bohemian villages to me’.
    The other phrase, I know, is ‘carry/take coals to Newcastle’. I know it as ‘carry owls to Athens’.

  9. Kalle

    Danish uses “That’s a town in Russia” instead of “That’s Greek to me” in a conceptual sense: “democracy is a town in Russia for Mr Putin.” First known use: 1983.

    German has a similar expression in “das sind für mich) böhmische Dörfer”, or “That’s a Bohemian village (to me)”, Bohemia being a Czech region.

    Interestingly, Danish does not have a local version of “Greek to me” even though Norwegian and Swedish have.

  10. I am entreatingThanks for this post, Liz.

    In colloquial Arabic, a phrase that means the same as “taking/carrying coals to Newcastle” is “selling out water in the neighbourhood of water suppliers.”

    Also, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” has a very similar meaning in the Arabic “the world wasn’t created in a day.”

    As you may have noticed, we don’t use place names in both expressions above.

    Thank you so much again.

  11. Tatjana Goldina

    “Rome wasn’t built in a day” in Russian variant is replaced by Moscow,
    Instead of taking coals to Newcastle we bring samovar (kind of boiling tank) to Tula (a town in Russia).

  12. Yuti

    And if you make a Himalayan Blunder you could be sent to the Black Hole of Calcutta. Unless you’re Shanghaied before that happens, in which case you might still meet your Waterloo!

  13. Baudon

    For saying “fiddling while Rome burns”, we’ve got a very rude and strange expression in French: “F… the flies”. Very common at office when you want to mock someone’s pointless activity. A nicer one is “don’t look after the stables when the castle is burning”.
    For carrying coal in Newcastle, we’ve got “selling sand in the desert” although we don’t have any desert.
    And a bit like Conventry, we’ve got the verb “limoger” from Limoges city, meaning dismiss someone (it comes from the autumn 1914 when the bad officers were appointed in Limoges, so they couldn’t take part any longer to battles in the West front).

  14. Jerome

    In belgium (french size)

    ‘carry/take coals to Newcastle’ we’ve got “take sausages to Frankfurt” and “to drink in Switzerland” when someone’s drinking alone…

  15. Katerina

    Hello and thanks for the interesting article & discussion! We Czech speakers use Indian summer and Russian roulette in the same meaning. Sometimes we try to take English leave 🙂 What is all Greek to you is a Spanish village to us. – And well, we seem to be a bit incomprehensible – it is a Czech film to my Polish friends and Bohemian (=Czech) village to Germans. We believe that all roads end in Roma (we do not care too much and yet reach the destination). You might guess what means when it is as cold as in Siberia. „Canadian“ joke means taking the mickey. When something happens very rarely, it comes once in a Hungarian year. Who drinks as a Dane certainly gets inebriated. When somebody shows off and „knows everything better“ might be asked to stop giving advice as they haven´t been to Russia yet. To cope Latin means to behave.

  16. Denis

    A really nice article! I’ve read it with great relish.
    I just want to clarify something… You’ve got this example sentence ‘I looked at the contract, but it’s all Greek to me.’ Shouldn’t it say ‘… it was all Greek to me’ in this sentence, or the verb ‘to be’ in this idiom doesn’t change its tense?
    It’d also be delightful if you could possibly demystify the use of “‘s” with nouns as a contraction of ‘is’. Is that acceptable? For example, would this written sentence be correct: ‘My prime specialization’s contract law.’?

    1. Liz Walter

      Present tense or past simple are both fine in that sentence. Present slightly emphasizes that you are still in a state of not understanding. Contracted ‘s is common, but not appropriate in formal writing, so unlikely in your sentence.

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