What learning a new language can teach us about our own culture

Alex Steullet
6 min readMay 7, 2020
Shiretoko National Park, Hokkaido, Japan

You shouldn’t push granny into the poison ivy.

I mean, it goes without saying, doesn’t it? Thankfully, there’s no epidemic of old ladies getting shoved into shrubs.

Yet, it may surprise you to know that I used to hear this phrase all the time. It’s common where I grew up. So why have you never heard it?

Well, because it’s a French idiom: Faut pas pousser mémé dans les orties.

Every language abounds with evocative idioms and expressions that seem nonsensical-if not downright insane-when translated. English is no exception. Next time a French person tries to hit on you (trust me, it’ll happen), tell them they’re barking up the wrong tree. Chances are, they’ll be confused. Maybe even offended. After all, you basically just called them a dog.

“Don’t push granny into the poison ivy” is roughly equivalent to “don’t exaggerate” or “don’t push your luck.” Roughly, because such a colorful expression can’t be perfectly translated. Beyond the semantics, language only feels natural when used in appropriate context. Where the English translations tend to be used by a figure of authority in a serious situation, the French version is more common among friends when joking around.



Alex Steullet

Writing to get better. Tokyo-based polyglot with a degree in human rights. Travel | Humor | Language | Society. Find me anywhere @alexstwrites.