On Tagalog and Cebuano Idioms (and their literal translations)

Writing in Davao Filipino recently made me realize how little available information there is online about idiomatic expressions used in the Philippine languages.

Almost all information I could get hold of is in Tagalog, masqueraded as ‘Filipino.’ I take particular issue with this because while you can go around saying Tagalog phonology, lexicon, morphology and syntax can serve as culturally neutral bases for the language under construction, idiomatic expressions are fundamentally cultural in nature, and imposition of idiom is as good as cultural conquest. When I was a student in high school I could distinctly remember my Cebuano and Ilonggo classmates struggling with the idiomatic expressions being taught in Filipino classes, and I was disquieted because, having been raised in an ethnically Tagalog household, I found the lessons easy – I had an unfair advantage. Expressions like ‘Balat sibuyas’ and ‘mabigat ang kamay’ were used often at home, but for my classmates they were as good as foreign. Those linguistic hacks in the KWF and the DepEd should be careful about the syllabi they come up with – instead of imposing cultural hegemony, they should work hard to help preserve the rich diversity of expression in the country’s multi-linguistic arrangement.

Because yes, Filipino idioms are fascinating, even the Tagalog ones imposed on the rest of the country. I found this useful list of idioms, with some literal translations, and one can see the creativity with which these expressions were crafted. Of course, because language is dynamic, this list is far from exhaustive. There are many newer idioms out there being created as I write this.

On Cebuano idioms, the material online is much scarcer. There is this list, with some of the idom’s actual meanings (and horrible grammar), but no explanation on the literal meaning and origin of each one. I am even more hard pressed looking for idioms on Hiligaynon and other Filipino languages. If you know any, please share with us!

To address this dearth then, let me discuss here some common Tagalog and Cebuano idioms often used in the Davao-Kidapawan area. But always note that language is dynamic, and another fault of Filipino teachers is to teach idioms as if they are unchanging and permanent, when in fact idioms come into and fall out of fashion quite often. I will try to avoid making the same mistake and focus on the idioms in common currency, knowing full well that the list will inevitably be dated one day.

Here are some common Tagalog idioms:

Berde ang dugo – literally ‘green-blooded,’ it’s a colourful but insulting way to describe homosexuals. The main concept behind this idiom is to highlight their otherness. As if they were skinks or something.

Kumukulo ang dugo ko – literally ‘my blood is boiling,’ and as that same idiom implies in English, it means wrath. In Davao Filipino you hear it as ‘nagakulo ang dugo ko.’ It has nothing to do with the traditional Filipino dish Dinuguan.

Nagdadalawang isip – literally ‘being of two minds.’ It is the only way of expressing hesitation in Tagalog. Someone hesitating between doing it or not doing it is ‘nagdadalawang isip.’ In Davao Filipino it often comes as ‘nagadalawa-dalawa,’ a calque of the Cebuano idiom ‘nagaduha-duha’ (lterally just ‘being two’). What Filipinos use when there are three or more options to choose from, I do not know (‘nagatatlo-tatlo?’)

Makapal ang mukha – literally ‘with a thick face,’ it’s a negative way of describing someone without shame. Often translated as ‘how dare you!’ The logic here seems to be that someone with a thick face can survive the damage a shameful deed will have on the face. The idiom for the thought has the same literal meaning in Cebuano, with ‘baga og nawong.’

Gulong ng palad – literally ‘how the palm rolls,’ it is a colourful way of referring to fate. A related term would be ‘kapalaran’ (literally ‘what is on the palm’), also denoting fate. The word seems to indicate Filipinos belief in palmistry, although I don’t know if this is precolonial or an introduction of the Spanish. There is a, well, fatalistic note to the term, as it implies something inescapable. The more reaffirming destiny is ‘tadhana.’

Naglulubid ng buhangin – literally ‘making rope out of sand,’ this means lying. Of course if someone tells you ‘I’m making rope out of sand,’ that person is either lying or on drugs. This is very rare now, and I’ve hardly heard it in Mindanao in decades. It seems to be going out of fashion, in lieu of even more creative Cebuano idioms for the thought (we’ll come to that later).

Halang ang bituka – literally ‘with horizontal intestines,’ this is another colourful insult, meaning evil. Again it highlights otherness – someone with the wrong orientation of internal organs is obviously not human, and therefore evil. This is also not very common in the area as the word ‘halang’ (stress on the second syllable) may cause confusion with the Cebuano word ‘halang’ (stress on the first syllable), meaning ‘spicy’, but it is sometimes used theatrically.

Parang sardinas – literally ‘like sardines,’ it is used to describe the tightness of a room, vehicle, or any space with many people. The image of canned sardines packed tightly in a can is behind this simile. Although I suspect this idiom either goes back to plentier days as canned sardines these days are nowhere near tightly packed, or they instead refer to bottled Spanish sardines.

Magdilang anghel – literally ‘have an angel’s tongue,’ a requesting imperative beseeching the addressee to make what he/she has just said come true. If someone tells you you will win the lottery, you answer back ‘magdilang anghel ka sana’ (may you have an angel’s tongue). It has strong religious implications, harking back (pun unintended) to the biblical function of angels as heralds to the coming plans of God. It’s only common among ethnically Tagalog speakers. Cebuanos have a related superstition, believing that people with blueish tongues are harbingers of the inevitable.

Hampaslupa – literally ‘earth-slammer,’ it was originally a very classist insult that meant ‘poor person.’ Your typical rich mother-in-law will object to your relationship with boyfie because you’re just a hampaslupa. The image seems to have origins in the agrarian class divide, as poorer labourers obviously contrasted with rich hacienderos by actually being in contact with the earth. But it also surprisingly works for the urban poor, particularly with beggars spending much of their time on the ground. This idiom gained currency again recently when the Senyora memes exaggerated classist insult to humorous effect. Now it is often used tongue in cheek as a term of endearment, often to address close friends (‘hoy hampaslupa, punta tayo ng mall’ – ‘hey, hampaslupa, let’s go to the mall’).

Patay-gutom – literally ‘dead hungry,’ this is an idiom that has different meanings. On one level it means just that, dying of hunger, and therefore incredibly hungry. From there it could be used to imply someone is poor (Filipinos have a rich tradition of insulting the poor), or that someone is gluttonous. The former sense is used in our area just as ‘hampaslupa’ is, but latter sense is more commonly used organically among Tagalogs – I first heard it used by my mother, who called me ‘patay-gutom’ when I tried to eat a whole serving of Nilaga. Yes, my mother is the type of Tagalog to use ‘patay-gutom.’

Kalapating mababa ang lipad – literally ‘dove with a low flight,’ it is a euphemism for prostitutes. I have no idea where this comes from, though the concept can easily be surmised: a prostitute stunts her chances of fulfilling herself, like a dove unable to soar higher. It is rather poetic in that sense. It seems to have been made popular by Freddie Aguilar’s single ‘Magdalena.’ Like most Tagalog idioms it is only used theatrically (you don’t go around here saying you saw a ‘kalapating mababa ang lipad’ near Central Bank without any hint of humour).

Sumakabilang-buhay – literally ‘(he/she) went to the other life,’ a euphemism for death. It implies Tagalog beliefs in the afterlife. It is common among Tagalogs, but used sparingly among other ethnicities.

Sumakabilang-bahay – literally ‘(he) went to the other house,’ a euphemism for a spouse who has cheated and has moved in with the lover, and also a clever play on the previous idiom. Again, more common among Tagalogs, but rarely used by other groups. In Cebuano the wife of a husband who had ‘sumakabilang-bahay’ is described as ‘balong buhi’ (literally ‘widow of the living’). That’s a title for a story!

Nalunod sa Sabaw – literally ‘drowned in soup,’ it is a shorthand explanation, often to a child, of a topic that is either a mystery or awkward to talk about – often relating to questions of paternity. If the child of a husband who had gone ‘sumakabilang bahay’ asks his mother where his father is, the balong buhi will answer ‘your father drowned in soup.’ End of conversation. It’s part of a family of absurd explanations, which also include ‘nalunod sa kalamansi juice’ (drowned in calamansi juice) and ‘naflush sa inidoro’ (flushed down the toilet). The Cebuano equivalent ‘nalumos sa sabaw’ is also used.

Kaladkarin – literally ‘dragable,’ used to refer to a girl who is easily taken and swayed by a man. Obviously not a compliment. More common among Tagalogs, particularly among discerning mothers about their daughters or their sons’ girlfriends. Whenever I hear it I imagine those stock cavemen cartoons with men dragging women by the hair.

Cebuano Idioms

Kapayason – literally ‘papaya-like,’ it means oversensitive. The analogy here seems to be of a papaya fruit that easily oozes sap when damaged. It is the Cebuano version of ‘balat-sibuyas’ (onion skinned), although I don’t see how onions can have sensitive skin.

Kandingon – literally ‘goat-like,’ it means someone averse to taking a bath, though the image puts special emphasis on the smell of the individual. It’s a very rural idiom that often finds itself in urban Davao Filipino (‘maligo ka na uy, kandingon ka na masyado.’)

Bangagan – literally ‘hole-filled,’ it’s a colourfully graphic way of referring to a girl who likes having sex. The term doesn’t necessarily mean promiscuous, as a girl who likes having sex a lot with one man is still ‘bangagan’. My younger brother, ever the factory of language, recently coined ‘finger girl’ as an alternative, although implying a different sexual act.

Nagdula og panit – literally ‘playing with skin,’ this sensual idiom means masturbation. I do not know if it harks back to the days before Christianity introduced circumcision to the Philippines.

Alaga ni Inday Palad – literally ‘under the care of Inday of the palm,’ again a euphemism for masturbation, although this phrasing means someone who masturbates often – or who only masturbates and does not get the chance to have sex. The act itself is sometimes phrased ‘naga-Inday palad.’ ‘Inday’ is the Cebuano term of endearment for girls, and this idiom is humorous because it personifies the palm into a girl with just this one word.

Nangamote – literally ‘planting camote,’ it means having a difficult time, often in the context of studies. The act of planting camote has always been portrayed in Philippine culture as an act idleness, for reasons I cannot understand (the camote industry is a respectable one full of untapped potential), and this idiom seems to imply that the student is doing nothing relevant out of the futility of doing something more. There is that classic English line from a teacher to his/her underperforming student: ‘With grades like this, you should just go back to your province and plant camote.’

Nagbiko og rainbow – literally ‘making rainbow-coloured biko,’ a humourous way of saying someone is lying, the Cebuano equivalent of ‘naglulubid ng buhangin.’ Of course, the sweet rice cake biko only comes in dark or light brown shades, occasionally purple, and a rainbow-coloured biko is ridiculous (although mind you it isn’t impossible). This is a very recent idiom, proof that Filipino languages continue to produce such creative expressions. You often hear it as a response to a bold and unbelievable claim: if you tell your friend you just received fifty million dollars from a random charity abroad, your friend will answer ‘pag-sure friend kay magpabiko tayo ng rainbow’ (‘make sure of that, friend, we’ll make rainbow-coloured biko in celebration.’).


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