Jacke wie Hose - Redewendung in verschiedenen Sprachen

It’s jackets or pants to me. Wait, what?

Today we’ll be discussing the various ways of expressing indifference in different languages. What does sword fighting have to do with it? And where do hats, potatoes and scrap metal come in?

How do we express that something is all the same to us? The answer: with delightful idioms. Every language has them, but they’re each based in a very different area of life.

When differences make no difference

Before we take a closer look: we don’t mean a general I don’t care here. We’re talking about when speakers want to show indifference towards (two) different options in a given conversation. In other words, it makes no difference to them which one is picked. Here’s an example:

“Let’s go for drinks tonight!”
“Should we start with Margaritas or Mojitos?”
“Potato, potahto, as long as it’s strong.”

Fashion and foreheads

Interestingly, indifference has become the focal point of many colorful idioms. Our undisputed favorite in Swiss German, which uses two men’s names, is “it’s Hans or Heiri to me” (Hans wie/was Heiri). This doesn’t refer to specific people, but uses the similarity of the names to illustrate indifference. In Germany, it’s all the same whether something hops or jumps (gehüpft/gehupft/gehopst wie gesprungen). These are simply two (regionally influenced) expressions for pretty much the same activity. German language also uses the phrase “it’s jackets or pants to me” for the same purpose (Jacke wie Hose). Because there is no particular similarity between the two things being compared here, we need to dig a bit deeper into their etymological history – or rather, to take a step back in time. The phrase comes from the 17th century, when underwear and outerwear were beginning to be crafted from the same fabrics.

The trendy French, by contrast, compare white hats with… hats that are white (bonnet blanc et blanc bonnet). And the Dutch “lead for old iron” (lood om oud ijzer) makes sense, as they’re both forms of scrap metal. For Russian speakers, it’s neither here nor there if something is on your forehead or against your forehead (Что в лоб, что по лбу). The Swedes, on the other hand, show their indifference with a fencing reference: cut or stabbed, it’s all the same to them (hugget som stucket).

Culinary and mathematical idioms

The Italian idiom takes you to the kitchen: se non è zuppa, è pan bagnato refers to the fact that eating soggy bread is the same as eating soup – at least in terms of texture.

Spanish, by contrast, takes a mathematical approach with “three quarters of the same” (tres cuartos de lo mismo). And our very own English seems to like math too: six of one and half a dozen of the other. As seen above, we’ve got a homegrown culinary example as well: potato potato and tomato tomato, which plays on the difference between US and British accents. George Gershwin’s song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” was the inspiration behind this idiom’s use of potatoes and tomatoes. In the song, Fred Astaire happily sings about English dialects: “You like potato and I like potahto, you like tomato and I like tomahto. Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto, let’s call the whole thing off”.

We look forward to discovering more examples in other languages!

Cover image via Pexels (CC0)

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