From A to Š: A Guide to Serbian Phrases and Idioms (Part 1)

As you probably found out by now, Serbs can get pretty creative – and that also includes the Serbian language. Some Serbian phrases and idioms are so funny and vivid that you won’t be able to get them out of your mind. 

For your entertainment, we prepared a list of amusing Serbian phrases and idioms. Find a place where you can laugh out loud and enjoy!

A - Alal vera!

You must include this phrase in your vocabulary if you want to sound like a real Serbian. It’s how to express your feelings about someone’s achievements and show them your appraisal. It’s something like Great job! – but in a more expressive way. 

You can also use the phrase Svaka čast in the same context. 

Kako si brzo završio to, alal vera! (You have completed this so quickly, well done!)

Knjiga koju si napisao je sjajna, svaka ti čast! (The book you wrote is amazing, well done!)

B - Bez dlake na jeziku

The literal translation of this idiom is “without a hair on the tongue” (just picture a hairy tongue-yuck!). Serbs use this phrase to describe a person who is very direct, almost offensive at times. If you have a friend who always says what pops into his mind, you can tell him:  Pričaš bez dlake na jeziku. (You speak without a filter.)

V - Vuče se kao mrtav konj

The literal translation is He drags himself like a dead horse. Again, we’re not kidding. We will say that for someone who is lazy, bored, and unfamiliar with the verb žuriti (to hurry). It can be pretty irritating in most cases, but the person doesn’t care.  

Imagine a situation: you’re late for an important exam in college. You’re waiting for your friend to pick up the books and finally get out of the room. In order to arrive on time, you need to run as fast as you can – but your friend is very slow. When you finally get out of the apartment, he walks as you go on a casual walk without the slightest intention of hurrying up. You start to feel like you’ll kill him if you are late for the exam. Now say out loud – Nemoj da se vučeš kao mrtav konj, požuri! (Stop dragging yourself like a dead horse, hurry up!)

And that’s the right context for using the phrase.

G - Glup kao noć

Stupid as night (literal)

We don’t know why the night is stupid, but it can be related to the Serbian proverb Jutro je pametnije od večeri (Morning is smarter than the evening). Seems like the Serbs hate the nights, but there’s no apparent reason for this. Most likely, during the old times when electricity wasn’t invented yet, people didn’t have anything to do at night, so they felt pretty stupid – and that’s why the night remained stupid. 

D - Doterati cara do duvara

Bring the emperor to the wall (literal)

It’s a picturesque description of the situation when someone crosses all borders and tries everything to achieve a goal. There’s no solution, and there’s nothing else to try. 

Also, it’s the phrase Balkan parents often use when they yell at their children for bad behavior. When they say Doterao si cara do duvara, it means there’s nothing the kid can do to avoid the punishment.

Polomio si mi omiljenu vazu, jako si smotan, doterao si cara do duvara! – You broke my favorite vase, you’re so clumsy, you brought the emperor to the wall!

Opet dvojka iz biologije? Stvarno si doterao cara do duvara! – You get a D in science again? You really brought the emperor to the wall!

However, don’t be mistaken – the word duvar doesn’t exist in the Serbian language anymore. When we want to say wall, we’d say zid. Duvar is a word that originates from the Turkish language, and it’s kept only in proverbs and phrases.

A father is criticizing an child that is sulking
Dete je doteralo cara do duvara - A kid did a mischief

Đ - Đavo bi ga znao

The devil would know (literal).

In Serbia, the devil knows everything. If nobody knows the answer to something, a Serb will say Đavo bi ga znao – and nobody but him. And since we can’t reach the devil (don’t worry, we’re not Satanists), the question will remain unanswered.

Ko je razbio čašu? (Who did break the glass?)

Đavo bi ga znao! (The devil would know – we don’t know who broke the glass.)

E - biti u elementu

Danas sam baš u elementu! Napisala sam tri teksta za blog!

I feel really good today! I wrote three blog posts!

The phrase “biti u elementu” literally means to be in one’s own element, but we use it when we want to express that we feel good about something, when we are “in a flow”.

Ž - Želudac mi se prevrnuo

Želudac mi se prevrnuo literally means my stomach just flipped upside down. While the rotation of the stomach may sound like a serious medical condition, in the Serbian language it has another, much more common meaning. Now take a second to imagine what a stomach, flipped upside down, would look like? And can you try to guess what on Earth would Serbian people use this phrase for? Well, we use this very vivid expression to describe something disgusting. For example, if you see an ugly, unappetizing dish you can say: Želudac mi se prevrnuo kad sam videla kako izgleda supa sa algama. (I was disgusted when I saw that soup with algae).

A man holding a dirty stinky sock
Želudac mi se prevrne svaki put kada nađem prljave čarape svog cimera. I am disgusted each time when I stumble upon my roommate's dirty socks.

Z - Zapet ko puška

We use this phrase when someone is ready, impatiently waiting for the next step. In most Serbian households, it’s the husband who is ready for the wedding or similar occasion and waits for the wife to get out of the bathroom. One more similarity: the husband probably thinks of rifles and a way to use them while waiting. 

Spreman sam da krenemo, zapet sam kao puška i čekam te već pola sata! (I am ready to go, I am tense as a rifle, and I have been waiting for you for half an hour already!)

Samo još da stavim karmin! (Let me just put on my lipstick!)

I - Izvodi besne gliste

Brings out rabid earthworms (literal)

By now, you’re probably sorry you haven’t drunk these rakijas. When someone izvodi besne gliste, that person is spoiled and behaves without much sense. In most cases, the phrase is used to explain the behavior of a spoiled kid. 

Kako ti se ne jede brokoli za ručak, ne izvodi besne gliste! (How come you don’t want to eat broccoli for lunch, don’t bring out rabid earthworms!)

J - Jasno kao dan

Clear as a day (literal)

This phrase is used to describe how clear something is. And once again, it’s proof that Serbs hate the night. 

Sve je rešeno, jasno je kao dan ko je kriv! (Everything is solved, it’s clear as a day who is guilty)

K - Kad na vrbi rodi grožđe

When the willow tree produces grapes (literal)

Shortly: never.

Kada ćemo dobiti sladoled za večeru? (When will we get an ice cream for dinner?)

Kad na vrbi rodi grožđe!

L - Lupaš kao Maksim po diviziji

You bang as Maksim on the division (literal)

No one knows who Maksim is and why he bangs on the division, or which division, or… Well, anything. It’s used to describe someone who speaks utter nonsense. That person says many things, but nothing is true, and nothing even makes sense. Or, as they say in Serbia, lupeta gluposti (He speaks silly nonsense).

Znaš li da je čovek nastao od drveta? (Do you know that humans were created from wood?)

Lupaš kao Maksim po diviziji!

LJ - Ljubiti stope

Kiss someone’s feet (literal)

Disgusting, we know. If you love someone so much that you’re ready to kiss their feet, you love them more than anything. Yes, Serbs might have a bit of a weird sense for romantic gestures, but when you give it a second thought, it is kind of romantic.

It is also a way to express your gratitude when someone does you a big favor. Not that anyone really expects you to kiss their feet. 

Učinio mi je veliku uslugu, ljubiću mu stope zbog toga! (He did me a great favor, I’ll kiss his feet because of that!)

feet in pink high heels
Feet ready to be kissed 🙂

M - Mlatiti praznu slamu

To thresh empty straw (literal)

When you do or say something completely unuseful, and without any point, the Serb will tell you Mlatiš praznu slamu. This phrase originates from the old times before any agricultural machine was invented. People had to manually extract grains from the wheat plants. When the plant is empty, there’s no need to thresh anymore. 

Ne traći vreme, nauči srpske fraze! (Don't waste your time, learn Serbian phrases!)

To be continued… And until then, try to remember these phrases as much as possible. It will be useful once you’re in Serbia, we promise. 

If you still need help, book our individual lesson, and we’ll explain these phrases to you u sitna crevca (in the small intestines). Oh, yes, it’s another Serbian phrase. Wait a bit, and you’ll find out what it means. 🙂

3 Responses

  1. Hi mate fantastic blog!

    I can tell you one you missed: Lupaš kao Maksim po diviziji

    A Maksim was a machinegun used first time in the war versus the Ottomans before WW1 – and divisja refers not to a Division, as in the Maksim is mowing down a unit, but it refers to the training barracks where the Maksim gun is constantly barking without pause. There – just though I would post 😀

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