You may (or may not) remember that the phrase, ‘My postillion has been struck by lightning’ first appeared in a late 19th century Hungarian phrase book, causing a contemporary social observer to note that ‘this must be the sort of thing that only happens in Hungary; and, when it happens, this is the sort of remark that only Hungarians make.”

James Thurber quoted the line in a 1937 New Yorker article, and Dirk Bogarde titled his 1977 autobiography, A Postillion Struck By Lightning. The phrase apparently caught the contemporary imagination to such an extent, that a ‘postillion’ became common parlance for a phrase of no particular use.

In the interest of pure linguistic merriment, I offer you the following postillions, culled from genuine foreign phrasebooks.  If you are ever lucky enough to find one of them useful, please do let me know.

Where is the nearest rollercoaster? (Danish: Hvor er den nærmeste rutsjebane?)

Do you serve rhubarb in this restaurant? (Dutch: Serveert u misschien rabarber in dit restaurant?

There are many bears in our forest. (Russian: В нашем лесу много медведей.)

I am sorry I have to leave you, but I must buy a hat. (French: Je suis desolé de vous quitter, mais je dois acheter un chapeau.)

That man is a witch-doctor, see the frog in his pocket! (Swahili: Huyu mchawi, ona chura katika kifuko yake!)

Excuse me, miss, could you please tell me where around here I might purchase a lap protector? (Norwegian: Unnskyld, Frøken, kunne De fortelle meg hvor i nærheten jeg kan få kjøpt et forkle?)

A postillion, by the by, is a servant who rides one of a team of horses pulling a carriage.  Not to mention, a very silly phrase.


28 thoughts on “My Postillion Has Been Struck By Lightning.

  1. Lois Lowry 8 years ago

    I can sort of remember, from my childhood days in Tokyo, how to say “My left leg” (Watakshi-no hidari ashi). Now if it (as opposed to my postillion) were to be struck by lightning….

    1. Meg 8 years ago

      And I was dragged to Hebrew school as a kid, and can only remember Ani yoshevet al ha keysay, which is phonetic for I sit on the chair. Pathetic.

  2. Cathy cassidy 8 years ago

    Meg, this phrase popped into my head a few days ago… decades after I read the Dirk Bogarde autobiog. And I was trying to imagine what a postillion might look like, and you have sorted that. My fave odd phrase, learned age 13 in Russian class, in our text book – the elephant is in the garden… apart from the word ‘Briefcase’ the only phrase I ever learned. And only phonically now, alas. (Apologies – ‘eta slon f’sadu’) I used to have nightmares at time of Reagan & Cold War that if we were ever invaded I would blurt out this phrase and be spared… OK. I was a very messed up teen.

    1. Meg 8 years ago

      Ah, great minds, Cathy. Hard to imagine how being able to communicate in Russian that there’s an elephant in the garden could be useful. Particularly in Scotland…

  3. matt 8 years ago

    the German phrasebook from the British Consulate for England Fans at 2006 World Cup. “may I pitch my tent in your Garden?” darf ich mein Zelt in Ihren Garten aufrichten?

    1. Meg 8 years ago

      Or perhaps, ‘do you mind very much if we lose?’

  4. bookwitch 8 years ago

    That would be slide, I think. And apron. And I’m a former colleague of postiljoner I’ll have you know.

    1. Meg 8 years ago

      Slide and apron makes more sense. Colleague of postiljoner? Huh?

  5. Tony 8 years ago

    You must know the Monty Python sketch?:

    1. Meg 8 years ago

      Thanks for that — I’d forgotten it!

  6. Caroline Coxon 8 years ago

    I have an Italian phrase book, dated 1963. To me that doesn’t seem so very long ago, but here are a few choice phrases:

    On the plane:
    Bring me some cotton wool, please. (Mi porti dell’ovatta, per piacere)

    At the hotel:
    Must one wear evening dress?(E prescritto l’abito da sera?)
    I can’t dance the twist. (Non so ballare il twist)

    Have you a piece of string? (Ha un po’di spago?)

    I think I shall do very well in Italy!

    1. Meg 8 years ago

      Fantastic. The piece of string is interesting. And a bit mysterious.

  7. Caroline Coxon 8 years ago

    It’s not as though I have any work to do this morning…

    Here is my parents’ Greek Phrase book, dated 1964. I’m so glad I kept it! Who knows when I might need to say:

    I have two pairs of socks to be mended (Έχω δύο ζευγάρια κάλτσες για να επιδιορθωθούν)

    I have trodden on a sea urchin (Έχω πατήσει σε αχινός)

    Grind your teeth very gently (Τρίζουν τα δόντια σας πολύ απαλά)

    Don’t bite on that for four hours (Να μην δαγκώσει σε αυτό για τέσσερις ώρες)

  8. Meg 8 years ago

    You are making me very happy, Caroline.

  9. Kate 8 years ago

    Ich habe einen kleinen roten Schornstein auf meinem Dach.
    This phrase has always stuck with me from my brief time learning German at school about thirty five years ago. I never could picture the circumstances in which I would need to say, ‘I have a little red chimney on my roof’. Thank you so much for this post!

  10. bookwitch 8 years ago

    Postiljon is the only slightly old-fashioned word for postman.

  11. Keren David 8 years ago

    A slight twist…I learned Dutch from a lovely young man when I was heavily pregnant. I decided to bring in the hospital booklet so we could translate it together. I learned Dutch and he learned all about obstetrics. I will never forget the look on his face when we came to the word ‘slijmplug’ – yes, the Dutch word for mucus is pronounced slime – and I had to explain what it was. Too much information!

    1. Meg 8 years ago

      Slime plug is great, and so intuitive. So baby would be sleejpdisturber and husband would be herrpub?

  12. Zannah Kearns 8 years ago

    I don’t have the phrase book I’m afraid, but I met an American girl in Costa Rica and her book had the Spanish for ‘Would you like to move in with me?’ followed by ‘I’m not sure this is working out.’

  13. Kirsten Baron 8 years ago

    The only complete German phrase my husband acquired while working in Frankfurt sometime in the last century was “Ich habe auch ein schwarzes Fahrrad” which means ‘I also have a black bicycle’. It’s the ALSO that delights me.

  14. Jody Casella 8 years ago

    I managed to pass a college Spanish class by memorizing the sentence: “Una noria es un pozo con un mechaniso para sacar agua.” (A noria is a type of well with a mechanism used for drawing out water.) The professor thought I was funny for working that into a conversation. This is tied with the word boligarafo (sp?)–ball point pen. Which I used to fool the Puerto Rican kids I worked with at Ponderosa into thinking I knew Spanish. (They stopped speaking in Spanish in front of me after that.)

  15. Sir Thurio 8 years ago

    The only Welsh that has stuck with me after a year in Aberystwyth in the 80s is (apologies for the spelling) Gai guisan os gwelych yn dda and Buddugoliaeth i’r glowyr. Kiss me please (note the good manners) and Victory to the miners. It all sounds a bit Eric Morecambe now.

  16. Jane 7 years ago

    Have you ever played the brilliant game which is to read the phrase book as a play? In particular the chapters about difficult situations make increasingly tense and tortuous stories. Older phrasebooks are best for the pained politeness recommended when demanding to see the British Consul.

    1. Meg 7 years ago

      I love the idea of this. What a brilliant game. Will try it instantly.

  17. Christina 7 years ago

    I have just come upon your blog, hence my late chiming-in on this thread. David Sedaris had a very, very funny article about a phrase book he was using on a recent trip and I believe it was in last week’s New Yorker. It was filled with inadvertent sagas and non-sequiters. Enjoy.

  18. Zoe Brain 6 years ago

    An old tradtional song:

    Le plume de ma tante
    est dans le bureau de mon Oncle
    Le papier de mon Oncle
    est dans le bureau de ma Tante

    There’ll be such a flipping row
    When Auntie finds her pen is missing
    But that’s nothing to the one
    When Uncle finds his paper’s gone

  19. Elinor 6 years ago

    First of all I want to say awesome blog! I had a quick question in which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.

    I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your thoughts before
    writing. I have had a hard time clearing my mind in getting my ideas out.
    I truly do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are lost just trying to figure out how to begin.
    Any ideas or hints? Many thanks!

    1. Meg Rosoff 6 years ago

      You take 10-15 minutes to figure out how to begin???? I take hours, days, sometimes weeks. I’m very jealous!

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