Pair an interest in language with a well-travelled author, and you get Adam Sharp’s The Wheel is Spinning But the Hamster is Dead. A non-fiction title that focuses on proverbs, idioms, insults and other linguistic joys, The Wheel is Spinning details the idiosyncratic nature of languages from across the globe. Described as “the poet laureate of lists” by John Mitchinson (Senior QI elf and co-host of book podcast Backlisted), Sharp’s fondness for itemising and cataloguing comes in handy when dealing with the often chaotic and contradictory world of self-expression.
While trying to apply order to some fairly substantial cultural divides, Sharp’s book revels in the differences across nations. Many of those differences, however, start in a familiar place. When it comes to insulting someone’s intelligence or making it clear you’ve little interest in the current subject of conversation, every country has their own way of nailing its frustration. But it is in the act of insulting our fellow humans that universality (and creativity) begins to merge. Remarking that someone is “as slow as molasses in January” or has “the face of a guinea pig”, the two nations of America and France dovetail rather neatly, and in the colourful descriptions of someone’s stupidity, the no-prisoners sense of directness indicates that Scotland and Australia have a great deal in common.
Sharp gets a lot of mileage from the disparity across nations when it comes to sayings, idioms and proverbs. For example, the proverbs get noticeably more brusque the closer we get to Eastern Europe. For our “every cloud has a silver lining”, Romania’s equivalent, “a kick in the ass, a step forward” gets to the point a whole lot quicker. Our phrase “it’s a piece of cake” in Russian becomes a rather less inviting “it’s a steamed turnip”. We get the meaning, but cake vs turnip does rather neatly illustrate the difference in our cultures.
Some of the funniest parts of the book are when Sharp gives us translations of phrases, book or film titles. The titles of Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Men book series get a charming makeover. Mr Bounce in French becomes Monsieur Bing. Mr Sneeze in Norway is Herr Atscho. Very cute. Translations also have a way of cutting through social niceties. The Chinese nickname for actor Kristen Stewart is “Facial Paralysis Girl”.
It’s obscenely early to even consider it, but The Wheel is Spinning does position itself as the perfect companion to the space between Christmas and New Year, where the telly isn’t quite as good and you need something to entertain the troops. The book’s easy-to-read layout invites you to dip in, and at any point, there are quality jokes to be found. It is the biting humour that lifts this book out of the usual compendium fare. Sharp’s willingness to list a country’s obsession with scatological jokes (Finland and Germany, looking at you) means that The Wheel is Spinning is a perfect, alternative Christmas gift, but select the recipient carefully. Otherwise you’ll be “The Pooping Christmas Log” (Catalonia).
The Wheel is Spinning But the Hamster is Dead: A Journey Around the World in Idioms, Proverbs and General Nonsense is published by W & N on 28 September 2023