Of dogs and wolves

Bernard Landgraf, CC BY-SA 3.0

Welcome to another edition of SoundCzech – Radio Prague's Czech language series in which we explore idioms through song lyrics. Today, we'll be listening to a song called "Nikdy nic nikdo nemá" (or “Noone should ever”) by the pre-World War II comic duo, Jan Werich and Jiří Voskovec. The phrase to listen out for is "život je pes".

Bernard Landgraf,  CC BY-SA 3.0
The song is about the changeability and volatility of everything in life. If today you say that "život je pes", literally "life is a dog", meaning – "it's a dog's life", tomorrow life can turn in to a whole different animal because nothing is finite in this world. Let's listen to the phrase once again.

"Život je pes"– it’s a dog’s life – but we can’t be sure that the dog doesn’t turn into a wolf tomorrow, the singers say playing with the phrase. There are plenty of idioms in Czech about dogs but the wolf is another animal the language exploits creatively. The phrase “člověk člověku vlkem” meaning "man is a wolf to his fellow man" dates back to the Roman times. “My o vlku, vlk za humny” can be translated as “speak of the devil (or wolf in this case) and he appears”.

Another saying about wolves is "kdo chce s vlky býti, musí s nimi výti" –"if you want to live with the wolves you have to howl with them" –, meaning you need to conform to the customs of your chosen company. And similarly “if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas“ – "kdo se psy líhá, s blechami vstává". But back to wolves: "mám hlad jako vlk" translates literally as “I’m hungry as a wolf”, meaning I’m really starving. And finally, for some reason corn or red poppy is called "vlčí mák"– “wolf poppy” in Czech.

Sadly, wolves in this country are more common in language than in nature these days. If they could talk they would have reason to say something like “život je pes”. Thanks for listening today and na shledanou!