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In German there is an idiom "unter vier Augen" (under four eyes) which means privately, for example to talk with someone under four eyes. My question is if it is in also used in English, and whether I'll sound weird to an English speaker by using it.

I found a site which describes the German phrase well:

"As a matter of fact, the literal translation of an idiom is often absurd or comical. The German phrase 'mit jemandem unter vier Augen sprechen' literally translates as 'to talk with someone under four eyes,' but the meaning is 'to talk privately with someone."

But it's not clear if it's in use in English as well.

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    As a side note, there is a similar idiomatic expression in Italian "parlare a quattr'occhi" (four eyes talk) that has the same meaning.
    – user5267
    Jan 27, 2017 at 17:13
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    The same idiomatic phrase is also in French "Peut-on parler en privé" and Spanish "Podemos hablar en privado" Jan 27, 2017 at 18:36
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    In English, "four-eyes" is a childish insult against people with glasses, so I would not recommend attempting to use the phrase. Jan 27, 2017 at 19:56
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    There's an expression "for your eyes only" and a technical spy term "eyes only", both of which imply extreme privacy, but both of those refer specifically to written information, not spoken communications.
    – 1006a
    Jan 27, 2017 at 21:40
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    @Industrious The examples you give in French and Spanish are literal translations of "Can we talk in private?". They are not idioms and have nothing to do with "four eyes". I found that "entre quatre yeux" ("between four eyes") does exist in French, but I believe the idiom does not exist in Spanish any more than it does in English.
    – Boann
    Jan 28, 2017 at 1:35

8 Answers 8

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No it is not used in English and it would not be understood. You can use the expression:

Talk privately or in private.

in private:

  • Not in public; secretly or confidentially.

(AHD)

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    Wouldn't "face to face" be a more similar idiom?
    – Davor
    Jan 27, 2017 at 20:19
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    @Davor: F2F means physically together, which is usually necessary for privacy (unless you use an encrypted telephone or similar), but it is not sufficient; you can be F2F in the middle of a party, a restauarant or office or similar with many other people near enough to hear you. Jan 27, 2017 at 20:30
  • And some of us military folk use the term "off line". As in "Hey Jim, I'm going to get with you off line about the issue from before." or "Hey let's get off line and iron out that problem." Jan 27, 2017 at 20:52
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    @KevinFischer: That is definitely not limited to military use; it's common business speak across the Western world (including the UK) Jan 28, 2017 at 18:56
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit, That's good to know! Sometimes it's hard to know which phrases transfer over. Jan 30, 2017 at 16:27
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In the past, "four-eyes" was a common playground taunt a child might use to insult another child who wore eyeglasses.

  • an offensive way of talking to someone who wears glasses.

(Cambridge Dictionary)

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  • I agree. If I heard someone saying they were going to talk "under four eyes" I would assume they were going to talk "under" someone wearing glasses (even then that would be a difficult concept to assimilate). Jan 28, 2017 at 5:13
  • Not sure that it is "in the past". This still gets used by children, and even by childish adults.
    – Cody Gray
    Jan 28, 2017 at 13:54
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No, it's not an English idiom. There are several similar idioms you can use:

Keep this between us.

Keep this on the qt ("quiet").

Keep this on the dl ("down low")

Keep this hush-hush.

Not everyone will be familiar with these idioms, so to avoid confusion you can use the literal "speak privately".

Update:

Let's talk away from prying eyes.

(thanks to not store bought dirt for the suggestion)

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    I am not sure those interesting idiomatic expressions mean to talk privately. They are more on "keep what I say to yourself".
    – user5267
    Jan 27, 2017 at 17:32
  • In US if you want to be a bit humorous about it, you can reference the 'cone of silence' from the TV series and then movie Get Smart, which was supposed to allow private conversation even with other people nearby (spoiler?) but never worked properly. Jan 27, 2017 at 20:31
  • @AbsoluteBeginner agreed, I'm still trying to think of an idiom that directly maps to OP's request.
    – Andrew
    Jan 27, 2017 at 21:02
  • "talk away from prying eyes" keeps the word eyes. "Keep this under your hat" keeps the under. "For your eyes only" has the eyes and a fo(u)r but seems more for reading than talking. Jan 27, 2017 at 21:14
  • A more neutral/formal option (but a bit stronger than "privately") would be "just between ourselves".
    – hobbs
    Jan 28, 2017 at 5:20
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In comments you've been told that such an idiom as talk under four eyes doesn't exist in English and if used it wouldn't in any case convey your intended meaning.

Instead you can use the word alone:

We need to talk alone.

or

You and me, we need to talk. Alone.

This is a colloquial way to convey the sense of a private talk.

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If you want to keep with a figurative and somewhat visual expression, there is an alternative in English, which is "between you, me, and ________" where the blank is filled in with a nearby inanimate object. Common examples include the wall, the fence-post (gate-post for those across the Atlantic), or the bed-post.

The implication is that there will be three things who will observe the conversation to follow. None of those things will ever discuss that conversation.

Example of it might be used:

Bob: Have you heard anything about the new neighbors?

Alice: Well, just between you, me, and the fence-post, I have learned they moved here because their son was kicked out of three schools.

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    +1 I also think the shorter just between (the two of) us is very similar to the original phrase, with the suggestion of a secret told/kept physically between two people.
    – 1006a
    Jan 27, 2017 at 22:04
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    Thats not what "unter vier augen" means. This is "unter uns gesagt", which is quite different.
    – Polygnome
    Jan 27, 2017 at 22:50
  • @Polygnome Can you explain the difference? The OP said the phrase meant "privately", and "just between [whoever]" means private to those people, but since I don't speak German I may have misunderstood the original phrase.
    – 1006a
    Jan 27, 2017 at 23:04
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    @1006a The phrase the Op used is more akin to "unter uns gesagt". It means that what ever is said is to be kept private. Its about whats being said. "Unter vier augen" is used differently. You'd use it like "Lass uns das mal unter vier Augen besprechen" and then to go somehere private and then talk with the expectation of privacy. They are used in different circumstances and have different connotations.
    – Polygnome
    Jan 28, 2017 at 9:34
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    I use "between you, me, and the NSA [National Security Agency, the guys who wiretap all of our phones]" Jan 29, 2017 at 16:42
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As others have said, "four eyes" could easily be confused with an insult, so best avoided.

Another possible term is "sub rosa" from Latin for "under the rose".

For example, "This conversation is sub rosa". Most (but not all) native English speakers should understand it.

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    Never heard of it. I checked with other members of my family (one who did Latin for year 12 recently, even) and they all gave me blank look. We are all native English speakers. Jan 28, 2017 at 5:11
  • This is mentioned in The Da Vinci Code --- page from google books --- so some people may have picked it up there
    – Hatshepsut
    Jan 28, 2017 at 7:36
  • Most English speakers have not read The Da Vinci Code - so I wouldn't expect too many people to know sub rosa. Jan 28, 2017 at 13:38
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No, this expression is not used in English. In addition to the suggestions above, many might understand the Latin expression sub rosa (literally "under the rose"), which has the same meaning.

Also, Americans of age 50+ will understand (and probably smile) at the phrase "let's pull down the cone of silence" (a running gag from a 1960s comedy show).

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    Hey, I recognize the "cone of silence" reference and I'm not 50... yet... Jan 29, 2017 at 16:41
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I think if addressing the person you want to share something confidential with keep it "between us" would be the most natural way to say this is English conversation. We do not have a (commonly used) idiom for this.

When in the company of others and addressing them, you can also say "Can you give us a minute [in private]?"

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