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There's a phrase in Thai, ตกใจหมดเลย [tòk-tɕɑi-mòt-lɤːi], which means "to be frightened", as if someone suddenly broke a glass on a floor behind your back.

Literally, it can be translated "dropped-heart-depleted-completely" (don't try Google Translate; it's wrong).

Surprisingly enough, I understood it intuitively because there's a Russian idiom "душа ушла в пятки" ("soul went to {one's} heels").
Both Thai and Russian idioms hold a certain amount of humorous context.

I was trying to translate it to English, but only found "frightened to death" which does not look humorous at all. Is there a better phrase to denote being frightened, with considerations above?

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  • I would try scared the crap out of me. There are other versions (some more vulgar) as well.
    – J.R.
    Feb 17, 2013 at 23:29
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    My heart skipped a beat. My heart stopped. My heart dropped, however, means I was abruptly saddened. Feb 17, 2013 at 23:31
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    @StoneyB: Except my heart sank is probably 10-20 times more common than dropped for the "saddened" sense. Feb 17, 2013 at 23:41
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    There's an idiom about one's heart leaping into one's mouth (different from Wordsworth's _My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky). This signifies fear, not sadness.
    – user264
    Feb 17, 2013 at 23:43
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    @FumbleFingers Yes, indeed; it occurs in the same ratio to my heart fell. I cited the dropped one because it's close to OP's original. Feb 17, 2013 at 23:48

4 Answers 4

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If you're looking for something humorous, then you'll have to create your own translation, in the spirit of Arthur Waley, the great American translator of poetry from Chinese and Japanese to English. Waley was criticized, unjustly, IMHO, for his brilliant translation of The Tale of Genji by a contemporary translator, Edward Seidensticker, touted as "the best translator of Japanese that has ever lived", but, frankly, I found his "faithful to the original text" translation an utter bore compared with Waley's. Waley was a poet; Seidensticker was a translator. There's a world of difference.

Enough background. I'm suggesting that you create your own phrase. I'm not a poet, but I do have a suggestion. Why not say something on the order of "my heart dropped down my leg and into my shoe, rolled between my toes, then stopped for a full five seconds until I caught my breath again"? You can change things to say what you think will amuse your readers or listeners. Everything else that's been suggested here, including my earlier suggestion of "my heart lept into my mouth", is merely a cliché. Avoid clichés whenever possible.

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    I'm accepting this answer because it goes farther than I asked. In fact, it answers most further questions about translating idiomatic constructs. I must admit, however, that following your answer might be difficult for an average language learner. :) Feb 19, 2013 at 3:21
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    @bytebuster: You're a polyglot (Thai, Russian, English, ??) & hardly an average language learner. I wrote that especially for you because I know you can do it. A good teacher has to be able to assess the capabilities of students. I've been teaching English & writing for 40 years. Some people have said that I'm a good teacher. Sometimes that's true. Thank you for accepting the answer. I'm happy that it's useful. That's my goal here, to be useful to EFL students.
    – user264
    Feb 19, 2013 at 3:43
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I'll post StoneyB's

My heart skipped a beat.

as a community wiki answer. I don't see the point of inviting a potentially limitless set of alternative phrasings not involving the word "heart", but if anyone wants to add to the list, here's one to start...

I nearly shat myself.
Thunderstruck.

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  • I love how you picked that one to start
    – Deco
    Feb 17, 2013 at 23:50
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    @Deco: Well, I thought it had a certain "lightness" on account of the somewhat vague status of "shat" as a past tense, and OP wanted a bit of humour. But it's just occurred to me it mightn't be suitable for all contexts/audiences. On the other hand, you could probably get away with "I almost wet myself" just about anywhere. Go on! Indulge yourself! Edit that (or something else) into the answer! That's why I made it wiki, after all. Feb 17, 2013 at 23:55
  • almost wet oneself sounds a good idiomatic expression, but isn't it derogatory in a Western culture? (no problem for Thai culture, however) Feb 18, 2013 at 0:36
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    I think that's at least the second time you've used derogatory in an unusual way here on ELL. It's very, very slightly "rude, indelicate, risqué, unseemly", as are all metaphorical references to bodily functions. But derogatory means insulting towards a person - if I said "You are stupid", that's "derogatory". If I say "I am a twat", it's self-deprecating - but because I'm talking about myself, most people wouldn't say I was being derogatory. Feb 18, 2013 at 0:45
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    @FumbleFingers - I forgot the :) in my comment, it made me smile when I read it is all
    – Deco
    Feb 18, 2013 at 0:54
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I think

"My heart was in my mouth."

Is the closet you'll get in English. If you're looking for a humerous way to describe fright, I think

Scared stiff

and

Scared shitless

are pretty good. Scared shitless is vulgar, though.

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    Having one's heart in one's mouth is more an anticipation-scared than scared because someone/something made you jump, though. Mar 3, 2014 at 13:45
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I'm not quite sure that avoidance of cliches is necessary. I'm not Thai and so it's not clear that the original phrase was not also a cliche to Thai speakers. There are English expressions (referring to the heart):

My heart jumped out of my chest.

My heart stopped. (Although I see it was in the comments.)

My heart was pounding.

For expressions of surprise there're also:

Jumped out of my shoes.

Scared the wits out of me.

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