That Darn Postillion

by wjw on November 23, 2015

Years ago, I heard of a phrase book used by travelers to the Russian Empire which included the useful phrase, “Alas!  Our postillion has been struck by lightning!”

What I didn’t realize until today was that the unfortunate lightning-struck postillion had become a kind of folk meme transmitted down nearly a century, and thus become a suitable subject for an article in Wikipedia.

The earliest use of the term dates to a 1916 article in Punch, where the phrasebook is described as Hungarian.  The next use is 1932, in a travel book by “Septimus Despencer,” adds, “This is the sort of thing that only happens in Hungary; and, when it happens, this is the sort of remark that only Hungarians make.”

It is still unclear whether the phrase book actually existed or whether it contained any such phrase, but I can personally attest to some pretty odd bits of translation found here and there.

I saw a very recent English-Mongolian phrase book that contained the following sentences:

“Please call off your dogs.”

“May I see your yurt?”

“I would like to drink kumiss now.”

(I was picturing an American tourist using these three sentences in succession.)

Other useful phrases travelers should memorize at once:

Warum nicht in die Luft gehen?  “Why not just blow up?”

Vasanesoume.  Greek for “I am being tortured.”

Se taper le cul par terre.  French, “Bang your butt on the ground.”

Qi qiao sheng yan. Chinese, “Smoke from seven orifices.”

Heittaa vesilintua.   Finnish.  “Go throw it at a water fowl.”

Poronkusema.  Finnish again.  The distance reindeer can travel before needing a comfort break,

Du Kannst Mir Gern Den Buckel Runterrutschen Und Mit Der Zunge Bremse.  Austrian.  “You can slide down my hunchback using your tongue as a brake.”

Bayram Degil  seyran degil eniste beni niye optu?  Turkish.  “It’s not a festival and it’s not an outing, so why did my brother-in-law kiss me?”

Mi nalgas son llenado con arroz.  Spanish.  “My ass cheeks are filled with rice.”

Sentios aliquos togatos contra me conspirare.  Latin.  “A bunch of old men in togas are conspiring against me.”

Avoir le cafard.  French for “Have a cockroach.”  (I’ll have the Bordeaux instead, thank you.)

I’d go on at greater length, but I’ve got to go clean out my hovercraft.  For some reason, it’s full of eels.

TRX November 23, 2015 at 9:49 am

> cafard

That seems to mean both “depression” and “cockroach” in French. It made the jump to English as “depression.”

mearsk November 23, 2015 at 12:36 pm

I just texted my friend in Oulu “Heittaa vesilintua!” I’m betting his reaction will be interesting. Or maybe just confused…

oldster November 23, 2015 at 12:55 pm

Could you double-check that Latin one?

“Sentios” does not resemble any Latin word I know.

spike November 23, 2015 at 1:47 pm
Rapatessa Roiskuu November 23, 2015 at 2:01 pm


heittää vesilintua simply means throwing away your junk (originally by dumping it in a river or lake). Useful for tourists desiring to rid themselves of kitschy Finnish souvenirs.

wjw November 23, 2015 at 7:35 pm

TRX, apparently “to have a cockroach” is an expression meaning “to be depressed.” Which, if I’d had a cockroach, I would be.

I am not responsible for “sentios.” Maybe it’s a misspelling for “senex” or something.

Ralf The Dog November 24, 2015 at 1:06 am


To feel. (as in emotion)

I can’t speak to it’s accuracy.

TRX November 25, 2015 at 4:29 pm

Ah! Those expressions can be tricky…

Jim Janney November 26, 2015 at 11:42 pm

The phrase “my postilion has been struck by lightning” appears in one of Avram Davidson’s Eszterhazy stories, The Case of the Mother-in-Law of Pearl. I always assumed he just made it up, but it could equally well be something obscure he came across and decided to use.

Joe Barsugli November 27, 2015 at 11:59 pm

I came here from Bad Delong’s blog where I posted this in comments, but it is too good not to share…
Evidently being hit by lighting is somewhat of an occupational hazard of the postilion.

“Travelers by carriages and stage-coaches are safer inside than out, during a storm of thunder and lightning. In the instance of a providential escape near Tenbury in Worcestershire, when a gentleman and lady had exchanged places with their servants, to obtain a more commanding view of the scenery through which they were passing, and mounted on the barouche of their chariot for that purpose, the horses, the postilion, and the lady and gentleman, were considerably injured on the sudden discharge of lightning, while the servants inside remained unhurt.”

[Lightning Pamphlet, in “The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction. Vol. 25, (London, 1835)]. There is something very “Uqbar” about this pamphlet, I must admit. Do you suppose it is to be found in all copies of “The Mirror of Literature”?]

Joe Barsugli November 28, 2015 at 12:01 am

ooph. Brad, not Bad….

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