75 Famous Indonesian Phrases – Idioms – Meaning

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Indonesia is a beautiful language full of famous sayings and proverbs that has existed since long ago, but still widely used until today. There are many Indonesian quotes from Indonesian presidents about life. You might encounter these famous phrases even in daily conversations because they have rooted in Indonesian culture and daily life.

Famous Indonesian phrases you need to learn: 

Most of these phrases are also easy to remember as they contain Indonesian words that rhymes. Let’s get familiar with them!

  1. Ada asap ada api.

It literally means “if there’s smoke, there’s fire”. Even from the literal meaning you can guess its deeper meaning right? It means every why has its wherefore, there is no effect without some cause. or It is supposed that if there is a rumour, there must be some truth behind it.” This phrase is usually used when talking about a certain conflict or problem, showing that every conflict must have something that initially started it.

  1. Air tenang jangan disangka tiada buaya.

It means do not presume that still water doesn’t have crocodiles in it. It’s a common advice for us not to underestimate a certain situation or problem because there might be something more in it that could trap us if we are too careless. You may also learn about Indonesian Funny Phrases

  1. Air tenang menghanyutkan.

It means still water runs deep, or Slow but steady work can achieve much. Just because something looks calm and quiet on the outside doesn’t mean it’s not powerful or influential enough. It is usually used to describe a situation or even sometimes a quiet person with secretly great power or skills, or an ‘underdog’. You may also learn about Indonesian Essential Phrases

  1. Bersakit-sakit dahulu bersenang-senang kemudian.

This phrase is part of a famous Indonesian rhyme, the previous line from this rhyme is Berakit-rakit ke hulu, berenang-renang ke tepian. It means we do the hard work now, and then enjoy the results and relax later when it is done, not the other way around. It is an advice for us to endure pain now so that we can reap sweet results later and not put off work that we can finish right now.

  1. Habis manis sepah dibuang.

It means abandoning something after there are no more benefits after using it. It is a widely used saying for a person abandoning something or someone during hard times, the person is simply just taking advantage during easier times that are more beneficial to him/her. You may also learn about Indonesian Keywords and Phrases

  1. Karena nila setitik, rusak susu sebelanga.

Literally ‘with only a drop of alcohol, a pot of milk is damaged’. Usually used to describe how a good person is immediately seen as bad or loses his/her good reputation after doing one mistake, and people just forget all the good things he/she has done in the past. In English it is similar to the proverb “One rotten apple will spoil the whole barrel”. 

  1. Dikasih hati, minta jantung.

In English, it is like the proverb, ‘Give him an inch and he will take a yard.’ It’s when we have given so much to a person, but the person still demands for much more things while being ungrateful or even not realizing about all the good things he/she has got.

  1. Rajin pangkal pandai.

It’s the motto of Indonesians, mostly in the education sector to motivate students especially younger ones to be hardworking about their studies. The English equivalent is ‘Diligence is the mother of good luck.’, or diligence is the root of wisdom or intelligence.

  1. Sekali lancung ke ujian, seumur hidup orang tak percaya.

‘Once a person cheats in an exam, forever people will distrust him.’ Or, once someone breaks your trust, it takes a lifetime for that person to gain the trust back. You may also learn about Indonesian Conversation Phrases

  1. Sekali merengkuh dayung, dua tiga pulau terlampaui.

It literally means with one stroke at the paddle, two and three islands have been passed. It is used to describe a person completing multiple tasks in one go, similar to the English phrase “to kill two birds with one stone”. 

  1. Sepandai-pandai tupai meloncat, akhirnya jatuh juga.

No matter how cleverly the squirrel jumps, it will trip sooner or later, meaning a person with dishonest motives or tactics will sooner or later be exposed. In English, we can compare this to the phrase, “the pitcher goes so often to the well that it is broken at last.”

  1. Sudah jatuh, tertimpa tangga pula.

It literally means a person slips, and a ladder falls on him. It might seem like a funny image especially in cartoon movies, but it is usually used to describe a person suffering a series of bad luck streaks.

  1. Tong kosong nyaring bunyinya.

“An empty drum gives loud sound”, or in English, “It is not the hen that cackles the most that lay the most eggs.”. Just because someone shows off or advertises about himself so much and is most vocal about his personal skills, doesn’t mean he can achieve the greatest results compared to his other more quiet, humble friends. 

More Indonesian Idioms with English Translations

Here are more famous Indonesian phrases you need to learn:

  1. Perbuatan buruk pasti ketahuan = murder will out
  2. bercanda tentang sesuatu yang menakutkan atau berbahaya = gallows humour
  3. berusaha tetap ceria dalam situasi yang berat = Whistling past the graveyard
  4. masa lalu yang kelam dan memalukan serta selalu dirahasiakan = Skeleton in the closet
  5. jangan putus asa = never say never
  6. Mempunyai tanggung jawab di luar kemampuan = Your belly button is bigger than your stomach
  7. sudah pasti benar, tidak diragukan lagi = dead right
  8. membanjiri orang dengan kebaikan/kebaikan yang berlebihan = kill them with kindness
  9. bekerja sangat larut malam = graveyard shift
  10. Istri yang sering ditinggal sendirian oleh suaminya untuk bepergian karena kepentingan kerja = grass widow
  11. menerima konsekuensi perbuatan buruk yang dilakukan sendiri = fall on your swords
  12. terlalu sering diulang sehingga membosankan/tidak menarik lagi = done to death
  13. cepat terlelap dan tidak sadar sedikit pun apa yang terjadi = dead to the world
  14. orang yang dalam kesulitan besar dan akan kena hukum, kehilangan pekerjaan, dll = dead man walking
  15. berusaha sedapat mungkin = dead level best
  16. memancing di air keruh = fish in troubled waters
  17. tertawa terbahak-bahak = homeric laughter
  18. yang terkuat di industri bersangkutan = 800 pound gorilla
  19. bingung dan merasa terasing (di tempat baru) = fish out of water
  20. rumah bordil = house of ill fame
  21. di situ-situ saja, tidak ada kemajuan = dead in the water
  22. sudah lama ditetapkan dan tidak akan ditinjau ulang = dead and buried
  23. meninggal, biasanya tewas mengenaskan seperti serdadu di pertempuran = bites the dust
  24. sinting atau eksentrik = bats in the belfry
  25. buruk buatannya, dibuat tanpa persiapan yang saksama = jerry-built
  26. sangat marah = angry as a bear = angry as a bull
  27. berubah pendirian, sikap, perilaku = dance to another tune
  28. kabar yang dirahasiakan sumbernya = a little bird told me
  29. yang elok rupanya belum tentu orang baik = handsome is as handsome does
  30. setengah mabuk = half-seas over
  31. terlalu sering menakut-nakuti sehingga orang tak percaya lagi = cry wolf too often
  32. mendambakan sesuatu yang tidak mungkin terjadi = cry for the moon
  33. bertengkar = cross swords
  34. berbisik-bisik = pig’s whisper
  35. kekurangan tenaga, kurang pekerja = short-handed
  36. makan sangat cepat = short work of
  37. sedang menunggu lama = kick one’s heels
  38. masih punya urusan lain = have other fish to fry
  39. keadaan sebaliknya = shoe is on the other foot
  40. mengeluarkan air mata buaya, pura-pura menangis = shed crocodile tears
  41. merisaukan sesuatu yang belum terjadi = Cross a bridge before one comes to it
  42. tidak punya kantor tetap = have one’s office in one’s hat
  43. mempunyai banyak pengalaman = have seen the elephant
  44. memulai pekerjaan yang sangat penting = get down to brass tacks
  45. berpakaian yang paling indah dan mahal = get all dolled up
  46. lebih banyak mendengar daripada berbicara = get an earful
  47. tak berkesempatan bicara = get a word in edgeways
  48. mengurus perbelanjaan = hold the purse strings
  49. menghindari tagihan utang = hop the twig
  50. galak = hot-blooded
  51. tidak beranjak = not to stir a pag
  52. tidak mau menyerah = not to yield an inch
  53. tinggal terlalu lama = outstay one’s welcome
  54. belum berpengalaman, mudah ditipu = born yesterday
  55. kondisi perdagangan yang lesu = bottom drop out of the market
  56. sangat penakut = chicken-hearted
  57. mengundurkan diri karena takut = chicken-out
  58. mengeluh, menuntut = beef about
  59. dengan sangat cepat, mendadak = before one can say Jack Robinson
  60. jangan bilang siapa-siapa = mum’s the word

So, have you learned quite a few new phrases today? That’s some famous Indonesian phrases you need to learn. These are mostly wise sayings used as advice to get through daily life with the right attitude. Keep them in mind to motivate you today! Sampai Jumpa! (See you!)

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