Mastering a foreign language is hard. It's difficult enough learning the surface syntax, the grammatical forms, and the vocabulary. A foreign visitor must not only master the language, but learn the local customs and color. Having accomplished all this, the final barrier remains: figurative language. Idioms, metaphors and similes are wildly different from culture to culture, and cannot be reasoned out.
An easy way to show that a character is an outsider or foreigner, then, is to have them mutilate figurative language. This language is taken as literal and/or distorted into near unrecognizability. Of course, this is almost always hilarious.
In reality, it is not unusual for Blunt Metaphors Trauma to be caused by literal translation from a known language, such as "having one's ass circled in noodles" (though, simple misunderstandings are also a frequent cause of this trope). But in TV Land, it's more often done by taking an existing expression from a language/culture different from the character's and replacing its words with synonyms from the same language, something highly improbable in real life. The misspeaker isn't always the sole butt of the joke, though; often, such gags highlight how ridiculous and/or arbitrary the idioms are in the first place. Why can something be "a piece of cake" or "as easy as pie", but vice versa sounds utterly ridiculous?
This trope is perhaps the most common way to show a character is from a different (literal or metaphorical) place. Usually, they are foreign nationals, but they may have grown up in Cloudcuckooland, or just have No Social Skills.
Compare Mixed Metaphor, Malaproper, Expospeak Gag, Sidetracked by the Analogy, and Either World Domination or Something about Bananas. Literal-Minded characters are pretty much the embodiment of this. Threat Backfire is a possible result of this. Sometimes combined with Literal Metaphor, where an unlikely event sounds like a mangled metaphor.
Angol Mois of Keroro Gunsou has a habit of appending her sentences with yojijukugo (Japanese idioms composed of four kanji characters) that are almost, but not quite, appropriate for the situation. One episode has her taking tuition for this.
Hermes, a talking motorcycle from Kino's Journey, seems to have this problem a lot (examples include "Vanity is not for the sake of Mothers" and "When in Rome do as tigers do")
Thug: This is a crime family. A syndicate. You're the top dog on the pyramid and we're all the little fish on the bottom rung of the totem pole.
Officer Lenina Huxley of Demolition Mancommits an idiomatic screwup practically every minute, most of them having to do with her love of 20th Century American culture. Even considering the mass sanitation of culture inflicted upon the future Los— ahem, San Angelinos by their Moral Guardian mayor, many of her malapropisms simply defy belief.
Huxley: Why don't you take your job, and shovel it.
John Spartan: "Take this job and shovel it"? Close enough.
And earlier in the film, this classic:
Huxley: "Let's blow this guy." John Spartan: "Away. Blow this guy away!."
Huxley: "Simon Phoenix really matched his meat! You really licked his ass!"
Spartan: (relatively calm expression) "Huxley?
Spartan: "That's met his match, and kicked, kicked his ass."
In 2010: The Year We Make Contact, a Russian cosmonaut says, "It's a piece of pie," whereupon an American astronaut corrects him: "Cake." Later, the same cosmonaut says, "It's as easy as cake," only to be corrected once again: "Pie."
In the Short Circuit movies, it's surprisingly not Number Five who has this problem, but rather the wacky Indian sidekick Ben:
"I have to go to the jack."
"I am sick of wearing the dress in this family."
[Howard] "Don't tell me its laser is still armed." [Ben] "Bimbo."
"Keep that power on or I'll beat the living headlights out of you!"
"Newton Crosby, let us break wind!" Meaning he wants them run away.
However, Johnny 5 does exhibit this in Short Circuit 2 after he is brutally attacked by the bad guys...
"Piece of corn! Can of cake! Suck doup..."
In Back to the Future and sequels, Biff does this a lot. His most frequent is "Make like a tree and get outta here" note (Dope Slap) It's LEAVE, you IDIOT! Make like a tree, and LEAVE. You sound like a damn fool when you say it wrong! English isn't his second language though, he's just a dumb side of beef. Even his older self gets fed up with his butcherings of idioms.
Drax the Destroyer from Guardians of the Galaxy has trouble understanding metaphors. He also doesn't understand the 'finger slicing throat' gesture.
Rocket: Metaphors are gonna go over his head.
Drax: Nothing goes over my head! My reflexes are too fast, and I would catch it.
Occurs often in the Discworld. Pratchett, as a rule, is very, very fond of overanalysing idioms and taking things literally.
Ankh-Morporkians in particular are infamous for their literal-mindedness when it comes to metaphors, and former ruler Olaf Quimby II even wrote a law requiring all metaphors to be able to be made literal. The law still exists, and the current ruler enforces it in order to keep that sort of people occupied. In Quimby's memory, the Morporkians still say "the pen is mightier than a sword" with the addition, "but only if the pen is very sharp and sword very small". Apparently the king had demanded an unusually smart poet to prove the phrase on himself.
Captain Carrot is a six-foot-tall dwarf who has inherited his (adopted) race's understanding of such things as irony ("sort of like iron"). Upon first arriving in Ankh-Morpork in Guards! Guards!!, when instructed to "charge these men" he rushes at them wielding an axe in each hand and screaming the ancient Dwarf battlecry "NEE-NAW-NEE-NAW". In the same book, he's told to "throw the book at him" and the thrown book smacks the target on the head, knocking him over a ledge to his Disney Villain Death. He seems to have mostly gotten over this in later appearances.
Also the rogue Auditor Myria LeJean (a.k.a. Unity).
Myria: Oh. They [Wienrich & Boettcher] make chocolate?
Susan: Does a bear poo in the woods?
[Lady LeJean looked thoughtful for a moment.]
Myria: Yes, I believe that most varieties do indeed excrete as you suggest, at least in the temperate zones, but there are several that-
Susan: I meant to say that, yes, they make chocolate.
The Auditors in general take this trope Up to Eleven. For instance, when asked "Can I offer you a drink?" an Auditor will respond that yes, it does believe you are capable of making that request.
From Thief of Time, an exchange between Wen the Eternally Surprised and not-too-bright apprentice Clodpool.
Aximlli-Esgarrouth-Isthill of Animorphs: Being an alien, metaphors don't really work well with him. He has a tendency to take instructions literally, which, combined with him being in public in human morph, makes for some very funny situations.
Ax: Spicy, right? This flavour-or-or-is called spicy?
Rachel: Yeah, it's spicy. Hot, too.
Ax: Yes, the temperature is hot. Hot-tuh.
Rachel: No, I meant the flavour is hot. The temperature too, though. Skip it.
Rachel: Uh, no. Forget it. Drop it.
No sooner were those last words out of my mouth than I regretted them. Ax promptly dropped the container of refried beans he'd been holding. It landed wrong side down on the table.
Another personal favorite with Ax, when he attends a school dance:
Marco: That girl is warm for your form. She wants your body.
(Later) Ax: I would like to shuffle my artificial hooves to the music with you. But you cannot have my body. My bo. Dee.
Perhaps "she wants your body" was not the best phrase to use in a series where the villains are literal body-snatchers in the first place.
In the book 2010, one of the American astronauts makes a joke about how the tiny quarters are more like sixteenths. Naturally, it has to be explained.
Dragonback: Draycos' response to metaphors is practically a running gag.
Jack: Skip it.
You'd think Draycos would catch on a little quicker, being a poet and all.
The alien character Eve in the Blaster Master book by F.X. Nine often mangles popular catch phrases. Jason usually figures them out quickly, though, and corrects her.
The eponymous main character of the children's series Amelia Bedelia is very literal minded. If you ask her to dress the chicken, you will received a fowl wearing a very cute dress. If you ask her to watch for the fork in the road, she will quite diligently keep an eye out for said utensil lying in the roadway. And so on.
Don Quixote: Subverted with the Biscayan, who is another of the many Victimized Bystanders Don Quixote will find in his adventures. He talks exclusively in this fashion when he engages with Don Quixote in a duel to the death. Even with that, Don Quixote understand him perfectly:
One of the squires in attendance upon the coach, a Biscayan, was listening to all Don Quixote was saying, and, perceiving that he would not allow the coach to go on, but was saying it must return at once to El Toboso, he made at him, and seizing his lance addressed him in bad Castilian and worse Biscayan after his fashion, "Begone, caballero, and ill go with thee; by the God that made me, unless thou quittest coach, slayest thee as art here a Biscayan."
Don Quixote understood him quite well, and answered him very quietly, "If thou wert a knight, as thou art none, I should have already chastised thy folly and rashness, miserable creature." To which the Biscayan returned, "I no gentleman!—I swear to God thou liest as I am Christian: if thou droppest lance and drawest sword, soon shalt thou see thou art carrying water to the cat: Biscayan on land, hidalgo at sea, hidalgo at the devil, and look, if thou sayest otherwise thou liest."
Van Helsing: Well, the milk that is spilt cries not out afterwards, as you say.
The Dresden Files: The Fae are prone to this. Asking one to "watch my back" will probably have them ask you to lean forward in your chair so they can see it. Particularly old wizards have been known to do it too, as a result of age-inflicted cultural disassociation. When "Drinking the Kool-Aid" is used, Arthur Langtry needs to be reminded of the Jonestown mass suicide, which happened in his lifetime.
This is lampshaded in the pilot, as Picard asks "Data, how can you be programed as a virtual encyclopedia of human information without knowing a simple word like 'snoop'?"
A good case occurs in the finale, a Time Trouble episode back to the beginning (among others...), where Data overhears another character discuss "burning the midnight oil." He not only suggests it's a bad idea — it would set off fire-suppression systems — but, once he learns what it means, suggests to Picard that to do the work needed he would be "igniting the midnight petroleum."
In the episode "Data's Day" he mentions that he "may be pursuing an untamed ornithoid without cause." It takes Dr. Crusher a few seconds to realize he's talking about a wild goose chase.
In the Star Fleet Academy younger-readers books, Data caused much confusion during his early time at the Academy, not least by being told to "pull up a chair" and doing just that.
In one of the later EU novels, Data admits to Wesley that he'd been doing this on purpose from the very beginning, in an effort to understand human psychology better.
Became a Running Joke in Kyle XY, to the extent that people would use metaphors in front of Kyle, immediately catch themselves and then explain what they meant.
Teal'c is the most prone, to the point where he joked about it himself: "Undomesticated equines could not remove me."
Hammond: "We've all been holding our breath down here." Teal'c: "That is not wise." ...
O'Neill: "Lucy, I'm home!" Teal'c: "I am not Lucy." O'Neill: "I know that. It's a reference to an old TV—never mind, open the door." Teal'c: "I will summon the doctor." O'Neill: "No, come on. I'm fine. I'm back to being myself. Just open up." Teal'c: "I cannot be certain that you are back to being yourself. You referred to me as 'Lucy.'" ...
Teal'c: Things will not calm down, Daniel Jackson. They will, in fact, calm up.
O'Neill lampshades this during an argument about whether or not to help an alien race in the middle of a war by trading heavy water for alien technology.
Daniel: Their whole world is in flames, and we're offering gasoline. How is that "help"? Teal'c: We are in fact offering water. O'Neill: Thank you! Daniel: I was speaking metaphorically. O'Neill: Well, stop it. It's not fair to Teal'c.
The Asgard fit, too.
O'Neill: "I full well expected the other shoe to drop eventually."
Thor: "We can only hope that this will be the last footwear to fall. "
Lt. Colonel Mitchell: Well, you've got to open big, catch people's attention, make them think the whole thing is going to be jam-packed.
Vala: Ooh, I love jam.
[Mitchell, Jackson and Carter look at her]
Vala: Oh, I get it. It's yet another playful twist on words in your "earth" language.
[A little later, when she is asked what she thinks of the script.]
Vala: Well, it certainly seems to be packed full of jam!
Specifically lampshaded and avoided by Vala in the episode "The Pegasus Project"
Lt. Colonel Mitchell: Like a kid up all night on Christmas Eve.
Vala: I thought we imposed a moratorium on cultural references I wouldn't understand.
And later in the same episode.
Rodney Mckay: The size of a gate isn't arbitrary. It'd be like putting together a Saint Bernard and a chihuahua.
Vala: And the problem with that would be?
Rodney Mckay: Well it's obviously a question of... oh, I get it, you're mocking me
Vala: No, I'm not from Earth. I honestly didn't get the reference.
O'Neill: We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.
Bra'tac: No, the bridge is too well-guarded.
Double Subverted later when Bra'tac uses the same metaphor . . . in the wrong context.
Fun example from Stargate Atlantis, which ventures into leader drama territory (though this is technically Blunt Simile Trauma.)
Sheppard: Well, that's why we're a team, like the Fantastic Four.
[Ronon and Teyla stare at him]
Sheppard: It's a comic book where superheroes fight crime and stuff. See, I'd be Mr Fantastic, Ronon would be The Thing, McKay would be the Human Torch...
Sheppard [to Teyla]: You'd be the Invisible Woman.
Teyla: I am not invisible.
Sheppard: No. No, and McKay's not a human torch.
Teyla: Well, how come * you* get to be Mr Fantastic?
Sheppard: Because he was the leader and I'm the...
Farscape, particularly Aeryn saying "She gives me a woody" when she meant willies. This is also an instance of the series overall playing with the trope; the characters carry Translator Microbes and so most of the time the alien characters use perfect idioms, as they're really just speaking in their own language and the microbes cause the hearer (and audience) to hear an expression with the intended meaning. Aeryn doesn't start mangling metaphors until she begins to fall in love with John Crichton, a lost human astronaut—causing John (and the audience) to realize that she's actually trying to learn English (and to fervently wish she'd stop.)
Aeryn: Jirl power.
John: Girl! It's "girl power." Would you quit speakin' English?!
Trance: Are you sure about that? I think that making pie is a lot harder than cake.
This becomes a plot point in an episode of The West Wing. In preparation for a meeting between Bartlet and President Chigorin of Russia, Sam has a meeting with two aides of Chigorin's who are reasonably fluent in English, but keep needing idioms and other curveballs explained to them. At the end of the meeting, one of them produces a statement for a joint press conference between the presidents, saying that both nations want to "stem the tide" of nuclear proliferation and should start with themselves. The aide claims that the statement was his idea and that he wrote it himself. Sam realizes that he wouldn't know the expression "stem the tide," and correctly concludes that Chigorin wrote it and sent it along to the meeting as a message to Bartlet.
Happened to the Monty Python crew in real life, when they did an episode in German for Germans, learning it by rote. The phrase "we are sitting you down and scaring the shit out of you in Bavaria" caused disgusted reactions from the German crew. They have no such idiom, so the translation was literally "we are causing you to involuntarily excrete on your chairs in Bavaria".
Londo Mollari, in the episode "Chrysalis", gets a common human metaphor mangled for him by Vir, who mixed up ducks for cats:
Londo: "What are those Earth creatures called? Feathers, long bill, webbed feet...go 'quack'?" Vir: "Cats." Londo: "I'm being nibbled to death by cats!"
Delenn also had this trouble early on, although she got better once she fell in love with John Sheridan.
Anya from Buffy the Vampire Slayer often has problems understanding our human jokes and references, and takes great pleasure in pointing out that fact. In flashback we find out she was like that before she became a demon too.
George Francisco: Wild whores couldn't drag me away.
Mathew Sykes's last name translated in the Newcomer language to a contraction of 'excrement' and 'cranium', so every time he introduced himself to a Newcomer they laughed when he gave his name as 'Detective Sykes'.
Castiel from Supernatural. But then again, Angels of the Lord can probably get a pass for being a bit too literal minded. (He learns to do a great deadpan eventually.)
Oddly enough, Castiel seems to be the only angel to suffer from this problem. The other angels - especially Zachariah - seem to enjoy using metaphors and pop culture references. Even Lucifer, who has been trapped in the pits of Hell for thousands of years, uses references he probably shouldn't be familiar with.
It may have to do with how much mining of the vessel's mind they do. Zachariah and Lucifer are both completely willing to rip through whoever-that-is and Nick, while Cas appears to have put Jimmy to sleep for pretty much the whole time he was wearing him. Although he does have a lot of his mannerisms, we could put that down to muscle memory...or, you know, Misha Collins not being a godlike actor.
Demons just out of Hell appear to rely on this regularly—for example, the seven deadly sins in the start of season three pull things like "Here's Johnny!" while smashing down a door, when they haven't been out since the sixteenth century. And there isn't much to choose between, say, Zachariah and Crowley, so we can infer similar technique.
That Uriel is the 'funniest angel in the garrison' when there was Balthazar, and above them the kind of mind that makes of fake identities for two guys named Winchester and surnames them Smith & Wesson, really does say something weird about angel mentality. I'm not even sure what.
In an episode of Foyle's War, The Mole, an Englishman posing as a French refugee with a thick accent, seems not to know the expression "throw your cap into the ring"; Foyle has already seen him finish an English cryptic crossword puzzle, so what he's giving away is that he wants people to think he's less fluent than he is.
Howard: "Horse" the phrase is "get back on the horse"
Raj: Dude, that's disgusting!
This is one of the main gags in The Troubles of Dictionary Jaques. In one strip he interprets "butt in" as meaning to hit people with his head rather than simply interrupting them, despite the situation calling for the latter usage of "butt".
*Hoorb!* A flesh person? The one whose air-sound is Dillo's inner core flies at the opportunity to put air-sounds into head-holes! Then you will make air-sounds back! Would you like to hear how Dillo's home planetary groupings were soiled into dusts before he came to the City of Heroes? We will be making tiny-words! How wonderful!
Despite all of the main cast in Captain Planet and the Planeteers inexplicably speaking English, Wheeler frequently had to correct Linka for this type of mistake in the earlier episodes, while the other characters seem to get them fine, despite not growing up in the US either.
There was one episode where Ma-Ti got into Sam Spade type detective novels and tried to use 1940's slang, only to get it all mixed up.