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There's a Hungarian saying, "akinek nem inge, ne vegye magára". A literal translation is "if it's not your shirt, don't put it on".

Practically every dictionary I checked equates it with the English saying "if the cap/shoe fits, wear it", but to me, the meanings are precise opposites: the Hungarian saying means "if you don't think the criticism applies to you, why the heck are you getting offended?", while the English expression is more like "if the description applies to you, then guess what: so does the criticism".

Is there a better English equivalent to this saying? Does anyone ever use "if the shoe doesn't fit, don't wear it", and would anyone know what it's supposed to mean?

  • Related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/152677/… - If the Shoe Doesn’t Fit, Don’t Wear It. wordfromthewell.com/2013/09/08/… – Hachi Feb 19 at 19:31
  • Interesting question. You're right 'if the cap/shoe fits' is definitely the opposite to the meaning you have expressed for the Hungarian phrase. Am interested to hear what others have to say, as I can't think of an idiom which is essentially the opposite of 'if the shoe fits' at the moment, without simply restating the original, e.g if the shoe doesn't fit don't take offence. – Gary Feb 19 at 20:00
  • "If the shoe doesn't fit, don't wear it", and "If it's not your shirt, don't put it on" are basically the same. The item has changed and the verb is a close synonym, so changing these changes nothing. When I read "if it's not your shirt, don't put it on", I assumed that it meant, “Don’t get involved in other people’s private business.” I think you could use negation: “If the cap doesn’t fit, don’t wear it.” – Greybeard Feb 19 at 20:01
  • @Greybeard: are you saying that you'd understand "if the shoe doesn't fit..." differently to "if the cap doesn't fit..."? Because as far as I know, shoe vs. cap is just a US vs. UK difference. – Marthaª Feb 19 at 20:06
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We do have this idiom:

like water off a duck's back

You say that criticism is like water off a duck's back or water off a duck's back to emphasize that it is not having any effect on the person being criticized.
Source: Collins COBUILD

In Endangered Phrases: Intriguing Idioms Dangerously Close to Extinction, author Steven D. Price elaborates:

Duck's feather are waterproof. The preen (or, formally, the uropygial) gland at the base of the tail produces oil that spreads and covers the birds' outer coat so that water forms droplets on, but does not permeate, the feathers.

That's why a critical remark that doesn't bother the person for whom it was intended rolls off like water off a duck's back.
Source: Endangered Phrases

For the sense of advice, it is combined with an imperative—something like:

Let it roll off you like water off a duck's back!

Yes, that's a little different than your Hungarian aphorism; it could just as well mean one should ignore the criticism even it is true. To get any closer, we'd be leaving aphorism land:

If the criticism doesn't apply, just let it roll off you like water off a duck's back.

Further reading: The Free Dictionary provides a roundup of usages from various sources.

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As you say, if the cap/shoe fits, wear it does not mean the same thing as the negated statement if it's not your shirt, don't put it on. This particular translation appears to be a common problem among Hungarian - English free online dictionaries (EUdict, bab.la), which may be borrowing from similar sources of information like this 2006 Hungarian English Dictionary. You are right that it sounds peculiar.

You could try to invent an expression out of the existing idiom, like so: if the shoe doesn't fit, don't wear it. If the shoe doesn't fit doesn't even show up in Google Ngram, though there are a few attempts at if the shoe doesn't fit in a general search. For example, I found a quote attributed to Gloria Steinem: "If the shoe doesn't fit, must we change the foot?" (this appears to be from her book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions). In context, Steinem questions why the first impulse is to change ourselves or our bodies rather than the labels (the shoes) applied to us. That's not quite what you describe the Hungarian idiom as meaning either, since no personal or systemic change is necessarily implied in not putting on a shirt.

An expression that comes closer is not my circus, not my monkeys. While several articles, like this one from the Telegraph, have attributed it to Polish, I've heard the phrase used several times in American English to suggest a situation where someone is not obligated to respond because it is not their responsibility (their shirt?). Online uses suggest the phrase may be comprehensible enough to title or frame an article. For instance, Margaret Wehrenberg uses it in a Psychology Today article, "Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys," as a way of letting go of what's not ours to control. Nick Burnett, in "My Circus, My Monkeys," cites it as "a well-known idiom, of Polish descent." And Josephine Holmes, in "Not My Circus," narrates the following:

I was benignly complaining about a task I thought I should take on, one I was considering. The thought had been causing me more than a little angst. After bemoaning this briefly, these words popped out of my mouth: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.

Again, this isn't exactly like the Hungarian idiom, since that is more focused on criticism than responsibility. That said, at least this expression captures the benefit of avoiding a burden that we otherwise might take on.

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  • "Not my circus" is a completely different expression, though. Different speaker, different intent, completely different meaning. – Marthaª Feb 19 at 21:39
  • (Although the mention of monkeys brings to mind another expression, "most ugrik a majom a vízbe". It means "here goes nothing", but the literal meaning is much more picturesque: "this is the point when the monkey jumps in the water".) – Marthaª Feb 19 at 21:43

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