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When Aramaic speakers (Assyrians) exclaim "ashes on my head!", it means something horrible has happened - Such as death of a loved one and as well as a bad incident or accident (involving friends/family) that has just occurred - And hearing such news, they will exclaim, usually with passion, "Oh! Ashes on my head!".

I believe this idiom stems from the bible where it is found in 2 Samuel 13-19:

"And Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the long robe that she wore. And she laid her hand on her head and went away, crying aloud as she went."

Is there an English idiom or exclamation that is equivalent to that one? Thanks.

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    I think English speakers tend to use swear-words and obscene expressions in such contexts. Are you looking for something with a Biblical origin, or is something vulgar OK?
    – Stuart F
    Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 9:30
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    I have some bad/sad/terrible news...
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 12:03
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    While not answering your question, you might be interested in knowing that there's a German proverb, literally the same - "Asche auf mein Haupt!" -, but meaning something different: It is used when you realize that you've done something bad. (A "mea culpa".)
    – Eike
    Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 12:41
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    There are at least eight occurrences of the phrase "in sackcloth and ashes" in the Judeo-Christian Bible (e.g., Esther 4: 1, 3; Isaiah 58:5; Jeremiah 6:26; Daniel 9:3; Jonah 3:6; Matthew 11:21; and Luke 10:13). The meaning is clear: I am in mourning, I am depressed, I repent sincerely. I agree with @wolfin that "Woe is me" is a pretty good English version of the Aramaic expression. As for sackcloth, the mourner or penitent may have worn burlap as a sign of grief or penitence. Moreover, in the ANE, an act of contrition or grief or horror could involve rending one's clothing (2 Samuel 13:31). Commented Nov 8, 2022 at 14:13
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    @Eike Judging from 2 Samuel 13-19 (where a sister raped by her brother puts ashes on her head in desperation after he not only raped her but then threw her out) the act seems to indicate a sense of worthlessness in addition to desperation and sadness. The German meaning of "acknowledging guilt" may come from that. Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 18:12

9 Answers 9

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My misfortune or misfortune that befell me

"Woe is me"

Free Dictionary

An exclamation of lamentation for one's misfortune.

Misfortune to anybody, somebody

"woe to (someone)"

Free Dictionary

  1. Misfortune or unpleasant consequences await or will happen to one (if something happens).
  2. One deserves great punishment or misfortune.
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    But... Note that the Free Dictionary adds that the expression is typically used ironically or sarcastically. (If used in a straightforward way, it would sound old-fashioned and melodramatic.) Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 8:51
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    It's not clear what degree of formality the OP wants; this might be OK in some contexts (e.g. translating classical Aramaic texts), but certainly isn't what you'd hear in a bar if your mate had just lost his job.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 9:32
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    Woe is me seems exactly what OP asks for, but Woe to X is a bit different — it’s doesn’t mean something bad has happened to X, it means the speaker is either prophesying that bad things will happen to X, or even wishing bad things upon X.
    – PLL
    Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 12:03
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    Yes, Woe to X is a needless addition to an otherwise satisfactory answer.
    – user405662
    Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 13:04
  • @KateBunting Mind you, even in the Aramaic language "ashes on my head (qatma breshee)" is be used sarcastically or humorously. As in, "I think I lost my car keys, oh ashes on my head!". It really depends on the individual. But both the tragic and sarcastic ways of uttering the phrase is common. :)
    – E.Groeg
    Commented Nov 8, 2022 at 0:16
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The connotations might not be exactly the same, but

'Oh God',

or to a slightly lesser extent, 'Oh my God/oh my goodness'

seem pretty close, if said with the right intonation, especially in the United States. I recall news reporters and bystanders repeatedly saying both phrases as they observed the second plane fly into the twin towers, and the Wikipedia timeline offers several uses of such phrases in extremely dire situations, by people witnessing death and people who have realised they are probably going to die.

Note that perhaps unlike 'ashes on my head', this phrase can be used in a range of other contexts, for example with sarcasm or exasperation.

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    This is the only suggestion here that would sound natural to me (as a native speaker) Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 3:30
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    Me too, it might well be that the true answer to the question is 'No' Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 22:13
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There was "I am in sackcloth!" However this became obsolete about 200 years ago.

OED: sackcloth:

b. As the material of mourning or penitential garb; also (in contrast with ‘purple’ or ‘gold’) as the coarsest possible clothing, indicative of extreme poverty or humility. in sackcloth and ashes (Biblical): clothed in sackcloth and having ashes sprinkled on the head as a sign of lamentation or abject penitence.

1885 ‘H. Conway’ Family Affair III. ii. 35 He knew that for all that had befallen she was mourning in mental sackcloth and ashes.

Culturally, the idea of announcing or proclaiming your grief indirectly is broadly unknown in the West and may seem strange. At a time of great sorrow, others recognise that the sufferer is grieving without the sufferer having to mention it.

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    Good one up there and great find! "Sackcloth and ashes". Here is the definition: dictionary.com/browse/sackcloth-and-ashes
    – E.Groeg
    Commented Nov 8, 2022 at 0:24
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    "Sackcloth and ashes" were definitely used as a metaphor 40-45 years ago in the US. More people went to church back then, and (especially "born again" Protestants) would have heard it in sermons.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 2:10
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In Scotland one might say, "Jings crivens, help ma Boab." It's quite old fashioned but literally means, Jesus Christ, help me God. It's said this way as not to blaspheme or to take the lords name in vain.

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Sometimes they say "Oh my God"/"Oh God"/"Goodness", Although sometimes they use these phrases out of exasperation, or they use them for when something good happens. Basically, we just use them for strong feelings. (In English)

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    Your suggestions have already been mentioned by other answers.
    – fev
    Commented Nov 8, 2022 at 14:21
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Homer Simpson always exclaims "D'OH!" in such situations (e.g. here: https://img.desmotivaciones.es/201201/377287_273090732732714_189057144469407_774369_498127852_n.jpg)...

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    Homer Simpson exclaims "D'OH!" in almost any situation, it doesn't seem specific to receiving especially bad news. Commented Nov 8, 2022 at 21:25
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Lackaday!

A shortening of alack-the-day. Alack = alas - an interjection roughly meaning 'what a tragedy!'.

A bit old-fashioned these days, but still used somewhat frequently in writing.

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Addressing the broadened question licensed by the quote referring to Tamar: the idiomatic way of saying this (particularly when bereaved) is that such a person is in mourning. The expression specifies a state, but also a response:

mourning [noun] [uncountable]

  • ​the feeling of being sad that you have and show because somebody has died ... She was still in mourning for her husband.

  • ​clothes that people wear to show that they are sad at somebody’s death

The queen was dressed in mourning.

She was still in full mourning six months after her son's death.

[Oxford Learner's Dictionary]

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If the expression is concerned with a second bad thing happening on top of a first one, English speakers can talk about "adding insult to injury". For example:

"I'm being evicted from my house today, and to add insult to injury, I've just lost my job."

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