The following is from Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy:

'Do you want some sums?’
‘Not just at the moment,’ said Bhaskar. ‘My head is full of them.’

Maan could hardly believe this response. It was as if Kumbhkaran had decided to wake up at dawn and go on a diet.

For context, Bhaskar is Maan's nephew and loves to do math problems; his refusal here is uncharacteristic. The line as if Kumbhkaran had decided to wake up at dawn and go on a diet is a reference to a figure in the Ramayana, Kumbhakarna, who was famously slumberous and gluttonous. It would have been very out of character for him were he to wake up at dawn and go on a diet. I'm not actually sure if this is a translation of some sort of an Indian proverb or whether Seth is just making an allusion, but either way, this idiom doesn't work in English, because the average English speaker is unlikely to understand the reference.

So, is there an English idiom that can describe someone acting out of character? For an example sentence, it should just be capable of replacing the original line that prompted this question.

(I'm aware that dictionaries list acting out character as an idiom, but I'm looking for something more colorful/evocative/allusory)

To clarify, I'm looking for an idiom to describe someone who's deviating from their normal way of acting, not from society's expectations.

  • 9
    Maybe just swap "Kumbhkaran" for Garfield the cat. :)
    – Showsni
    Jun 29 at 15:08
  • 3
    'Act out of character' is highly idiomatic. Jun 29 at 17:05
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth - sure, but I find it colorless. Jun 29 at 17:43
  • I'm looking for something more colorful/evocative/allusory. What do you want it to evoke or allude to?
    – Stuart F
    Jun 29 at 21:43
  • You could also just add a footnote explaining who is Kumbhkaran.
    – Stef
    Jun 30 at 7:34

9 Answers 9


Here is a common instance of this ....

Maan thinks Bhaskar is acting extremely out of character. So Maan says: "Who are you? And what have you done with Bhaskar?"

Heartspring suggests The Farlex Dictionary of Idioms {at The Free Dictionary} as a reference.


The expression using Kumbhkaran is understandable for anyone familiar with Kumbhkaran, and obscure for anyone not familiar. If you want to adapt the expression to an English audience, you could just pick your favourite character from mythology or books or movies or comic books, or your favourite animal, or your favourite physical certainty, and get an equivalent of the expression.

You could also keep the Kumbhkaran reference, and just add a footnote explaining who is Kumbhkaran.

  • "It was as if Obelix suddenly began preaching non-violence and veganism."
  • "It was as if Popeye the sailor suddenly expressed a dislike of canned vegetables"
  • "It was as if Sherlock Holmes had become bored of mysteries"
  • "It was like hearing Scrooge McDuck complain that his piggy bank was too heavy"
  • "Had Zeus become the god of calm weather, abdicated his throne and remained faithful to his wife?"
  • "What next? Do frogs complain when the weather is too humid?"
  • "It was as if birds decided not to fly and fish not to swim"
  • "It was like hearing my cat proclaim a taste for lettuce leaves and a dislike of perfectly good fish"
  • "It was as though sloths became frantic and leopards became slow"
  • "It was as if wood was tired of floating and rocks complained about sinking"
  • "It was as if copper had enough of conducting electricity"
  • "It was as if gravity decided to stop making apples fall"
  • "It was as if the sun was tired of shining and the moon of reflecting its light"
  • etc.
  • 2
    I don't know anything about Kumbhkaran other than a brief wikipedia article, but from that short read, I would warn against Popeye, Scrooge, and probably even Sherlock. Kumbhkaran seems to be an old myth, which presumably carries some cultural heft that a cartoon character — or even a 19th century detective — would miss. Unfortunately, much of western civilization doesn't have as wide a net to cast from ancient stories. Christianity has some, but has specific connotations. Maybe a well-known character from Roman myth? "It was as if Zeus had woken up one day and decided to abdicate his throne"?
    – yshavit
    Jun 30 at 15:04
  • 1
    Any reference to a character runs the risk that your target audience will be unfamiliar -- even with historical figures. The last suggestion with animals I feel would be more universally understood as long as you don't stray into rare or regional ones (eg. wombats, meerkats, prairie dogs, etc.) Birds deciding not to fly, fish deciding not to swim, that sort of thing. Jun 30 at 16:21
  • 1
    It was as though my cat looked for lettuce leaves instead of eating perfectly good fish.
    – Peter
    Jul 1 at 7:47
  • Thanks all three of you, I have included your suggestions in my post
    – Stef
    Jul 1 at 8:35
  • It was as if Dr Jekyll had metamorphosed into Mr Hyde. Or perhaps vice versa.

[from the famous story by Robert Louis Stevenson; Wikipedia]


You could say a someone is out of their tree. Idioms from TFD include:

To be out of one's tree

out of your tree INFORMAL

  1. If someone is out of their tree, they are crazy or behaving very strangely. "I'm going out of my tree with this." — "Honey, don't let it get you down."
  2. If someone is out of their tree, they are unable to act normally because they have taken drugs or drunk a lot of alcohol. It was obvious they had taken something. They were both out of their tree.

Clearly off your rocker (what are cradles made of?), acting out of character.

Though he did not coin the term, Stanley Elkin artfully described it as "being out of one's tree melts your watch like a Dali."

When Elkin, a writer, woke up one day and didn't know who he was or even how to get up, literally or practically not knowing his ass from his elbow, he had lost his mind as a side effect of medication for MS to the point he couldn't remember simple things like how to take a shower. After recovering, he wrote about this bout of his own (fortunately) temporary insanity in an essay of the same title, recounting how he acted so out of character he didn't know his own morning shower regime, not even recognizing the functions of soap and water.

His side effects hit his memory to the point he did not know his own books bound and published in front of him. He was out of his tree. Thankfully he climbed back up and wrote a rather candid tale about it.


(American) English doesn't really have an idiom like the Kumbhakarna one. The closest we have is "Who are you and what have you done with X?", as GEdgar shows, but it doesn't really fit.

But that doesn't mean we can't make one up! One possibility is to simply switch "Kumbhakarna" with "Garfield", a cat from a comic strip of the same name by Jim Davis who's pretty much a modern incarnation of Kumbhakarna. It'd be just as weird for him to wake up at dawn and go on a diet.

Other possibilities include "Bart Simpson deciding to study for college and stop pulling pranks", "Dr. Brennan deciding to give up science and become a priest" and "Zeus deciding to bag it up and stay faithful to his wife".

However, none of these are idioms, they are metaphors that reference popular culture, and you need to know your audience to be able to execute them well. Since Vikram Seth is himself Indian and the book is set in India, it's possible he's just doing the same thing with this Kumbhakarna reference, but instead using it to indicate what kind of person Maan is: a proud Indian who knows his culture well enough to make a reference like this.


Pod People

The book "The Body Snatchers" by Jack Finney, later made into a move "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," is about the appearance of alien spores resembling giant bean-pods that can create copies of human beings. These copies are perfect physical mimics and have all the memories of the originals, but their behavior is modified to support further pod growth and people replacement.

Though not universally-understood, I think most English audiences recognize the phrase "pod person" as someone acting bizarrely, even if relatively few know the origin of the reference.

  • 1
    This means that a person's acting strange, period, not that they're acting differently from how they normally do. Jun 30 at 18:54
  • 1
    @Heartspring fair enough, for the bare "pod person" as a noun, but "replaced by a pod person" is also a common phrase Jun 30 at 18:59

How about do a 180?


To suddenly change from a particular opinion, decision, or plan to an opposite one:

Jack's done a 180 and agreed to come on the trip.

It's not the first time this politician has done a 180 on an important issue.


A common explanation for someone acting out of character is for the person to be under the influence of some drug, so there are some expressions that reference drugs as a theoretical explanation for the unexpected behavior. This doesn't have to be a literal accusation of drug use, it can be a way of saying the person's behavior is unexpected.

"Germaine, are you on drugs? You've never eaten snails in your life!"

It can also be referred to in reverse... "Hey, Stacy's dancing in the bathtub!" "Looks like someone forgot her medication."


The Farlex Dictionary has this idiom: go against the grain

To do something or be in opposition or contrary to what is generally understood, assumed, practiced, or accepted.

The artist always tried to go against the grain, ignoring the artistic trends of her day.

go against the grain in The Free Dictionary

  • 11
    This doesn't quite work: I'm looking to describe someone who's straying from their own norm, not society's. Sorry if that wasn't clear in the question. Jun 29 at 11:52

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