Being a Germanic language, English has a lot in common with German, including its extensive usage of idiomatic sayings. Today we’re going to take a look at some popular German idioms and proverbs that Germans like to use. So whether you are planning on traveling or just want to improve your Deutsch, these are 25 cool German idioms that will make you sound like a native!
Tomaten auf den Augen haben
Translation: “To have tomatoes in your eyes”.
Meaning: Not being able to see obvious things. Sort of like saying “he has his head in the sand.”
Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof
Translation: “I only understand train station”.
Meaning: I don’t understand anything that is being said. Apparently it originates from the fact that when announcements are made at train stations they are usually hard to understand, so all you get is “bla bla bla bahnhof (trainstation)”. Hence, only understanding “train station”.
Die Katze im Sack kaufen
Translation: “To buy a cat in a sack”.
Meaning: To buy something without inspecting it first. In the old days, sellers at the market would sometimes stuff a worthless cat into the buyer’s bag instead of the rabbit they had ordered. Apparently rabbits taste better.
Das ist mir Wurst
Translation: “It’s all sausage to me”.
Meaning: I don’t care. One theory as to where this came from is that it doesn’t really matter what a sausage is filled with, as long as it tastes good.
Translation: “Are you spinning?”
Meaning: Are you making stuff up/crazy? This originates from the fact that back in the day women used to sit up all night spinning and they would tell each other stories to pass the time. Today, however, it generally means something more along the lines of “are you crazy?”.
Kein Schwein war da
Translation: “No pig was there”.
Meaning: Nobody was there. “Pig” is one of those words in German that can have both a positive or negative meaning. If you directly call somebody a pig (Schwein)…get ready to fight. But if you call somebody a “poor pig” (armes Schwein), then it’s more like saying “poor guy/bloke”.
Das kannst du deiner Oma erzählen
Translation: “You can tell it to your grandmother.”
Meaning: I don’t believe anything you’re saying. Maybe your grandma will believe you…
Ich habe die Nase voll!
Translation: “My nose is full!”
Meaning: I’ve had enough of this already!
Da liegt der Hund begraben
Translation: “That is where the dog is buried”.
Meaning: That is the problem/cause/issue. It would often be used after figuring out what the issue is e.g. “So that’s where the dog is buried!”. Nobody is exactly sure where this came from but it is suspected that it has something to do with dogs following their masters to the grave.
Nul Acht Funfzehn
Translation: “zero eight fifteen” (08/15).
Meaning: It’s okay/mediocre/average. Some cool history is warranted here. The 08/15 was the standard issue rifle during World War I. Since then, saying 08/15 has basically evolved to mean anything that was just okay. How was your trip? 08/15.
Das A und O
Translation: “The A and O”
Meaning: The most important thing. Not unlike English, the “A and O” refers to the Alpha and Omega.
Translation: “Monkey love”
Meaning: Exaggerated/smothering love. It is typically used to describe the love of some parents towards their children. Coined in the 18th century it refers to the way monkey mothers dote over their children, licking them etc. It can also refer to blind love.
Etwas ausbaden müssen
Translation: “To have to wash something out”.
Meaning: To bear the consequences of something that somebody else caused. This originated from the fact that in the olden days many people would use the same bath water. It would then fall to the last person to not only bathe in the cold and dirty water, but also clean out the tub.
Den Ball flach halten
Translation: “To keep the ball low”.
Meaning: To avoid risk or not take chances. This comes from soccer/football where players would make low passes in order to have more control over the ball.
Durch die Bank
Translation: “Through the bench”
Meaning: To be done/complete. During the Middle Ages it was customary in some places to serve people according to the order in which they were sitting at the table. Once the bench was done, you had served everybody. The task was complete.
Mit harten Bandagen kämpfen
Translation: “Fighting with hard bandages”
Meaning: To fight hard/be relentless. This comes from the world of boxing before the widespread use of boxing gloves. Fighters would just wrap their hands, and the tighter they wrapped them, the harder the punches would fall.
Dort steppt der Bär
Translation: “That is where the bear is dancing”
Meaning: Something is going on there. This comes from the Middle Ages when circuses would come to town with dancing bears.
In die Bresche springen
Translation: “To jump into the whole”
Meaning: To help somebody while risking your own well-being. During the Middle Ages, when castles or forts were stormed, the invading army would try to open holes in the defenses. These holes could only be closed up with great risk to life and limb.
Die Flinte ins Korn werfen
Translation: “To throw the shotgun into the corn”
Meaning: To give up. In English, a similar saying would be “to throw in the towel. The German version comes from when mercenaries (who were only fighting for money) would throw their weapons into the field (corn) and just leave the fight, especially when the the battle looked hopeless.
Wo der Pfeffer wächst
Translation: “Where the pepper grows”
Meaning: Somewhere really far or unreachable. Basically, if you ever want to tell someone to get lost, you would tell them to go “where the pepper grows”
Wo der Schuh drückt
Translation: “Where the shoe pushes” –
Meaning: Where the problem is. This (perhaps obviously) relates to the idea that new shoes can often put pressure on your feet. So if you ask someone “where is the shoe pressing?”, you are asking them where the problem is.
jemandem Honig ums Maul schmieren
Translation: “Smear honey on someone’s mouth”
Meaning: To suck up to somebody.
Das kommt mir spanisch vor
Translation: “That feels Spanish to me”
Meaning: That feels strange to me. This phrase probably originated when Charles V of Spain became the Kaiser of Germany. He implemented various changes, like Spanish being used as the official language. This was foreign to the local Germans and hence the phrase.
Mit Kanonen auf Spatzen schießen
Translation: “To shoot sparrows with cannons”
Meaning: To overdo it/react excessively
Einen Korb geben
Translation: “To give a basket”
Meaning: To reject somebody. This is usually said in relation to relationships/dances/etc. Instead of “she rejected me” it would be “she gave me a basket.” This stems from stories and songs during the Middle Ages when a bachelor would propose to the girl he liked and she would pull him up to her window in a basket. If she didn’t reciprocate his love, she would just let him fall back down to the ground or leave him hanging there. Rejections used to be brutal…
Image Credits: 1-4. Public Domain, 5. Patrik Ragnarsson from Linköping, Sweden via commons.wikimedia.org CC BY 2.0, 6-7. Public Domain, 8. © Copyright John Palmer via geograph.org.uk CC BY-SA 2.0, 9. Yathin S Krishnappa via commons.wikimedia.org CC BY-SA 3.0, 10-12. Public Domain, 13. Photo taken by Yannick Trottier, 2005 via en.wikipedia.org CC BY-SA 3.0, 14. Max Piel Public Domain, 15. Public Domain, 16. Richard Huber via commons.wikimedia.org CC BY-SA 3.0, 17-21. Public Domain, 22. Steven Depolo via commons.wikimedia.org CC BY 2.0, 23-24. Public Domain, 25. No name via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.