What happens when you re-read an idiom?
Do you overlook it, or do you recognize it as a significantly important idiom, and so work to internalize it first of all?
A. 20 Common German Idioms to Sound Like a Native
1. um den heißen Brei herumreden (her-um-reden = to speak around)Literally: to talk around the hot porridge
English equivalent: to beat around the bush
Da die Wahl bald ist, spricht der Politiker oft um den heißen Brei herum.
(Since the election is soon, the politician beats around the bush often.)
2. Da kannst du Gift drauf nehmenLiterally: You can take poison on that
English equivalent: You can bet your life on that
Eines Tages wird er berühmt sein. Da kannst du Gift drauf nehmen.
(One day he will be famous. You can bet your life on that.)
3. sich zum Affen machenLiterally: to make an ape (or monkey) of oneself
English equivalent: to make a fool of oneself
Hans wird die Arbeitsstelle nicht bekommen. Während des Interviews hat er sich zum Affen gemacht.
(Hans will not get the job. He made a fool of himself during the interview.)
4. zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagenLiterally: kill two flies with one swat
English equivalent: to kill two birds with one stone
Da ich zwei Besorgungen im Standzentrum machen muss, kann ich zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagen!
(Since I must run errands to run in the city center, I can kill two birds with one stone!)
5. eine Extrawurst verlangenLiterally: to ask for an extra sausage
English Equivalent: to ask for special treatment
Da er der Sohn des Chefs ist, verlangt er immer eine Extrawurst.
(Because he is the son of the boss, he always asks for special treatment.)
6. Himmel und Hölle in Bewegung setzenLiterally: put heaven and hell in motion
English equivalent: to move heaven and earth
Er wird Himmel und Hölle in Bewegung setzen um zwei Karten für das Konzert zu bekommen.
(He will move heaven and earth to get two tickets to the concert.)
7. Da steppt der BärLiterally: The bear dances there
English Equivalent: It will be a good party
Ich gehe heute Abend zu Maria. Da steppt der Bär!
(I’m going to Maria’s tonight. It will be a good party!)
A close relative to the dancing bear is the burning air. It’s a similar phrase with an identical meaning:
Da brennt die Luft!
8. Tomaten auf den Augen habenLiterally: to have tomatoes on one’s eyes
English Equivalent: to be oblivious to what is going around you
Der Freund von Anna betrügt sie aber sie hat Tomaten auf den Augen.
(Anna’s boyfriend is cheating on her but she’s oblivious to what’s going on.)
9. den Nagel auf den Kopf treffenLiterally: to hit the nail on the head
English Equivalent: to hit the nail on the head
Du hast recht! Du hast den Nagel auf den Kopf getroffen.
(You are right! You’ve hit the nail on the head.)
10. Ich verstehe nur BahnhofLiterally: I can only understand “train station.”
English equivalent: It’s all Greek to me.
Kannst du seinen Dialekt verstehen? Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof.
(Do you understand his dialect? It’s all Greek to me.)
11. weggehen wie warme SemmelnLiterally: to go like warm rolls
English equivalent: to go or sell like hot cakes
Die Kekse, die Stefan gebacken hat, gehen weg wie warme Semmeln.
(The cookies that Stefan baked are going like hot cakes.)
12. seinen Senf dazugeben (dazu-geben = to give to"it")Literally: to add their mustard
English equivalent: to put their two cents in
Peter spricht zu viel. Er muss immer seinen Senf dazugeben.
(Peter talks too much. He always has to put his two cents in.)
13. jdm. die Daumen drückenLiterally: to squeeze your thumbs for someone
English equivalent: to keep one’s fingers crossed for someone
Viel Glück! Ich drücke dir die Daumen!
(Good luck! I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you!)
14. etw. wie seine Westentasche kennenLiterally: to know something like one’s waistcoat pocket
English equivalent: to know it like the back of one’s hand.
In Berlin werde ich mich niemals verirren. Ich kenne es wie meine Westentasche.
(I will never get lost in Berlin. I know it like the back of my hand.)
15. Man soll den Tag nicht vor dem Abend lobenLiterally: Don’t praise the day before the evening.
English equivalent: Don’t count your chicks before they hatch.
Sag nicht, dass Argentinien die Weltmeisterschaft gewinnen wird. Man soll den Tag nicht vor dem Abend loben!
(Don’t say that Argentina will win the World Cup. Don’t count your chicks before they hatch!)
16. jdm. ein Ohr abkauenLiterally: to chew someone’s ear off
English equivalent: to talk someone’s ear off
Dieses Kind kann nicht still sein. Es kaut mir ein Ohr ab.
(This child cannot be silent. He is talking my ear off.)
17. klar wie KloßbrüheLiterally: clear as dumpling broth
English equivalent: crystal clear
Verstehst du mich? Ist es klar wie Kloßbrühe?
Do you understand me? Is it crystal clear?
18. dumm wie BohnenstrohLiterally: as dumb as a bean straw
English equivalent: as thick as a brick
Er redet nur Quatsch. Er ist dumm wie Bohnenstroh.
(He talks only nonsense. He is as thick as a brick.)
19. die Kirche im Dorf lassenLiterally: to leave the church in the village
English equivalent: to not get carried away
Der Film war nur OK. Bitte lass die Kirche im Dorf.
(The film was only OK. Please don’t get carried away.)
20. Schwein habenLiterally: to have a pig
English equivalent: to have a stroke of luck
Obwohl er nicht für den Test gelernt hat, hat er den Test bestanden. Er hat Schwein gehabt!
(Although he didn’t study, he passed the test. He had a stroke of luck!)
This second group of idiom involve food (mostly), and illustrating them is more difficult.
B. 21 Delicious German Expressions to Give You Food for ThoughtIn Germany, the pig is pretty popular.
A symbol for various things, to get lucky is to “have pig” (Schwein haben),
but if your German skills are unter den Sau, “under the pig,” they’re not very good at all.
Hopefully, though, you won’t think your pig whistles (Ich glaube mein Schwein pfeift) because in that case you’ve just totally lost your mind.
Now, on to the best of the Wurst.
1. er glaubt er bekommt eine ExtrawurstLiterally: He thinks he gets an extra sausage.
Does he think he’s special? Like he gets an extra sausage? We all know someone like this.
2. du armes Würstchen!Literally: You poor little sausage.
You have a cold! Oh you poor little sausage. Let me make you some soup.
(Careful, as this one is also frequently used condescendingly, which I have to say seems extraordinarily appropriate.)
3. die beleidigte Wurst spielenLiterally: Acting the insulted sausage
Pay no mind to Sally over there. She’s just acting the insulted sausage: pouting, because she didn’t get her way.
4. sich die Wurst vom Brot nehmen lassenLiterally: To let someone take the sausage off your bread.
Stand up for yourself! Don’t let anyone take the sausage off your bread. You’re too good to be taken advantage of like that.
5. das ist mir WurstLiterally: That is sausage to me.
I don’t care about that at all. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a sausage.
6. sieht wie eine Presswurst ausLiterally: Looks like a stuffed sausage.
You might want to rethink the size of your clothing. You’re looking a bit like a stuffed sausage in that top. (Oh dear.)
7. es geht um die WurstLiterally: It goes about the sausage.
Okay now, there are two minutes left in the game! It’s crunch time people! It’s all about the sausage!
8. Alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zweiLiterally: Everything has an end, only the sausage has two (ends).
To end this sausage spree on an existential note: everything has an end—except for the sausage—only the sausage has two.
Okay. So sometimes (if you’re extra hungry, I guess) there are a few other food options in Germany besides the majestic Schweinefleisch. Alternative table-talk has predictably, like in English, flavored (haha, see what I did there?) all kinds of idiomatic expressions. Here are more food-related German expressions that aren’t about sausage.
9. um den heißen Brei herumredenLiterally: To talk around the hot soup/porridge.
He simply will not get to the point. He keeps talking around the hot porridge/ hot soup, or, as we say in English, beating around the bush. (“Beating around the bush” is a pretty strange English one, right?)
10. Jemandem Honig um den Mund schmierenLiterally: To smear honey around the mouth.
Before you ask Tim for that favor, make sure you give him lots of compliments—you know, smear honey around his mouth. (English equivalent: “to butter someone up.”)
11. Jemanden ausnehmen wie eine WeihnachtsgansLiterally: To gut someone like a Christmas goose.
If I get another passive aggressive email from Bob I swear I will tear him a new one. I will take him to the cleaners. I will gut him like a Christmas goose. (Whoa!)
12. DreikäsehochLiterally: Three-cheeses-high.
Little Clara is celebrating her fourth birthday today. She’s not but a wee little thing, barely three cheeses high! I don’t know what it is, but I just love this one. It literally refers to the height of three wheels of cheese stacked on top of each other.
13. Senf dazugebenLiterally: To add mustard.
Mary always offers her two cents on whatever we’re talking about—whether she’s asked for her opinion or not. She’s always adding her mustard to the conversation.
14. nicht mein BierLiterally: Not my beer.
Someone’s spreading rumors? Well don’t look in my direction. That’s got nothing to do with me. That sort of thing is not my beer.
15. Tomaten auf den AugenLiterally: Tomatoes on the eyes.
Seriously! Are you blind!? Do you have tomatoes on your eyes!??
16. kleine Brötchen backenLiterally: Baking little rolls.
Our country is taking baby steps toward a brighter tomorrow. We’re baking little rolls.
17. Schokoladeseite zeigenLiterally: To show one’s chocolate side.
We want to present our best work to the client at the next meeting. We’ll show them our good side. Our chocolate side.
18. mit dem ist nicht gut Kirschen essenLiterally: Not good cherry eating.
Yeah…don’t bother inviting Tim tonight. He woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. With him is not good cherry eating. We might say in English that he’s not a man you want to mess with.
Now that I’ve got your stomach rumbling and the wheels in your brain turning, allow me wrap up this post with a couple of just plain wonderful German idioms that, I must admit, I use in translation in English from time to time—they’re just that good. (And yes, I sound pretty weird. I’m aware of that.)
19. Jemandem einen Korb gebenLiterally: To give someone a basket.
When a boy is courting a girl (or, perhaps more realistically, he just asked her to join him for a Döner after they stumbled out of the techno club at 8 am) but she refuses his advances, she “gives him a basket.” The expression works thusly: “Did you hear what Dan said to Clara last night? Yeah, she wasn’t into it. She gave him a basket.”
Apparently, this wonderful idiom dates all the way back to the 14th century, when a lover hoping to get invited into a royal maiden’s chambers would literally have to be pulled up into her tower secretly in a basket. Should the noble maiden not really want the visitor to arrive, she might send down a very thin basket, or even a bottomless one—thus rendering the journey impossible. (This was before the age of simply not returning someone’s texts.)
Before properly researching this phrase I asked a German friend of mine what she thought it might mean. She replied, “ I dunno, maybe it’s like, ‘Yeah… I’d rather not, thanks, but…um…here’s a nice basket as a consolation prize?’ Everyone needs baskets.” I think I like that better.
20. du kannst mich mal!Literally: You can me once!!
Okay, so technically this is more of an “elision” than an idiomatic expression. However, I enjoy the completely nonsensical English translation so much (You can me once!!) that I felt compelled to include it on this list. “You can me once” implies a few things—leaves a few words to the imagination—which I am not completely comfortable repeating here…but just imagine what you can do to someone who is most certainly upset with you. I’ll give you a hint: This is very similar to the English expression, “you can kiss my…” you get the point.
21. das Leben ist kein PonyhofLiterally: Life is not a pony farm.
Ain’t that the truth! Life, my friends, is quite simply not a pony farm.
And, well, there you have it! Twenty-one German idioms for all sorts of situations to make you sound like a pro (if a slightly food-obsessed one).
Now go find a German language partner and practice! And while you’re at it, try explaining to them a few of the thousands of English idioms we take for granted every day. I suggest beginning with “to let the cat out of the bag,” “to be in a pickle” and “everything but the kitchen sink.”