Issue 14 | ,

German idioms

by on October 5, 2019

What do flies, foxes, thumbs, and mustard have in common? Besides the fact that you likely wouldn’t want any of the first three in your mustard, the answer is simpler than you might think: all of the above words are parts of popular German idioms.

Learning idioms is one of the best parts about studying languages. Besides sounding rather amusing in their directly-translated forms, such phrases are sure to impress any local you may happen to meet. Below, find ten of the most popular German idioms that are sure to help you knock a native speaker’s socks off (see, English has good idioms too! But I digress…). Let’s find out what those flies, foxes, thumbs, and mustard are all about!

Zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagen
To kill two flies with one fly-swatter 

While we “kill two birds with one stone” in English, German speakers choose to eliminate pesky flies instead. As this is slightly more socially acceptable than going around throwing stones at cute little birds, I think the Germans have won this particular idiom battle.

Einen Vogel haben
To have a bird

However, just because they kill flies does not mean that the Germans have no idioms about birds. If someone “has a bird” in the German language, it means that they are acting insane, and therefore must have a bird flying around in their head. I guess that’s why German speakers don’t try to kill two birds with one stone – if the birds in question are in a person’s head, things might get a little tricky. I get it, Germans, I get it.

Die beleidigte Leberwurst spielen
To act like an insulted liverwurst

The German language is full of sausage idioms, and this is one of the best. To act like an insulted liverwurst (sausage made from liver) means “to sulk or to pout”. So if someone tells you that “you have a bird”, do your best not to sulk, because you may face accusations of acting like a disgruntled sausage before you can even begin to defend yourself.

Schwein haben
To have a pig

If you’re going to have an animal in German culture, I would definitely advise having a pig. To have a pig means that you’ve experienced good luck, which is why people will sometimes gift each other items with pigs on them to express good wishes for the New Year. I have to admit, the first time I received a pig keychain as a present from my Austrian mother-in-law, I was a bit confused, but I now know the meaning behind it. And I am very grateful she didn’t gift me a bird instead.

Jemandem die Daumen drücken
To press your thumbs for someone

No, this is not a torture method. If you press your thumbs for someone, it means you are crossing your fingers for them, or wishing them good luck. So if you really want your friend to have a pig this coming year, you better press those thumbs and cross those fingers — a little extra luck never hurt anyone!

Wo sich Fuchs und Hase gute Nacht sagen
Where the fox and hare say goodnight to one another

You wouldn’t normally think of the fox as a polite animal who bids a lovely evening to his prey, would you? I didn’t think so. And that’s where this idiom comes from. As the chance of a fox saying goodnight to a hare is very small (assuming he could talk, of course), the Germans say that such a greeting would only happen in the middle of nowhere — which is precisely what this idiom means. So next time you have to drive way out into the country, see if you can find a polite fox wishing his neighbor rabbit a pleasant evening. Perhaps he’ll invite you in for tea.

Den Löffel abgeben
To give up your spoon 

If the fox does invite you in for tea, I sincerely hope you don’t have to give up your spoon. Why? This phrase means “to die” in English. In the Middle Ages, there wasn’t a lot of silverware to go around, so when a member of the family died, his spoon was apparently passed down to the next generation — and giving up the spoon became a euphemism for dying.

Auf Wolke 7 sein
To be on cloud seven

Let’s return to slightly happier topics, shall we? While we English-speakers hang out on cloud nine, the German-speakers like to congregate down on cloud seven. To each their own, right? But no two clouds are created equal — while being on cloud nine means that you’re extremely happy, being on cloud seven means that you’re in love. Makes me wonder what’s on cloud eight…

Seinen Senf dazugeben
To contribute one’s mustard

In English, we put in our two cents to a conversation, but in German, if someone wants to offer their opinion, they are contributing their mustard. I suppose that with all those sausage idioms in the German language, they needed a little mustard idiom as a topping.

Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof
I only understand train station

If you don’t understand an idiom a German speaker tells you, just say “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof!” This means “I don’t understand a thing” or “It’s all Greek to me.” This phrase is thought to have come from World War I, when soldiers would get permission to go to the train station to make their way home. The soldiers would be so excited to hear the word “station” that they didn’t listen to or understand anything else that came after the word — hence the “I only understand train station.”

With these 10 German idioms, I hope you’ll now be able to understand more than just train station and contribute your own mustard to any German conversation you may have. Good luck or Viel Glück — I hope you have a pig with all of your German learning!

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