“I don’t believe there is anything in the whole earth that you can’t learn in Berlin except the German language.” Mark Twain’s famous frustration with “The Awful German Language” primarily had to do with that language’s notoriously complex grammar, of course, but German idioms certainly have their own challenging charms as well. You can’t learn these idioms in Berlin either, in other words. Well, at least not without a whole lot of effort.
As in every language, these idioms are expressions that convey a specific message that is not predictable or directly translatable when considering the meaning of the individual words that make them up. If, for instance, you were to confront a German learning English with the term “kicking the bucket,” and you were not referring to kicking a bucket literally, he or she would most likely not know what you were talking about. Students of German have the same problem, of course, and German idiomatic expressions will appear to be just as bizarre to us at times, this due to German’s particular preference for certain objects, animals or parts of the body–as compared to those we prefer to use in English.
The real meaning of a German idiom has to be learned in its proper context to be correctly understood, in other words. This makes understanding them a formidable undertaking. And to complicate matters, many of these expressions often refer to cultural aspects and customs, traditions and language structures which are not even relevant anymore. Many German idioms deal with pigs, for instance, and this despite the fact that the fewest of Germans today have any direct contact with pigs anymore-other than in the supermarket, of course.
So with these encouraging words in mind, it’s time to stop talking around the hot porridge (beating around the bush) and get to work. As you can see, a literal translation of a German idiom like that might seem to be a waste of time, but at least it’s a good way to have some fun. And we are about to do both! Sit back and enjoy a short ride through a collection of German idioms and sayings that may not make any sense to you when you translate them literally, but then again, why should they? Our English ones don’t make any sense when taken literally either.
Bad luck never comes alone (ein Unglück kommt selten allein) = when it rains it pours.
Break your neck and your leg (Hals- und Beinbruch) = good luck!
Build yourself a donkey bridge (sich eine Eselsbrücke bauen) = create a mnemonic device.
Do the fly (mach die Fliege) = beat it!
Don’t make an elephant out of mosquito (aus einer Mücke einen Elefanten machen) = don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.
Don’t talk around the hot porridge (um den heißen Brei herumreden) = don’t beat around the bush.
Everything has an end, only the sausage has two (alles hat ein Ende nur die Wurst hat zwei) = all things must come to an end.
He doesn’t have all his cups in his cupboard (er hat nicht alle Tassen im Schrank) = he’s crazy.
He left neck over head (Hals über Kopf ) = he left in a mad rush..
He stood there like a watered poodle (er stand da wie ein begossener Pudel) = he was lost for words.
He showers warm (er ist ein Warmduscher) = he’s a wimp.
I just don’t have the billy goat (ich habe keinen Bock) = I don’t feel like it.
I feel as fit as a tennis shoe (ich fühle mich fit wie ein Turnschuh) = I feel top fit.
I feel like I could rip out trees (ich fühle mich als ob ich Bäume ausreißen könnte) = I feel on top of the world.
I have a chicken to pluck with him (mit jemandem ein Hühnchen zu rupfen haben) = I have a bone to pick with him.
I only understand train station (Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof) = that’s as clear as mud.
I think I’ve been kissed by an elk (ich glaube mich knutscht ein Elch) = well, I never!
It seems like Spanish to me (das kommt mir Spanisch vor) = it’s all Greek to me.
It’s as certain as amen in church (so sicher, wie das Amen in der Kirche) = you can bet dollars to doughnuts on that.
Just off the mark is still off the mark (knapp daneben ist auch vorbei) = close, but no banana.
Lies have short legs (Lügen haben kurze Beine) = truth always prevails.
My nose is full (ich habe die Nase voll) = I’ve had it up to here!
One hand washes the other one (eine Hand wäscht die andere) = I scratch your back and you scratch mine.
Outside wow, inside yuck (aussen hui, innen pfui) = all show and no substance.
She’s a nibble cat (eine Naschkatze sein) = she has a sweet tooth.
She has a corpse in the cellar (eine Leiche im Keller haben) = she has a skeleton in the closet.
She has hair on her teeth (sie hat Haare auf den Zähnen) = she has a sharp tongue.
She looks like a peeled egg (wie aus dem Ei gepellt) = she’s dressed to the nines.
She untied a bear on you (jemandem einen Bären aufbinden) = she’s pulling your leg.
Sometimes you have to bite into the sour apple (man muss manchmal in den sauren Apfel beißen) = bite the bullet.
Speak with him under four eyes (mit jemandem unter vier Augen sprechen) = speak with him in private about it.
That was a slap in the water (ein Schlag ins Wasser) = that was a flop.
That was all for the cat (alles für die Katz sein) = that was a waste of time.
That went completely in the pants (das ging voll in die Hose) = that went all wrong.
That’s about as clear as dumpling broth (klar wie Kloßbrühe) = as clear as day.
That’s not my beer (das ist nicht mein Bier) = that’s none of my business.
That’s sausage to me (das ist mir wurst) = I couldn’t care less.
That’s under all sow (unter alle Sau) = beneath contempt.
The dumbest farmers harvest the biggest potatoes (die dümmsten Bauern ernten die dicksten Kartoffeln) = fortune favors fools.
The rubel is rolling (der Rubel rollt) = business is booming.
The tone makes the music (der Ton macht die Musik) = It’s not what you say, but how you say it.
Turn every cent around twice (jeden Cent zweimal umdrehen) = pinch pennies.
We made it with “ach” and noise (etwas mit Ach und Krach bestehen) = we made it by the skin of our teeth.
Where does the shoe pinch (wo drückt der Schuh)? = what’s the trouble?
You are spinning (as in yarn) (du spinnst) = you’re crazy.
You can slide down my hump (du kannst mir den Buckel runterrutschen) = go jump in a lake.
Your echo returns the same way you yelled into the forest (wie man in den Wald hineinruft, so schallt es heraus) = what goes around, comes around.
Your last shirt has no pockets (das letzte Hemd hat keine Taschen) = you can’t take it with you when you die.