Proverbs and idioms may not seem very relevant when you’re learning a new language, but they are fun and exciting to explore. They offer important insight into cultural and social values. When they’re as hilarious as the ones we’ve compiled, it’s even better.
Germany has a rich and diverse history and a dictionary of beautiful words and descriptive phrases, including idioms. There’s an idiom to describe any situation, and more. Have a look at our 10 funniest German idioms.
1. Um den heißen Brei herumreden
Literally, this translates as “to talk around the hot porridge”. Figuratively, it means “to beat around the bush.”
Its origin is the funny part. The full idiom was originally “sneak around the hot porridge like a cat", the metaphorical cat looking for the coolest place to lick.
2. Da kannst du Gift drauf nehmen
“You can take poison with that” is the literal translation. It is the German equivalent of “you can bet your life on that.” There are few acts in life, where we can be positive of the outcomes, and taking poison is one of them, as this German idiom reflects.
On a related note, did you know English and German used to be one language? Yes, it was a long time ago, but there’s still evidence of that in the etymology.
Take the word Gift: “gift, present” in English, but “poison” in German. It would be that the clandestine enemies of Germanic rulers would give them gifts containing…you guessed it.
3. Das kannst du deiner Oma erzählen
“You can tell that to your grandmother” is what you’d say to someone if you were sure they just told you a lie or were over-exaggerating. I’ll admit this one stumps English speakers because grandmas are normally naïve enough to take our word or one respects one’s grandma too much to deceive her.
Obviously, this idiom should tell you German grandmas are different. Germans say this as a dare to pass what someone’s saying on to their grandma if it’s really true.
4. Das passt wie die Faust aufs Auge
What’s funny about this idiom is the contradictory meaning. While it translates as “they go together like the fist on the eye”, it means two things go really well together.
The hard fist on the vulnerable eye - that's not a good combination. In the past, this idiom was used ironically to show that two things don't work in combination at all. It has since changed to the opposite.
5. Die Kirche im Dorf lassen
This idiom dates from a time of very strict building ordinances, when you were only allowed to construct churches in villages. You couldn’t have one in a city. “Leave the church in the village” is a warning to not get carried away with something.
"What’s With Germans and Pig Words?"
In most countries (as reflected in the languages), pigs are associated with filth, greed, and other negative attributes. They are the least respected animal on farms. But not in the Fatherland.
Germans say someone “hat Schwein” (has pig) to mean he or she is lucky. Another idiom that leaves no doubt in one’s mind about pigs’ places in Germany is Wir haben zusammen noch keine Schweine gehütet (we have not kept pigs together yet). This means you don’t know someone well enough to trust them.
We cannot argue that where there are swine, there are also sausages (no offense to vegetarians and vegans is intended at all). There are thousands of kinds of sausages and just as many phrases about them and about pigs in German. It is no accident, then, that we have included a few piggish idioms on our list.
6. Sie spielt die beleidigte Leberwurst
To “play the insulted sausage” is to get all worked up over something. Another English equivalent is to “have a cow”. When someone asks for special treatment, you assume they have “eine Extrawurst.” They must have an extra sausage if they think they’re so special. Right?
7. Den inneren Schweinehund überwinden
Overcome your inner pig-dog? Is that a good or a bad thing?
If you overcome or defeat your inner pig-dog, you manage to complete a difficult or challenging task. "Pig-dogs" actually do exist: These are dogs that accompanied hunters to hunt for wild boar. Overpowering these stubborn, fierce, and ill-natured animals was a major challenge.
On a more positive note, we have Kein Schwein war da (not a single pig was there). The absence of pigs is a prerequisite of a positive experience for many people.
Not in the sausage-loving Fatherland. If there are no pigs, it means there isn’t anyone at a particular location. Germans use this idiom to describe an utterly boring party.
8. Da wird der Hund in der Pfanne verrückt
Yes, you translated it right. What could “the dog in the pan will go crazy” possibly signify? The phrase is associated with 16th century literary figure and practical joker Till Eulenspiegel.
One of the stories about him goes like this. When Till was working in a brewery, the local master brewer ordered him to boil hops. However, Till threw the brewer's dog named "Hopf" into the pan instead.
The resulting phrase first appeared at the beginning of the 20th century and is used to express wonder and astonishment, the way you would feel if you had tomatoes on your eyes (Tomaten auf den Augen haben). When someone says this about you, it’s their less than courteous way of conveying you’re oblivious to your surroundings.
9. Er hat nicht alle Tassen im Schrank
The English equivalent of this idiom (literally: he doesn’t have all the cups in the cupboard) is “not playing with a full deck of cards.” This way of saying someone is insane can also suggest intellectual deficiencies.
If there ever were an orderly and well-prepared folk, that’s Germans. Clearly, someone who did not keep all of their cups in their designated place couldn’t be right in the head.
On a related note, there’s Er hat einen Vogel (he has a bird). You need to look out for people with birds in Germany. In the distant past, doctors believed small animals lived in the mentally ill’s heads, the less poetic version of Indian spirits.
Idioms and Nuance – the Lost Art of Water-Bringing
If you take time to learn some frequently used idioms, you’ll begin to grasp nuances in German TV shows, films, and books. What is more, you need to use idioms to sound like a native speaker. They are sometimes the only way to help you say what you mean.
Everyone uses language to express ideas in different ways and idioms can help you discover your distinctive and unique German style.
You don’t want to sound like someone’s grandparents or your textbook by using outdated sayings. You also don’t want to sound like someone, who “keinem das Wasser reichen kann.”
10. Jemandem nicht das Wasser reichen können
In the Middle Ages, the servants would bring the rich water to wash their hands after they had eaten. That was a very responsible task. Anyone who did not appear worthy enough to take it on was considered a good-for-nothing.
Nowadays, the phrase has a figurative meaning: it expresses that a person is bad at something or at least cannot perform it as well as someone else.
Like everything else, this fascinating (at least to the writer) article must come to an end. Like Germans say: Alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei.
If you’re going to say that all things come to an end, you should do it elegantly and in a way Germans will understand. The logic of “the sausage has two ends” is undeniable.