A true marker of advanced skills in a language is the ability to use idioms in conversation. Knowing the perfect idiom for a certain situation signals that you’ve got a lot of experience with the language and have an understanding of some of its nuances. Learning idioms is also a great way to gain insight into a foreign culture and its history.
Read on to learn about the metaphors, humor, and imagery that make up some of the most popular idioms in German.
A Few Quirky and Interesting German Idioms
1. Jetzt ist das Kind schon in den Brunnen gefallen
Literal translation: The child has already fallen into the well.
This idiom depicts a scenario no one wants to see, and it’s used to emphasize the fact that whatever bad thing has happened has already happened. You could say it when you think it’s time to move on rather than dwell on something negative.
2. Mit jemandem Pferde stehlen können
Literal translation: Someone to steal horses with.
Don’t worry if someone tells you you’re someone to steal horses with in German — it’s a good thing. Of course, literally stealing horses isn’t what’s going on here. Instead, this phrase is used to describe someone you could trust in a sticky situation, or someone who would be good to go on adventures with.
3. Um den heißen Brei herumreden
Literal translation: To talk around the hot porridge.
Food is a common topic in idioms in just about any language. This example uses hot porridge to represent a topic someone may be avoiding speaking about directly. Someone might use this idiom to get another to speak more directly or to not “beat around the bush,” as you would say in English.
4. Eine Leiche im Keller haben
Literal translation: To have a dead body in the basement.
This rather gruesome saying is similar to the English idiom, “have skeletons in your closet.” It means to have some deep or tightly guarded secrets.
5. Eine Extrawurst verlangen
Literal translation: To ask for an extra sausage.
This food-focused idiom makes use of the popularity of sausages in Germany. If someone “asks for an extra sausage” in Germany, it means they’re looking for special treatment of some kind.
6. Tomaten auf den Augen haben
Literal translation: To have tomatoes on your eyes.
You can almost think of this silly idiom literally. If there are tomatoes covering your eyes, you won’t be able to see much! This is a phrase said about people that aren’t aware of what’s going on around them. A similar saying in English is “to have your head in the clouds.”
7. Nicht das Gelbe vom Ei
Literal translation: Not the yellow from the egg.
This is an idiom used to refer to something that is less than desirable, if only just. Presumably, it’s because the yolk of the egg is the tastiest part. If you moved into an apartment that was adequate but not great, you could say it’s not the yellow from the egg, for example.
8. Das fünfte Rad am Wagen sein
Literal translation: Be the fifth wagon wheel.
Where the English version of this idiom imagines the third wheel as the odd one out, German calls it the fifth wheel. This means to be the extra person in a situation that could cause some awkwardness.
9. Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof
Literal translation: I only understand train station.
This is similar to the English way of saying, “it’s all Greek to me.” Essentially, it means you have no idea what’s going on. You don’t understand the situation.
10. Das macht den Kohl auch nicht fett
Literal translation: That won’t make the cabbage fat either.
It might be hard to find a food that’s leaner than cabbage, and nothing is going to change that. The idea behind this saying is that some things don’t make any actual difference to a situation. Someone who is furious at being wronged by another might use this in response to an unsatisfactory apology.
11. In Teufels Küche kommen
Literal translation: Enter the devil’s kitchen.
The devil’s kitchen is not somewhere you want to be! If you’ve entered into a precarious or dangerous situation, this idiom could be used to describe your circumstances. To be “in dire straits” or “deep water” could be some ways to say this in English.
12. Weggehen wie warme Semmeln
Literal translation: To go like warm rolls.
Where in English we speak of hotcakes, German uses warm rolls. Much like the saying “selling like hotcakes” means an item is popular and will soon be gone, this idiom describes something that is selling quickly.
13. Man hat schon Pferde kotzen sehen
Literal translation: You’ve seen horses vomit.
This is one of the stranger and more graphic idioms out there. In English, you might simply say “stranger things have happened” to describe the same idea. Horses vomiting is a rare occurrence, but it can happen, and it’s an odd sight.
14. Mit den Wölfen heulen
Literal translation: Howl with the wolves.
No, this isn’t referring to letting loose under a full moon. This saying is akin to the English, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” It means, do what the locals are doing!
15. Jemandem die Daumen drücken
Literal translation: To press thumbs for someone.
Where in English-speaking countries it’s normal to cross your fingers for good luck, Germans press their thumbs! If you want to wish someone luck, you could tell them you’ll press your thumbs for them.
16. Schwein haben
Literal translation: To have a pig.
You want to have a pig. At least, as far as this idiom is concerned you do. In addition to pressing thumbs, pigs represent luck in Germany. To have a pig is to have been lucky.
17. Einen Vogel haben
Literal translation: To have a bird.
You don’t want to have a bird. If someone has a bird, it means that they’re crazy. This idiom likely comes from the notion that someone that isn’t mentally stable must have a bird flying around in their head.
18. Sich zum Affen machen
Literal translation: To make an ape of oneself.
Without causing offense to apes, this idiom is used to talk about someone that’s made a fool of themselves. The idea here is that ape-like behavior usually isn’t suitable in humans.
19. Lügen haben kurze Beine
Literal translation: Lies have short legs.
Idioms in some languages refer to the ability of lies to travel great distances, but this one takes another approach. By saying lies have short legs, this phrase is insinuating that lies won’t be able to take you very far.
20. Da steppt der Bär
Literal translation: The bear dances there.
If the bear dances there, that’s a great party! This is something you could say about a very fun party or event. “The bee’s knees” is an English saying with a similar meaning.
21. Alles hat ein Ende, nur eine Wurst hat zwei
Literal translation: Everything has an end, only a sausage has two.
This German saying involves two classic traits of idioms: humor and food. There’s a little bit of existential philosophy in the meaning here — “everything has an end” is kind of a heavy sentiment, and it can be taken literally. The addition that only sausages have two endings softens the message with some food-related humor.
22. Unter einer Decke stecken
Literal translation: To be hidden under a blanket.
In German, to be hidden under a blanket implies something conspiratorial. You could say this about two people you think are in on some sort of secret plan or operation. A way to say this in English is, “to be in cahoots.”
23. Voller Bauch studiert nicht gern
Literal translation: A full stomach doesn’t like to study.
This is something most of us have experienced, and the meaning is pretty close to the literal translation. Essentially, it can be hard to do anything that is mentally demanding after eating food. If you need to take a short break after eating before taking on a task, you could use this idiom.
24. Gift und Galle spucken
Literal translation: To spit poison and bile.
It’s not hard to imagine that someone who is spitting poison and bile might not be in the best mood. Thus, this idiom is used to talk about someone who is absolutely furious about something. In English, you could say someone “flew off the handle” to describe an out-of-control response to something.
25. Sich die Hörner abstoßen
Literal translation: To shed one’s horns.
Sometimes it’s good to relax and to let your guard down, though this is easier for some than others. If you’re someone that has a hard time letting loose, you might be told that you should try to “shed your horns.” It basically means to relax and not take things so seriously.
26. Mit dem ist nicht gut Kirschen essen
Literal translation: It’s difficult to eat cherries with them.
If someone is difficult to eat cherries with, it means they aren’t very easy to get along with or that they simply don’t like you. This phrase may come from the historically high prices of cherries in Germany, making them a fruit only wealthy people could enjoy — they probably wouldn’t want to share them with people they didn’t find totally enjoyable.
27. Das Herz auf der Zunge tragen
Literal translation: To carry your heart on your tongue.
This could be said about you if you’re someone that says what they feel and think without much of a filter. In English, you might say that someone “wears their heart on their sleeve.” In this case, the literal translation of the German saying is a little more straightforward than the English equivalent.