10: Things you wouldn’t know | German Idioms

I am doing NaBloPoMo this month. 30 blog posts in 30 days. Come join me. #nablopomo2022

People have told me in the past that they loved these posts, so I am bringing back an old favorite today. Once upon a time, I used to share German idioms for NaBloPoMo. I must have shared dozens of idioms over the years, but then did the last rendition in 2019. I guess I had kinda run out of idioms.

But I love language and its nuances and I’ve always enjoyed learning English idioms. I also really enjoy teaching German idioms to my non-native German-speaking husband. He now successfully drops one or another German idiom in conversation with me and it’s always a bit of a fist-pump-kinda-moment.

Some idioms translate pretty closely, some you can probably figure out from the literal translation, but others are completely unique. Jon and I speak a mix of English and German at home (mostly English with German words/phrases sprinkled in) and sometimes, even I forget if the “literal translation” of an idiom actually works in Englisch or not, or if we have been smashing both languages together for too long.

But I digress.

Since there’s a fair number of new readers, I thought I’d post a round-up of some of my favorite idioms that I think are still fairly commonly used. (As you know, language is fluid, and even within Germany different regions might use different idioms as well. I invite my German readers to chime in!)

Du hast nicht alle Tassen im Schrank“. You don’t have all your cups in your cupboard. (This is one of Jon’s favorites and one he uses with confidence! Not that he ever really has a reason to say that to me or anything.) You can probably figure out what it means. Right, something along the lines of “you have lost your marbles”.

Er hat mir eine Frikadelle ans Ohr gequatscht“. He talked a meatloaf into my ear. Also one of Jon’s favorites. It simply means that someone keeps talking and talking and doesn’t shut up.

“Das Leben ist kein Ponyhof.” Life is not a pony farm. Not exactly sure where this idiom has its origin, but it basically means that life on a pony farm is easy and carefree, which real life is not. The English equivalent is life is no walk in the park.

Das ist nicht dein Bier.” That is not your beer. I mean! Could there be an idiom that is more German than this one? The Germans like their beer…. and if something is none of your business, then it’s also none of your beer. Ha!

“Ich drücke dir die Daumen.” I squeeze my thumbs for you. Yes, did you know that in Germany, we don’t cross fingers, but we make a fist and squeeze our thumbs for good luck? (Try doing both at the same time = twice the amount of luck!)

Du kannst mich mal am A…bend besuchen. You can come visit me in the evening.
Ok, this one is actually funny. The original saying goes “du kannst mich mal am Arsch lecken” (you can lick my ass!), but because that is very vulgar, someone started using “du kannst mich mal am Abend besuchen” (changing the sentence last minute from using “Arsch” (ass) to “Abend”(evening). The implication is still the same, it just sounds nicer: you can kiss my ass.

“Du hast wohl einen Clown gefrühstückt.” Seems like you had a clown for breakfast. You can use this phrase sarcastically, to say that somebody is not particularly funny, or if you want to point out that someone is extraordinarily silly. I couldn’t find a real English idiom for this.

“Seinen Senf dazugeben.” To add your mustard. It means to put in your two cents. Don’t know why we have an obsession with food-related idioms, but there are many!

“Die beleidigte Leberwurst spielen.” To play the miffed liverwurst. Haha. Also a classic. It sounds hilarious in English. It basically means that someone is easily miffed and offended and everybody knows it, so people are calling the person out on it. To get into a huff does not nearly have the same ring, amirite?

“Sich eine Eselsbrücke bauen.” To build a donkey bridge. This means finding a mnemonic device to memorize something. I’ve taught this phrase (in literal translation) to all my co-workers and ‘donkey bridge’ is now an established phrase around my office. Haha.

Your turn: Teach me an idiom! Or ask me for the translation of an English idiom into German!

  1. Oh this is so fun! I LOVE languages (even though I’m terrible at anything but English).

    One of my favourites is: “That changes the water on the beans”. I guess this stems from soaking dried beans overnight? But in our family at least, it means: “Well, that changes how I perceive a situation.”

    Another bean idiom: “That’s a hill of beans”. Something crazy/ludicrous or not worth believing. As in – what that person says isn’t worth a hill of beans.

    See…food idiom’s don’t stop in Germany. Think: that’s a piece of cake!!

    1. Haha, thanks for sharing some of your favorites idioms. I guess food idioms are quite common :)

  2. I can’t imagine I know a lot of idioms that you don’t know since you’ve been in the States for so long, but my mom is from an area with a lot of Pennsylvania Dutch and she uses a lot of phrases that have sort of snuck into my own lexicon. For instance, I drop “to be” a lot. I’d probably say something like “that needs washed” rather than “that needs to be washed.” I also use phrases like “red up the room” instead of “get the room ready” and “outen the lights” instead of “turn off the lights.” I know perfectly well how to say these things “correctly,” but it makes me feel closer to my mom to use her versions.

    1. I’ve heard of the dropping of words and twisting around phrases ;)
      It’s more of a slang/dialect than an idiom though, right? I love it though – I can see how that makes you feel closer to your mom.

  3. I love this post! Have I told you that German is my favorite language? At one time I had a pretty decent vocabulary but it’s faded from lack of use. Our neighbor is a high school German teacher and my youngest stepson is studying German as well, so sometimes I get little refreshers.

    Das ist nicht dein Bier is about to become a standard in our house!

    1. No! I didn’t know that German is your favorite language, but now that you mention it, I might have known that you learned German. Refresh my memory: when did you learn German?

  4. Ha ha, these are HILARIOUS! No wonder I never really learned how to speak German when I was over there- people were telling me a had a clown for breakfast and it made no sense. Seriously… I know we have a lot of weird sayings in English as well. Like “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” I’ll bet that would be pretty confusing for someone trying to learn the language.

    1. Did you not learn any German in all the years you spent in Germany?

  5. This is an amazing post! I love it so much! And so interesting that food is in so many of them. I am going to share these phrases with my husband and daughter – she is “learning” German and will get a kick out of this! That’s the idiom I want to know in German!

    I love “it’s raining cats and dogs.” Does German have something similar?

    1. I love that Carla is learning German. Is she taking classes in school? I always feel like once you master the idioms, you master the language.

      Yesterday, my husband dropped “hast du die Nase voll?” (literal translation: is your nose full? Which means, are you fed up with it?) in perfect context and I was so excited.

  6. Since I am not a native English speaker here is another German one: “Die Katze aus dem Sack lassen” – “Let the cat out off the bag.” Meaning: Telling a secret. I guess the English equivalent would be “Spill the beans”? See even more beans ;)

    1. We say this in English too – “Let the cat out of the bag”…which does mean the exact same thing as “Spill the beans.”
      And then there is “Has the cat got your tongue?”
      So lots of legumes and felines in our idioms apparently – haha!

      1. Ha, I did not realize you can use it the same way! Probably there are so many things you can’t translate literally that it never occurred to me. The “has the cat got your tongue” is new to me bu then we say in German “have you swallowed your tongue” – “Hast Du Deine Zunge verschluckt?” so it’s very close. Gotta love language!

  7. Hahahaha, I’ve always loved these posts and that Jon is using some of them quite confident !!!
    But also lol to the donkey bridge being a thing around your office.

    1. The donkey bridge is my favorite :)

  8. New reader here. While I do not know German, I did get a kick out of reading these sayings. It’s fun to learn of other cultures and languages (I’ve always loved languages). I do speak Greek pretty well and know many sayings that are truly funny when translated to English. A few are
    1.) «Να μου τρυπήσεις την μύτη» (Put a hole in my nose) meaning if something hard to believe happens…put a hole in my nose. 2.) «κάτσε στα αυγά σου» (sit in your eggs) means “mind your own business”.
    3.) Βρέχει καρεκλοπόδαρα
    (it’s raining chair-legs ) = it’s raining cats and dogs (it’s raining hard)
    4.)Βαράω μὐγες, literal translation is “I am swatting flies” which means I am not just “doing nothing”…said sarcastically.

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment… and for sharing these great Greek idioms. Isn’t it funny how “close” some of them are in either language, but that just parts are swapped out (like the chair legs for cats and dogs? In German, we say “es gießt Bindfäden” = it’s raining threads (because heavy rain can look like long pieces of “thread”).

  9. I love this.

    The Aussie equivalent of “Du hast nicht alle Tassen im Schrank“. You don’t have all your cups in your cupboard:
    A few kangaroos loose in the top paddock

    Mate’s rates: when you get a good discount

    One used previous Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. “Fair shake of the sauce bottle”, means give something a decent try. When he said this though most Australians would vroll their eyes and say stop talking now.

    1. Haha, a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock. I love it :)
      Fair shake of the bottle is a good one, too. I probably would habe understood what it meant in context, but could have never come up with it myself.

    2. A few kangaroos loose in the top paddock – loving this one. If I ever make it to Australia I am dropping this every half hour…

  10. These are SO funny, I read them out loud to my husband and we were dying. Clown for breakfast! Meatloaf in your ear! But we might just adopt “that is not your beer” because, awesome.

    1. Isn’t it the most fun to actually incorporate these literal translations into your everyday life? It will make you chuckle every time :)

  11. These are really fun to read. Here are a couple of English ones that come to mind but I am sure you are familiar w/ them already!

    – A few fries short of a happy meal/not the sharpest knife in the kitchen – used to refer to someone who is a bit crazy or not very smart (a mean phrase but one I’ve heard used).

    – He/she could sell ice to an eskimo. Someone who is very skilled at sales and can talk anyone into anything.

    1. Oh, I’ve heard the “a few fries short of a happy meal” before and think it’s hilarious :)
      And the one with the eskimo is so clever too.Thanks for sharing!

  12. LOVE! I love idioms. They are so great. Such truths, in a fun way. There are some good ones in Spanish, too, but I’m drawing a total blank right now! haha. I’ll have to report back when they inevitably pop into my mind when I’m in the shower or something.

    1. Oh please come back and share (or better, blog about) some Spanish idioms! I’d love to learn more.

  13. I am loving this post and the comments. It is so great that langue is so different and yet not so much at all. Just switching out the objects and here you go.
    Some of the idioms you mentioned I really never heard in real life – but then I grew up and live on the other end of Germany. Like the “Er hat mir eine Frikadelle ans Ohr gequatscht“ – I would say “Der kaut mir das Ohr ab”
    My favorite all time favorite will probably always be “Den Teufel an die Wand malen” – don’t paint the devil on the wall.

  14. I always love these posts because it’s fun to see the translations into English.

    I’m sure I know so many American idioms, but I can’t think of any right now! They are just so ingrained in my language that sometimes I don’t even recognize that they’re idioms!

  15. I can’t come up with idioms but NGS’s comment makes me want to ask my dad for his list of PA Dutch-isms that his patients used. Some of them were close to 100 and they grew up speaking PA Dutch at home. As in, that’s all they spoke. Pretty unusual, um, dialect, for lack of a better word.
    That said, I’m adopting the “Not your beer” one. The best corollary I can think of is, not my circus, not my monkeys. I’ve always loved that one… Thanks for sharing (again!).

  16. My husband works in a very German-heavy group and although the workplace language is English, he’s learned a few idioms. The most memorable, although kind of dark, was “The child has already fallen down the well.”

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