Every language has its own collection of distinct sayings and expressions. They reveal a people’s culture, shine light on its history, offer advice about how to live within that society, and often showcase its collective sense of humor. These expressions are called “idioms” and they are undeniably the most fun part of learning a new tongue, especially when that language is German, with its medley of over 250,000 idioms and sayings.
German idioms provide guidelines as to how one should behave within the parameters of German culture, which is a culture that deeply treasures human connection. To illustrate, in Germany even the simplest “How are you?” is a serious question. When you ask this, people will understand that you’re legitimately interested in their lives and will proceed to share the status of their health, finances, and personal life with you. So, you can expect a comprehensive 15-minute monologue instead of the usual one-word American response. Germans are mainly collectivistic in orientation, so idioms with individualistic undertones like “Every man for himself” are unusual.
It’s no wonder, then, that there are specific behaviors that Germans praise, while others are to be avoided. Generally, Germans like to keep order, have a realistic outlook on life, and can be very romantic when in love. German idioms reveal these cultural peculiarities in creative and funny ways. For one, the German obsession with sausages is evident, given the many sayings containing the word Wurst (sausage).
When learning a language, it’s important to understand the context and customs of its people. It’s also fun to explore a new way of thinking and expressing yourself. Who knows, you might identify new aspects of your own personality after learning how other people around the globe express themselves.
We've compiled a list of the most common German idioms so you can speak like a German and have a good laugh! You can keep these idioms in your pocket and check their meaning whenever you are in doubt. Simply download German Translator Dictionary + for free from the App Store 📲 or Google Play.
Let’s dive into these 10 German idioms that will come in handy when you want to express your thoughts and feelings like a native German speaker!
German Idioms about Life
Germany boasts a high quality of life, with metropolises like Berlin and Munich regularly showing up in the top 10 rankings of the most livable cities in the world. There are also some societal characteristics that make living in Germany a pleasant experience, namely Germans’ sense of respect for the collective and their realistic outlook on life.
Nicht alle Tassen im Schrank haben
This German idiom’s literal meaning is “to not have all cups in the cupboard.” It is a figurative way to describe someone who is not quite right in the head and it suggests a lack of intelligence. Germans are generally orderly people, and don’t tend to leave drinking vessels lying about. Instead, they keep them neatly organized in their cupboards. For someone to be German and go against well established order, there must be something off with them.
einen Kater haben
On average, Germans drank 131.3 liters (34.7 gallons) of alcoholic beverages in 2018, which is equivalent to a bathtub-full of beer, wine, and spirits. It’s clear then, that Germans would need an expression to describe a hangover, as it’s an all-to familiar sensation for Germans. The German idiom to express the feeling of fatigue, dizziness, and headaches after an alcohol-filled night out is “to have a tomcat.” In case you indulge in too many Pilsners, or Kölschs or any of Germany’s many beer varieties, one evening, you can now say “Ich habe einen Kater.” But rather, drink responsibly and Prost! (cheers) away.
Das Haar in der Suppe suchen
Finding a strand of hair in your soup is quite unappealing. Yet, there are people who actively “look for hair in their soup,” as this German idiom colorfully depicts. This German expression is used to characterize people who are nitpicky and often exercise their need to criticize. It reveals a pessimistic outlook on life and it’s certainly a behavior that’s frowned upon by Germans. Instead, Germans would rather view life through a more realistic lens.
Nur Bahnhof verstehen
This German expression literally translates to “I only understand train station,” and equates to “It is all Greek to me.” It’s an idiom that alludes to world history, as it derives from American WWI soldiers, who didn’t speak German, expressing that the only thing they could understand when given orders was the name of the train station they were supposed to go to. The history of this German idiom supports the necessity to learn foreign languages for a positive experience abroad.
German Idioms about Food
Germany is not usually remembered for its culinary mastery, but it should be! The aromatic sauerkraut (purple cabbage) and cheesy Spätzle (special egg noodle) are just some examples of traditional German dishes that are to die for. Of course, German sausages and cakes are also worthy of praise, so it’s no wonder they often appear in German idioms.
Er/Sie glaubt, er/sie bekommt eine Extrawurst
Sausages are ever present in German cuisine, being a staple food from breakfast to late-night snacks. For breakfast, Germans usually enjoy the veal and pork Weißwurst topped with sweet mustard, while the famous Currywurst is the standard post-clubbing meal. In light of Germans’ appreciation for sausages, it’s natural that German idioms would mention sausages. This German idiom in particular translates to “He/She thinks he/she gets an extra sausage.” It means that someone is over confident and thinks they are deserving of special attention. Another often heard German idiom with the word Wurst is “Das ist mir Wurst,” meaning “I don’t care, it’s all the same to me.” “Die beleidigte Leberwurst spielen” is also a common German idiom with sausage, which translates to “play the offended liver sausage.” It is used to describe someone who gets all worked up and is unnecessarily offended by something someone else has said. This German idiom is usually employed to reprimand someone for acting this way, “Spiel nicht die beleidigte Leberwurst!”
Sie kochen auch nur mit Wasser
In German culture, humility is a great quality, as is confidence. If you’re struggling with self-confidence by comparing yourself to others or know someone who behaves this way, remember this German idiom, which translates to “they also only cook with water.” In essence, it explains that people are only human, with no one being inherently better than anyone else. It levels the playing field and sets a good life lesson. Just don’t take this to mean that Germans actually only cook with water. German food is far from being steamed and bland. It’s actually deliciously flavorful, as Germans prefer to cook with butter than water.
Niemals den Kuchen vor dem Anschnitt loben
This German idiom literally translates to "Never praise the cake before the cut." In English, one might say “Don't count your chickens before they're hatched." In either case, the expression warns one not to anticipate how something might turn out, as no one can predict the future. It’s wise to keep your expectations in check in life, and praising something before knowing the real outcome might even jinx it. Now, while the English version alludes to a rural lifestyle, the German idiom reflects the Germans’ sweet tooth. Germany is known for its cakes, which are decadent, ranging from fruity to chocolatey. Must-tries include the Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, a specialty from the Black Forest region, and the buttery Frankfurter Kranz from Frankfurt. When it comes to German cakes, it’s completely fine to have high expectations, because even the highest expectations will be exceeded by Germany’s baked goods.
German Idioms about Love
Germany is called the land of poets and thinkers (das Land der Dichter und Denker), so it is fair to expect that German idioms about love would be equal parts romantic and insightful. And they are just that.
Liebe geht durch den Magen
This German idiom literally means “love goes through the stomach,” which corresponds to the English saying “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” As you can tell, the German version applies to all genders, because Germans know that a home cooked meal is a delicious expression of love and also an infallible tactic to win someone’s affection. In Germany, you get bonus points if you cook with bio ingredients, because Germans also have a love affair with organic produce.
Bis über beide Ohren verliebt sein
“I’m in love until over both ears” might sound illogical, but doesn’t being in love make everyone a little crazy? This German idiom brings to life the overwhelming and giddy feeling of being in love. In English, the equivalent is “to be head over heels in love.” In both cases, it’s clear that love doesn’t just affect the heart, but instead manifests itself throughout the whole body. If you’re feeling inspired to get together with your crush for a movie night or want to be solo and cozy up to the German language, check out Netflix’s German rom-com Issi & Ossi.
Auf Wolke sieben schweben
This German idiom translates to “float on cloud seven,” and describes the blissful happiness of being in love. It used to be that one realized they were in love if they suddenly noticed the chirping of birds, the sun’s warm rays, and the blue skies above. Nowadays, signs of love include inconspicuously laughing while being on your phone, sharing memes, and serenading someone with Harry Styles’ iconic words “I’d walk through fire for you. Just let me adore you.”
Practice these German sayings again and again, because there’s no better way to showcase your German skills and impress the natives than by incorporating these German idioms in your conversations!
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Bis später ! (So long!)