When you reach an intermediate level of German, it’s great to learn some German idioms so you’ll sound like a native speaker. We’ve gathered 25 German expressions to get you started. If you’re a beginner, Rype also has a complete list of useful German phrases for beginners.
Ein Affentheater aufführen.
Literally: To perform a charade. Use it to say: to exaggerate. Background: The compound word Aftentheater appears to bring together the norse word aften which means ‘evening’ and the Greek word θέατρος, or ‘theater’. So an ‘evening theater’ mixing Norse and Greek words in one becomes the German word for charade. In order to get our point across in charades, we often need to use exaggerations.
Dort steppt/tanzt der Bär
Literally: The bear steps/dances there. Use it to say: something is going on there, something is wrong there. Background: This expression may be inspired from medieval fairs, where bears were trained for dancing and paraded around. Today, animal cruelty laws in the European Union forbid this.
Unter einer Decke stecken
Literally: To put under a blanket. Use it to say: to engage in a secret operation with somebody. Background: This expression comes from an old German marriage law, according to which the marriage was considered closed, when the newlyweds in the presence of witnesses went under a common blanket.
Das Ei des Kolumbus
Literally: The egg of Columbus. Use it to say: An easy solution for a problem that appears to be difficult to solve. It’s a great idea or discovery that after the fact seems easy or simple. Background: According to art historian Giorgio Vasari, it was Filippo Brunelleschi, not Christopher Columbus who made an egg stand by crushing its tip. But instead of being the ‘egg of Brunelleschi’ it’s known as the ‘egg of Columbus’
as Haar in der Suppe suchen/finden
Literally: Find/Search for the hair in the soup. Use it to say: only notice the negative aspects. Background: If you find a hair in the soup, you mind really have a reason to complain. I like suchen to look for the hair in the soup, because then you’re looking for something negative that you might not even be there.
Ich glaube mein Schwein pfeift
Literally: I think my pig whistles. Use it to say: That’s absurd. Background: This expression mentions a surreal situation, since pigs do not whistle. So it points to something that one can not understand. This German idiom appears to date from the 1960s.
Es is alles in Butter.
Literally: It is all in butter. Use it to say: Everything is ok. Background: There are a few interpretations about the origin of this expression. Germans definitely like to cook in butter and no surprise if that would mean things are going alright.
Da fresse ich glatt einen Besen.
Literally: So I smoothly eat a broom. Use it to say: I can’t believe it. Background: This one is hard to translate literally, because German has essen and fressen. Essen means ‘to eat’ and is used when humans are eating. and fressen also means ‘to eat’ but is used when animals are eating. When German speakers use fressen to say humans are eating, it’s always derogatory because it implies eating like a pig, without manners or awareness.
Da haben wir den Salat.
Literally: We have the salad there. Use it to say: Now we have a problem. Background: Since about the mid 19th century, German speakers have been using the word salad to denote confusion and disorder.
Wir sitzen schōn in der Tinte!
Literally: We sit beautifully in the ink! Use it to say: We are in a bad situation. Background: This expression appears to be quite old as a 1520 text from Geiler von Kaisersberg writes “Du bist voller Sünd,… du steckst mitten in der Tincten” which literally means, ‘you are full of sin…you are in the middle of tinctures.’
Das geht ab wie Schmitz’ Katze.
Literally: That goes like Schmitz’s cat. It works like Schmitz’s cat. Use it to say: That is fast. That is powerful. Background unknown.
Das ist mir Wurst.
Literally: That is my sausage. Use it to say: I don’t care. Background unknown.
Die Kacke ist am dampfen.
Literally: The caca is steaming. Use it to say: There is a lot of tension in the air. Background: no explanation needed.
Literally: Sponge over. Use it to say: Don’t worry about that. Background: Since you can use a sponge to wipe over something that has spilled on a counter top, this expression implies how easy it is to clean something up and to move on.
Jetzt Butter bei die Fische
Literally: Now butter at the fish. Use it to say: Now be honest / Get to work / Give extra effort. Background: This idiom originally comes from northern Germany and appears to have kept a local grammatical form. Since butter is added to the fish just before the start of the meal, the person who gives butter ‘at’ the fish, can start with the meal. Figuratively this means that can get to the point. This expression has been around since the mid 1800’s.
Literally: Human, Meier. Use it to say: Gee / jeepers creepers! Background: In the early Middle Ages, the Meier was the steward of a noble landlord. Generally speaking, he was considered a person of authority. In their fairy tales, the brothers Grimm began to use the term Meier to mean, ‘guy’
Bring mich nicht auf die Palme.
Literally: Don’t bring me on the palm tree. Use it to say: Don’t get me started / don’t get me angry. Background unknown.
Mein zweites Ich
Literally: My second I. Use to say: My alter ego. Background: from the Greek εγώ meaning ‘I’ and Freudian psychology.
Das ist Jacke wie Hose.
Literally: That is the jacket same as / like trousers. Use to say: it is equal, there’s no difference. Background unknown.
Alles auf eine Karte setzen
Literally: To put all on one map. Use to say: Put all your eggs in one basket. Background unknown.
Knall und Fall
Literally: Bang and fall. Use to say: Suddenly. Without prior notice. Background: It’s probably a term from hunters where it seems the hunter shoots and at nearly the same moment the prey falls to the ground.
Die Kuh vom Eis holen.
Literally: Bring the cow off the ice. Use it to say: avert imminent danger. Get out of a dangerous situation. Background: cows don’t do well on ice. They slip and break their legs. German farmers hate it when their cows wander on the ice in the wintertime.
Das sind zwei Paar Stiefel.
Literally: Those are two pairs of boots. Use to say: Those are two different, unrelated matters. Background unknown.
Eine gute Quelle haben – wissen.
Literally: To have/ know a good water source/spring. Use to say: To know where to get something. Background: water is such a vital part of life.
Bist Du notgeil, oder was?
Literally: are you desperately horny, or what? Use it to say: Are you desperate? Background: Quite a number of German idioms are sometimes better left untranslated. This is perhaps the one on the list that best fits this category.
If you can’t resist seeing more geil German expressions, you might want to check out Buzzfeed’s article German idioms better left untranslated.
On YouTube, The Intrepid Guide to German has some great German idioms to share with you:
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