Idioms are common to all languages, and often share meanings while using different phrases. For instance, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” has versions in most languages of the world.
Below we present 10 German idioms that will make you sound like a local and bring your conversational skills to the next level.
But first, what is an idiom? An idiom is a phrase with an understood meaning that isn’t represented by the words themselves. As with the above “bird” example, it doesn’t really have anything to do with birds, bushes, or even hands. But, it has an intrinsic meaning that is immediately understood by native speakers. Dropping appropriate idioms into conversation shows a cultural understanding of the language and can give your anecdotes personality beyond technical language skills.
1: ICH VERSTEHE NUR BAHNHOF
Literally translates as: “I can only understand train station”.
The English equivalent would be, “It’s all Greek to me”. This idiom is appropriate in similar situations as the English version, and is used to describe something that is not clearly understood. For example, “Do you comprehend this algebra?”. “Hey, it’s all Greek to me!”.
2: DEN NAGEL AUF DEN KOPF TREFFEN
Literally translates as: “To hit the nail on the head”.
This is one of the few idioms that has a corresponding direct English translation and usage. If someone is dead-on correct in their assumption, they’ve “hit the nail on the head”.
3: TOMATEN AUF DEN AUGEN HABEN
Literally translates as: “To have tomatoes on one’s eyes”.
There isn’t really an English version of this German idiom, but it means “To be blind to the obvious going on around you”. If someone is oblivious to their partner cheating on them, for example, then this idiom is perfect to describe the situation. “Stefans Freundin betrügt ihn, aber er hat Tomaten auf den Augen”, or, “Steve’s girlfriend is cheating on him, but he has tomatoes on his eyes”.
4: DA STEPPT DER BÄR / DA FLIEGT DIE KUH
Literally translates as: “Here, the bear dances” / “Here, the cow flies”.
This idiom is used when having a great night out, or at an event where everyone is having a lot of fun and partying hard. The English equivalent would be “this party/event kicks ass” or “this party is totally lit”.
5: HIMMEL UND HÖLLE IN BEWEGUNG SETZEN
Literally translates as: “To set heaven and hell in motion”.
An almost, but not quite, direct equivalent of the English idiom “To move heaven and earth”. This impassioned phrase is useful to describe one’s willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve a goal.
6: EINE EXTRAWURST VERLANGEN
Literally translates as: “To ask for an extra sausage”.
This idiom is used when someone is asking for special treatment, as in, “Sie ist die Tochter des Chefs, sie bekommt immer eine Extrawurst”, or, “She is the boss’ daughter, she always receives special treatment”.
7: ZWEI FLIEGEN MIT EINER KLAPPE SCHLAGEN
Literally translates as: “Kill two flies with one swat”.
This idiom can be used in the same situations where the English version “Kill two birds with one stone” is appropriate. For example, “Let’s kill two flies with one swat by visiting both of our families in one trip”.
8: SICH ZUM AFFEN MACHEN
Literally translates as: “To make an ape of oneself”.
“To make a fool of oneself” is the English equivalent, and it can be used in all similar situations. “Frederick will not get the job because during the interview he [hat sich zum Affen gemacht]”.
9: DA KANNST DU GIFT DRAUF NEHMEN
Literally translates as: “You can take poison on that”.
In English, the equivalent of this phrase—and its shared situations for use—is, “You can bet your life on that”. As in, “She’s going to be a famous actor one day—da kannst Du Gift drauf nehmen”.
10: MAN SOLL DEN TAG NICHT VOR DEM ABEND LOBEN
Literally translates as: “Don’t praise the day before the evening”.
This phrase is used in similar situations where the English idiom “Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched” might be used. Essentially, the phrase forewarns of counting on something before it happens.
Idioms are evidence of the commonalities of the human experience, where phrases have developed in countries far-flung from one another to describe similar human foibles and common situations. Mastering idioms can give your technically fluent conversations that extra human touch so endearing to native speakers.