Germans LOVE idioms. I can’t say for sure if they actually use them more than us English speakers but it is sometimes my impression. I’m constantly being asked to come up with an English equivalent to some random bizarre phrase.
So, what exactly is an idiom? It’s basically an expression with a figurative meaning that is different from the literal meaning. While it’s nice to know some and they do make a language more colourful and fun, when you are speaking a foreign language they can go wrong very quickly and cause major confusion/embarrassment. So, before I share some of my favourite German ones (and their English equivalents), a few words of advice if you are planning to add idioms to your foreign language repertoire:
- Don’t just translate them word for word from your native language and hope for the best. While some can be translated directly and still have the same meaning, many don’t translate at all.
For example, in English, if you’re the gooseberry (Stachelbeere) you are the extra person on a romantic date i.e. you are spending the evening with a couple. I assume you are the gooseberry because your spikey skin makes you no fun to hang out with and you make the evening uncomfortable for the other two. But in German, you’re the third wheel. As in the extra wheel on a bicycle. Unnecessary and just downright silly. One of my Bulgarian clients once told me that in Bulgarian, you are the lamp. Meaning you are the desk lamp leaning between the couple and generally getting in the way.
- Learn them by heart so you get them exactly right. Even the slightest mistake in an idiom can mess it up completely. It’s like learning a joke and then getting the punch line wrong. Nobody’s laughing with you, just at you.
- Be careful when using them in business. People might take them literally. I once had a Russian client whose new Australian colleague kept telling her to “Shut up!”. Naturally, she was horrified and I was too until we figured out he was using it to show his surprise e.g. Mr Smith just got fired, “Shut up!” in the sense of “no way, really, get outta here!”. That is an extreme example but misunderstandings can easily happen if someone takes your idiom literally.
- Make sure your idiom is still in popular use. How many times have I heard the Germans describe heavy rain in English as “it’s raining cats and dogs”. Yes, it is an English idiom but, in my opinion, a bit out of date. Can’t remember the last time I heard a native use that phrase. Maybe you learnt it in school but that doesn’t mean you should believe everything your textbook (from 20 years ago) told you. Deutsch Heute told me that every Imbiss (snack) stand in Germany served Schaschlik (some sort of kebab as far as I’m aware). Really? My search for Schaschlik still continues.
Anyway, despite the pitfalls, it can be good fun to use idioms, so here are 5 of my favourite German idioms (with their literal English translation and their real equivalent)
1. Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof (Literally): I only understand train station
So, this has nothing to do with stations, rather the person is in a state of confusion and hasn’t understood anything you just told them. A good English equivalent would be “It’s all Greek to me.”
2. Ich glaube ich bin im falschen Film (Literally): I think I’m in the wrong film
The speaker can’t believe what is happening e.g. “I can’t believe my eyes/This can’t be happening”.
3. Affentheater (Literally): Ape theatre
Probably my current favourite phrase to describe the Brexit situation i.e. “What a charade”. Enough said.
4. Ganz grosses Kino (Literally): Really big cinema
This can actually be used when referring to films but can also be used to mean something was visually amazing or impressive. English version, “It was amazing/epic”.
And of course, they wouldn’t be German idioms if there wasn’t one involving sausage:
5. Die beleidigte Leberwurst (Literally): The insulted liver sausage
This is used to describe someone who is insulted and sulking for a petty reason. One of my clients recently used it to describe Bayern Munich after their defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt in the cup final. Sticking out their bottom lips and marching off into the changing rooms in a huff. Perfect example. The English equivalent would be “to be in a huff/to get bent out of shape”. No idea why it has to be leberwurst (liver sausage) or even sausage at all for that matter. But Germany wouldn’t be Germany without some wurst.
Obviously, there are hundreds more of these. These are just 5 of my favourites. Let me know (in the comments below) if you have any idioms you like to use and their translation.