Every language has its idioms that leaves non-native speakers nonplussed. If you are a vacationing German in the US and you hear someone say “It’s raining cats and dogs”, what they mean is “it’s raining really hard”. People’s tabbies and terriers aren’t actually falling from the sky. If they are, then you are probably in Kansas and a tornado has passed over a nearby pet store. Quickly try to catch as many as you can while running back to your car. Then get the hell out of there before someone else, further down the road, says “It’s raining cats and dogs…and German tourists”.
The German language, like English, also has its perplexing expressions. Unlike English, the sheer amount of German idioms, combined with the fact that they are almost entirely about pigs or food, will leave you “kratzen dein Kopf” (scratching your head).
The following is a list of German idioms, followed by their almost literal English translations, their actual meaning, and my somewhat sallow comments.
Keep in mind that these are German expressions, and so many involve Wurst (sausage). This simple fact will titillate the perverted mind of the average American, but please know that these expressions are without carnal intent. Germans are nothing if not honest, and so they rarely disguise their sexual colloquialisms. They don’t “beat around the bush” as we Americans do. Rather, if a German is stalling, they will “Um den heißen Brei herumreden” (talk around the hot stew). See? There’s the first food reference. Now that your whistles have been whet, let’s dig in, shall we?
1). Jetzt geht’s um die Wurst (Now it goes around the sausage). Right off the bat, your mind has taken a turn into dirty town, hasn’t it? Get your mind out of the gutter, weirdo. Rather, it means the real meaning of a conversation, or “the heart of matter”. In Germany, sausage = important.
2). Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof (I understand only train station). This means that you do not understand what in the hell the other person is saying, at all. Applicable when speaking to small children laden with fantasy, and unqualified presidents. Pretty much the same thing, really.
3). Sie spielt die beleidigte Leberwurst (she’s playing the insulted liver sausage). Someone who has been easily offended, and is being very melodramatic about it. Have I mentioned unqualified presidents?
4). Ich glaube ich Spinne (I think I spider). No, you are not communing with arachnids. Spinne means spider, but it also means crazy. By saying this, you are so completely amazed that you must be going crazy. “That An American In Germany guy is so funny, ich glaube ich Spinne”, said no one ever.
5). Du hast es faustdick hinter den Ohren (You have it fist thick behind the ears). Because Eve says this to me constantly, I used to think it was a good thing. Turns out, it isn’t…and is. It means, “brat” and, according to Linguee “a sly old dog”. Sly? Old? Dog? Boy, does she have my number. Germans won’t understand that last bit, which serves them right. Tit for tat.
6). Das ist nicht mein Bier (That’s not my beer). If you hear someone say this, it means that something “is not their concern”. Unless, however, you are having a beer with them and you are drinking Budweiser. Then they probably mean that it is not their choice of beer because it is disgusting.
7). Jetzt mal Butter bei die Fische (Now butter by the fish). This one, naturally means, “relax” or “chill out”. Wait, what? Butter by the fish? This one was clearly the “drop the mic” stumble-off winner at the “come up with random expressions while drunk as hell” competition.
8). Hier ist die tote Hose (Here is the dead trousers). Uneventful. Nothing going on here. One doesn’t need a lot of imagination to figure out where this one came from, though I will give the metaphorically-challenged a clue: Germany = beer. Too much beer = dead trousers. Still don’t get it? Then your thirst has clearly been satisfied. Your partner, not so much.
9). Mein lieber Herr Gesangsverein (My lovely Mister singing club). This one is similar to the one above, but in a bad way. Why a singing club? Why mister? And why lovely? Decipher these questions and you will have won. Won what? The admiration of a nation who also has no idea what this expression means.
10). Jemanden Honig um den Mund schmieren (smear honey around someone’s mouth). The English equivalent, I suppose, would be “kissing someone’s ass”. I prefer the German expression, though the combination of the two would at least taste better.
11). Ich glaube mein Schwein pfeift (I think my pig pipes). Like “I think I spider“, this is yet another exclamation at something unbelievable, yet a bit more impactful.
Mensch #1: “I think my pig pipes”.
Mensch #2: “What happened”?
Mensch #1: “No, I mean, I think my pig can really play the flute”.
Mensch #2: “I think I spider”!
12). Du bist du auf dem Holzweg (There you are on the wood way). This means that you are on the wrong path toward your goal. You want to seem mature, yet you sleep in a Bat Man bed? At your parents house? Or the White House? Du bist auf dem Holzweg.
13). Du gehst mir tierisch auf den Keks (You walk me animally on the cookie). You are really annoying me. I imagine some baker/father from long ago giving his child cookies to quiet his incessant “I am three and must ask every question ever conceived” questions. Maybe this is how animal crackers (cookies, really) originated.
14). Entschuldige, mein Englisch ist unter aller Sau (Sorry, my English is under all pig). This one I find slightly offensive. It means, “Sorry, but my English is terrible”, but why under all pig? It’s not like we Americans have a reputation for acting like… Wait… Okay, never mind.
15). Du bist so ein Angsthase (You are such a fear rabbit). One that is afraid of everything. We have “scaredy-cats”, Germans have “fear rabbits”. Like in that old Monty Python movie, I imagine them with “big pointy teeth”.
16). Holla die Waldfee (Holla the forest fairy). An exclamation of happy surprise. I can’t help it, but every time I hear this, I always think “forest fairy” and then can’t help singing “The Lumberjack Song”.
“…I cut down trees, I wear high heels. Suspendies and a bra.
I wish I’d been a girlie, just like my dear papa”.
I’m beginning to think that many a Monty Python skit were based on German expressions…
17). Es ist nicht gut Kirschen essen mit dir (It is not good cherry eating with you). It is very difficult to get along with/do anything with you. Maybe this guy makes weird slurping noises while eating cherries, or insists on showing you how he can tie the stem into a knot, every time. Either way, this dovetails nicely with our expression “Life is a bowl of cherries”, meaning life is great. Or at least it would be, if it wasn’t for this guy.
18.) Es ist mir Wurst (it is me sausage). Insert a comma into this one and it would appear that whomever said this is a sausage. In reality, it means “it doesn’t matter to me”. Someday, I am going to attend a conference and write “Wurst” on my name tag. When someone asks, I’ll say, “What do you mean? It’s me, sausage”! Then I’ll erupt into a fit of laughter and, years later, die alone.
19). Ich muss die Brötchen verdienen (I must the bread rolls earn). This is essentially the same as our “I need to bring home the bacon”. As the delicious offspring of a German/American union where both spouses worked, this is clearly how the BLT was born. As for the lettuce, I assume that they had a garden. You don’t have to bring home what you can grow at home, right?
20). Ich lach mich tot (I laugh me dead). The German equivalent of “LOL”, this one simply means “that is so funny”. Possibly born from an American playing with name tags, most likely with a heart condition. Note to self: Lay off the bacon.
That’s it. Bacon is where I am leaving you. More of a whimper than a bang, really. Regardless of whether you were enthralled or overwhelmingly underwhelmed, this list was compiled as a public service to any English-speaker who might one day visit Germany, but mostly for those whom are dating, or are married to, a German. When one has a spouse whose nationality is different from their own, I think it’s important that they both teach each other about their culture’s idiosyncrasies. This way, they each can get as close as possible to having a full understanding of what makes them who they are. Cultural expressions are, of sorts, a gateway into the national mind that makes someone who they are.
For example, today I learned that when a German screws up, they say “I built a shit” (ich habe eine Scheiße gebaut). Good to know, and interesting, but not particularly overwhelming. My parry, and because we have a young toddler at home that thankfully doesn’t really understand anything we say, was to teach Eve the words to our dubious national anthem disguised as a crass children’s song, “Do your boobs hang low?”.
I thought that I had won this round but, because she has it stuck in her head and is now singing it non-stop, I realize that not only did she win, but that I just may have built a shit.
Since I am married, however, I am used to losing to my better half and so don’t really care.
After all, it is me, sausage.