Learning German Idioms: Six Examples

What Are Idioms and Why Do We Care?

Despite being the second most spoken language in Europe and the tenth most spoken language in the world, German retains an air of mystery for many native English speakers. Most readers would find it surprising that German is the fifth most spoken language in America. The German language has over 185 million native and non-native speakers worldwide and is the second-language choice for students all over the world.

Idioms are phrases or expressions that are unique to a particular language. Defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “a speech form or an expression of a given language that is peculiar to itself grammatically or cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements,” idioms are key to understanding the soul of a language. Idioms point to a shared experience and culture between speakers of the same language. Idioms and other similar colloquial phrases spice up a language by giving it much of its vibrancy and texture. The German language is rich in idioms.

At first, understanding German idioms can be confusing for non-native speakers, especially students. Looking up the individual words that make up an idiomatic expression in a German to English dictionary will confound the student as the words on their own won't make any sense; the entire phrase has to be taken into account when dealing with idioms. Because of this, students of the German language must study idioms in the same way as they do vocabulary. Baseline knowledge is required when dealing with idioms in any language; this knowledge cannot be had intuitively and can only come from study and experience speaking the language.

It can be quite humorous to translate German idioms word for word into English and end up with bizarre sentences that make absolutely no sense. The reverse is also true; native German speakers would either be snorting in laughter or scratching their heads in confusion at some common English idioms translated into German. The following examples highlight this by giving the intended and literal meanings of several German idioms.

Break A Leg!

  • The idiom “to have to pack one's bags” is “den Hut nehmen müssen” in German, which literally translates to English as “must take the hat.”
  • In English one might use the phrase “I wouldn't want to be in his shoes” but his German counterpart would say “nicht in jemandes Haut stecken wollen,” which translates to the decidedly more sinister phrase “not to want to be stuck in someone's skin.”
  • Staying on the sinister theme, the common English idiom “to be a thorn in someone's side” is “jemandem ein Dorn im Auge sein” in German, which translates to “to be a thorn in someone's eye” in English.
  • In English we say a popular item in a shop “sells like hot cakes” where in Germany the same item would “wie warme Semmeln weggehen,” or “go away like hot bread rolls.”
  • While English speakers wish someone good luck by telling them to “break a leg,” their German counterparts go the extra step and say “Hals- und Beinbruch” or “break neck and leg!” When translated word for word from the original German, these examples are similar enough to their English counterparts that the casual observer would still be able to decipher their meaning.

Does This Make Sense?

Here are some examples of idioms in German that, when translated, make absolutely no sense in English. The only way in which a student can familiarize themselves with such idioms is by studying their usage in complete sentences.

  • The German idiom “für die Katz sein” is literally translated to “to be for the cat,” but its English counterpart is “to be a waste of time.”
  • Another example is "Das ist Jacke wie Hose" which translates into English as the cryptic phrase “this is jacket like trousers” whose English equivalent is “it makes no difference.”

All the idioms listed above and many more can be found at the idioms page on the LearnPlus Language Guides website. About.com has a special section devoted to German idioms that can be an invaluable resource for those interested in the subject.

The study of German idioms will educate and entertain anyone interested in the language. Using idioms when one speaks in German is a sign of proficiency in the language and will surely impress any native German speakers.