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German Idioms

Raucht Ihnen der Kopf (does your head spin) when studying German? Maybe it does because the German language is rich in idioms and you may have trouble understanding the language if you do not know its idiomatic expressions. Idioms are peculiar combinations of words that allow you to convey a specific message. Most of the times, if you do not know an idiom and just look at the words that make it up, you will be confused. Yet, the words have a very clear meaning exactly because they are put together in that bizarre way. That's the uniqueness and greatness of idioms. If you learn German idioms, you will master some of the most suggestive phrases of the German language and will be able to express yourself in the same way a German native speaker does.

You could consider a language as being completely made up of idioms. Each language has a certain set of rules that govern the way words are put together to express facts, ideas, and feelings. The rules and their exceptions are unique to the language, despite possible similarities with other languages. In this sense, a language is always idiomatic. Within this general consideration, we usually think of 'idioms' as unique phrases: we use them to express something that other, more general sentences can't express just as well. It is important to learn idioms to be able to communicate well. They are also interesting to study because of the insight they give us into the language and the people who use them. These expressions originate in the history, literature, religion, and traditions typical of a certain community. For this reason, idioms reveal much of the way of thinking of a community.

In most languages, we cannot fully express ourselves or understand others if we do not know the most common idioms. It is possible to speak German without using specific idioms, of course, but then our German would be incomplete, like a painting where some colors have been taken away. Idioms spice up the German language and give it the most vibrant colors. German idioms are very widely used in all social circles and circumstances: idiomatic expressions are used in conversation as well as in media and literature. Therefore, learning German idioms will enhance your language skills. A good command of German idioms will make your mastery of the German language complete!

What are German idioms?

An idiom is 'a group of words with a meaning of its own that is different from the meaning of each separate word put together' -- Longman, Dictionary of Contemporary English. Even if you know the meaning of each word, you may not understand the idiom itself. If you translate 'Hals über Kopf' (neck over head) word by word, you could hardly guess that the expression actually means 'in a mad hurry.'

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As a matter of fact, the literal translation of an idiom is often absurd or comical. The German phrase 'mit jemandem unter vier Augen sprechen' literally translates as 'to talk with someone under four eyes,' but the meaning is 'to talk privately with someone.'
The word-by-word translation of the German idiom 'mit jemandem ein Hühnchen zu rupfen haben' is 'to have a young chicken to pluck with someone,' but the corresponding English idiom is 'to have a bone to pick with someone.'
The rather sinister German expression 'aus seinem Herzen keine Mördergrube machen' (not to make a murderers' hiding place out of one's heart) means 'to speak frankly' or 'to make no bones about it.'




Idioms give you a wonderful insight into the imagery of a language. It is interesting to compare similar idioms in different languages. You can spot how the German language has a preference for certain objects, items of clothing, or even parts of the body when compared to English:


den Hut nehmen müssen (must take the hat)
to have to pack one's bags

nicht in jemandes Haut stecken wollen (not to want to be stuck in someone's skin)
not to want to be in someone's shoes

dumm wie Bohnenstroh sein (to be as dumb as a bundle of bean straw)
to be as thick as two short planks, to be very stupid

jemandem ein Dorn im Auge sein (to be a thorn in someone's eye)
to be a thorn in someone's side

wie warme Semmeln weggehen (to go away like hot bread rolls)
to sell like hot cakes

Study German idioms to improve your language skills!

The image created by the literal meaning of an idiom can be used very effectively to help you remember that idiom. Here are just two examples of German idioms that can be easily retained thinking of the images they evoke. The English idiom 'to make a mountain out of a molehill' is 'aus einer Mücke einen Elefanten machen' (to make an elephant out of a mosquito) in German. To remember the German idiom, you can easily picture a tiny mosquito changing into a big elephant. The English 'as fit as a fiddle' becomes 'gesund wie ein Fisch im Wasser' (as healthy as a fish in the water) in German. To memorize this German phrase, you can think of a healthy fish swimming in clear waters.

Even though using the images of the literal translation is an effective and fun way to learn German idioms, the literal translation alone is deceiving. The real meaning of the German idiom has to be learned in context to be correctly understood. It is necessary to study idioms within sentences. A proper example makes the meaning and the use clear.
The German idiom 'für die Katz sein' literally means 'to be for the cat,' but the English equivalent is 'to be a waste of time.' Here's an example: 'Dr. Schmitts Forschungsarbeit ist leider für die Katz. Dr. Frankenstein hat dieselbe Maschine schon vor drei Jahren konstruiert. = Unfortunately, Dr. Schmitt's research is a waste of time. Dr. Frankenstein has already designed the same machine.' You may initially be tempted to think that Dr. Schmitt literally gives his research to the cat, but the real meaning of the expression becomes apparent when put into context.

Where do German idioms come from?

Nowadays, most German idioms do not make sense when we look at their literal translation because they refer to language structures or cultural aspects that are not relevant anymore. Some idioms were created by repeated use of speech formulas that have been corrupted through time. Others reflect customs whose origin is now lost or traditions that have faded over time. The German expression 'jemandem in den Sack stecken' (to put someone in the sack) means 'to put someone in the shade.' It seems to derive from a practice used in medieval jousting tournaments, where the defeated contestant was sometimes put into a leather sack attached to the winner's horse and dragged around in front of the crowd. The German idiom 'Das ist Jacke wie Hose.' (This is jacket like trousers.) is rendered in English as 'It makes no difference.' This German phrase apparently originated from a change in fashion in the 17th century. At that time, different items of clothing started to be made of the same material. For instance, the top and bottom parts of a man suit would be made of the same kind of fabric. Hence there was no difference between jackets and trousers as far as the material was concerned.

Other German idioms may have originated from the mist of times, but are still easily understood today. For instance, 'ins Schwarze treffen' (to hit in the black) means 'to hit the nail on the head' in English. In the German expression there is a clear reference to the black center of a target, e.g. an archery target. Because we still use targets with a black center today, it is easy to understand that the idiom refers to the perfect 'shot' of someone able to hit the central spot.

The Bible is a great source of popular expressions in German as well as in English. For instance, 'zur Salzsäule erstarren' (to solidify into a column of salt) means 'to stand as though rooted to the spot.' The image of turning into a pillar of salt comes from the Bible where it is told that Moses' wife Lot was turned into a statue of salt for having looked back at the city of Sodoma being destroyed by fire.
'Dem Kaiser geben, was des Kaisers ist' (give to Caesar what is of Caesar) is a quote from Matthew's Gospel, where Jesus explains about the relationship between religion and State. From Matthew comes also the famous saying 'Der Mensch lebt nicht vom Brot allein' (man does not live by bread alone), while from the Old Testament comes the expression 'ein Rufer in der Wüste' (a preacher in the desert), which translates into English as 'a lone voice crying in the wilderness.'

Speak German like a native: learn German idioms!

Many German idioms may have derived from very common, everyday experiences that are valid to this day. The German phrase 'jemandem die Suppe versalzen' (to put too much salt into someone's soup) means 'to spoil things for someone.' Clearly, too much salt in the soup would spoil anybody's meal!
The German expression 'sich keine grauen Haare über etwas wachsen lassen' (not to let gray hair grow on one's head over something) means 'not to loose any sleep over something' in English. This German idiom comes from the observation that people who worry a lot sometimes grow gray hair.
The equivalent of 'Wo drückt der Schuh?' is 'What's the trouble?' in English, but the literal translation is 'Where does the shoe pinch?' A shoe that is too tight is surely a problem! In fact, the origin of this expression can be traced back to ancient Rome. Plutarch, the Greek biographer and philosopher, wrote in his work 'Coniugalia Praecepta' that someone asked a man from Rome why he had divorced his virtuous and pretty wife. The man replied that his shoe was also beautiful to look at and new, but nobody other than him knew where it pinched his foot.

Why should you learn German idioms?


As you can see from their colorful images and history, German idioms are fun to learn. To get to know their origin is fascinating. There is also a practical side to them, however. Idioms are commonly used in the German language, both in speech and in writing. That's why it is important to learn them. Examples in everyday conversations are endless, but it is easy to find idioms in printed sources as well. Die Zeit is a highly regarded German weekly paper that covers politics, business, science, art, and culture. It titled one of his articles "Ein Schlag ins Wasser." This German idiom literally means 'a blow in the water' and the equivalent English idiom is 'a flop.' This same idiomatic expression was used as the title of a television movie as well as the title of an article in the Kölnische Rundschau, a newspaper published in the German city of Cologne.


Learning German idioms is assured to entertain and educate anyone interested in the language. These sayings are part of the fabric of the German language because they are used in many different circumstances, in everyday conversations as well as in written works. Idiomatic phrases are a vital part of the way German-speaking people express themselves. Sometimes a comment can be made only using an idiom; no other expression would do. If your German is idiomatic, it is typical of the way in which someone using his or her own language speaks and writes. For this reason, if you learn idioms, your German will become as lively and complete as that of a native speaker. Studying idioms will add a distinctive flavor to your use of the German language and bring your skills to the highest level of proficiency.

Spice up your knowledge of the German language!

To learn more about how German idioms are used in everyday language and how you can learn them, take this German Idioms Class.

More about this topic in the reviews of German idioms books from the LearnPlus German language tutors.

Good luck, or better said: Hals- und Beinbruch (break neck and leg)!
The LearnPlus Team


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