German is known as the language of poets and thinkers, so it should be no surprise that there’s an abundance of German idioms, proverbs, and unique phrases. Some of them line up fairly well with their English equivalents, while others are more unusual for second language speakers.
Sprinkling German idioms into your conversations will certainly make you sound more like a native speaker. So let’s learn some of them!
Idioms for everyday use
1. Fix und fertig
Literally: fixed/quick and finished
While fix und fertig literally means ‘fix/quick and finished,’ when people say this they don’t mean something was done quickly. Instead, when people say this they are indicating that they’re exhausted. An English equivalent might be ‘beat.’
2. Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof
Literally: I only understand train station
This comes from when travelers in Germany ask for directions but can only understand the word Bahnhof!
The English equivalent would be ‘it’s all Greek to me.’ Like its English equivalent, you’ll hear native Germans using it today as well, not just confused travelers. Here’s an example:
Hast du unsere Hausaufgaben gemacht? (Have you done our homework?)
Nein, ich verstehe nur Bahnhof. (No, it’s all Greek to me)
3. Man soll den Tag nicht vor dem Abend loben
Literally: one should not laud/count the day before the evening
This is a ‘don’t count your eggs before they hatch’ idiom. Essentially, it means not to count on something happening or being a certain way before that thing is definitive.
4. Alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei
Literally: everything has an end, only wurst has two
This funny German saying exemplifies the importance of wurst in the German world. The closest English idiom is ‘all good things come to an end.’
There’s an inherent German-ness to the idiom that will make you feel like a native speaker when you use it.
5. Jetzt haben wir den Salat
Literally: we have the salad now
For food idiom in a row, we also have the German saying jetzt haben wir den Salat. Idiomatically this saying means ‘now we’re in a right mess.’
You can see the food priorities in Germany from these two idioms: wurst is a good thing that never ends, but salad means a mess.
6. Mit seinem Latein am Ende sein
Literally: to be at the end of his/one’s Latin
This is a must-have German saying for when you invariably get frustrated. The English equivalent is ‘to be at his/one’s wit’s end,’ and you can make it personal by switching the pronoun and verb: mit meinem Latein am Ende bin.
This idiom comes from the fact that Latin is the language of science, so when one reached the furthest edge of their understanding, they were at the ‘end of their Latin.’ Here’s an example:
Was ist los? Du scheinst gestresst zu sein. (What’s wrong? You seem stressed.)
Ich bin mit meinem Latein am Ende mit meinen Kollegen! (I’m at my wit’s end with my colleagues!)
7. Das ist ein Katzensprung
Literally: that is a cat’s jump
If you’re asking directions in German and the location is only a short distance away, you might hear your guide tell you das ist ein Katzensprung. Literally it means ‘that’s a cat’s jump,’ and the English equivalent is ‘that’s/it’s a stone’s throw away.’
8. Etwas wie seine Westentasche kennen
Literally: to know something like one’s coat pocket
Conversely, if you’re the one giving directions in German and you know the area well, you might assure the other person kenne etwas wie meine Westentasche.
The English equivalent is ‘to know something like the back of one’s hand.’ Here’s an example:
Kennen Sie dieses Viertel? (Do you know this neighborhood/district?)
Ja, ich kenne es wie meine Westentasche. (Yes, I know it like the back of my hand)
Idioms for conversations
9. Hast du Tomaten auf den Augen?
Literally: do you have tomatoes on the eyes?
As an idiom, it’s asking someone ‘are you blind?’ This German saying would typically be used for when someone you know asks an obvious question or can’t find something they’re looking for. Here’s an example:
Wo ist meine Sonnenbrille? (Where are my sunlasses?)
Hast du Tomaten auf den Augen? Sie sind auf deinem Gesicht! (Are you blind? They’re on your face!)
10. Du kannst Gift drauf nehmen
Literally: you can take poison on it
If you want to reassure someone that you’ll get something done or that something will happen, then you can tell them du kannst Gift drauf nehmen. The literal translation is a little dark, but colloquially it equates to ‘you can bet your life on it.’ Here’s an example:
Du wirst um zwölf Uhr dort sein? (You’ll be there at 12pm?)
Du kannst Gift drauf nehmen. (you can bet your life on it)
11. Lügen haben kurze Beine
Literally: lies have short legs
This funny German phrase doesn’t quite have an English equivalent. While it literally means ‘lies have short legs,’ it has the connotation that you’re telling someone their lies won’t work.
It can be a cute way to tell your kids that you don’t believe they didn’t eat the rest of the candy, but it’s also used more generally.
12. Ich bin nicht auf der Nudelsuppe daher geschwommen
Literally: I didn’t swim here in noodle soup
This is another good German idiom to have in your pocket if you think someone is pulling a fast one on you. The saying literally translated to ‘I didn’t swim here in noodle soup,’ but metaphorically it means ‘I wasn’t born yesterday.’
13. Eine extra Wurst verlangen
Literally: to ask for an extra wurst
Here’s another delicious idiom! Unlike our first Wurst idiom, this one isn’t looking on the bright side. While it literally translates to ‘ask for an extra wurst,’ the equivalent means the person is asking for (or getting) special treatment. Here’s an example:
Der Cousin der Chefin verlangt eine extra Wurst. (The boss’ cousin is getting special treatment)
14. Der Fisch stinkt vom Kopf her
Literally: the fish starts stinking from the head
While this could be taken as a piece of advice from one chef or fisherman to another, this saying generally doesn’t literally mean ‘the fish starts stinking from the head.’ Rather, it tends to mean that problems start at the top. Some may also take it to mean that problems begin in the head, i.e., people make their own problems, but more it more commonly means the first.
15. Seinen Senf dazugeben
Literally: to add their mustard
‘To add their mustard’ may sound like a delicious lunchtime task, but the English equivalent of this common German saying is ‘to add their two cents.’ Like in English, the idiom can be used in a positive or negative manner. Here are two examples:
Kann ich meinen Senf dazugeben? (Can I add my two cents?)
Erzähl es nicht meine Tante. Sie muss immer ihren Senf dazugeben. (Don’t tell my aunt. She always has to add her two cents)
16. Einen Vogel haben
Literally: to have a bird
If someone you know is acting out of the ordinary or in a way that might not be best for them, you might ask, hast du einen Vogel? Literally you’re asking them if they have a bird, but colloquially it means ‘are you crazy.’
If you liked these idioms, also check out some German proverbs and German fun facts! Or the similarities and differences between English and German.
If you’re interested in improving your German or learning it from scratch, there are also some apps, podcasts, and books that can help you learn or improve German. There are also some great translation apps out there to help you translate unfamiliar German sayings.