catchy & fun german sayings
Everyone knows about big news sites and laid-back chat rooms, but how often do you take a look at more in-depth content in your target language? Recently I was reading some travel blogs and book reviews in German. One thing stood out to me about the type of language that was used: I noticed that people were using a lot of German sayings or idioms.
In today’s article we’ll look at ten of the more interesting or more common German sayings that might crop up in your reading. If you can work them into your everyday speech or your writing, you’ll immediately come across as a more nuanced and careful user of the German language.
Remember, just like English or any other language, using too many sayings is overkill. It’s kind of funny to write an article like this because I end up throwing a ton of different German phrases or idioms together, completely removed of context. Knowing when to use these appropriately is of utmost importance. The best way to develop that sense is by doing lots of listening and reading of native content, just like the kind of stuff you can find on LingQ.
10 Must Know German Sayings
1. Hinterher ist man immer schlauer
This one actually inspired the article because I saw it on two separate sites within hours of each other. Literally translated, it means “Afterwards, one is always smarter.” It means we learn from our mistakes. Usually this is said after a bad situation, noting that in retrospect some better choices could have been made. In English, we say “Hindsight is 20/20” – a completely different metaphor for expressing pretty much the same idea!
2. Stille Wasser sind tief
Literally translated, it means “Quiet waters are deep.” Can you guess what it means? It can describe a person or situation that appears calm and simple, but under the surface a great deal of complexity is hiding. Just because something or somebody isn’t obviously demanding attention doesn’t mean that there’s not something else going on undetected.
3. Auf der Brennsuppe dahergeschwommen kommen
This one isn’t a full phrase but rather a way to describe someone. Die Brennsuppe is a very simple soup, a sort of gruel made from corn or oats. So if you’ve just “swum here across the gruel” then you’ve led a very simple life thus far and can’t be expected to know much. As you might have guessed already, it’s just like the English “to be born yesterday.”
4. Wie ein Fels in der Brandung
Here’s a great way to describe someone who isn’t put out in the least when things don’t go their way. No matter how hard the situation gets, they stay solid and firm, like a rock jutting out of a rolling ocean. For that’s the translation of this poetic phrase – like a rock in the surf.
5. Wie ein Schwein ins Uhrwerk schauen
I like this one because it’s a perfect idiom to describe the feeling of looking at something complex – and not understanding a thing. Literally, it means like a pig looking at clockwork. I can just picture a pig staring into a Swiss clock factory with his eyes glazed over, not having the faintest idea of what’s going on. In English, as far as I know, the best we can say here is in over one’s head.
6. Wie man in den Wald hineinruft, so schallt es heraus
This might be one of the oldest sayings on the list. It’s attested from the Middle Ages, in beautiful Middle High German: Swie man ze walde rüefet, dazselbe er wider güefet. And in English: As one calls into the woods, so the echo returns. It’s a variation on the Golden Rule. If you shout rudely into the forest, the echo you hear will be rude words once more. But if you treat the forest – or other people – well, then they’ll give you the same treatment.
7. Mir nichts dir nichts
Here’s a really tricky one that caught me off guard the first time I read it. I must have gone over the sentence a dozen times before I thought to look it up as an idiom. Most learners know these words alone, but if you’ve never seen this phrase it’s quite tough to understand the meaning. Literally it means nothing to me, nothing to you – but that translation might make about as much sense as the German! The meaning is simple: quickly, simply, without a fuss.
8. Für jemanden eine Lanze brechen
Imagine you’re a knight in shining armor, dueling your enemy for a cause you believe in. You level your lance – die Lanze – and charge! If you break a lance for someone, then you support them or the cause they’re fighting for.
9. Jemanden aus der Bahn bringen
Here’s another verb-idiom to spice up your writing, though this one happens to have a pretty good English equivalent. Die Bahn refers to a railway or train track, though it’s a very old word and also has the meaning of path or way. So if you take someone off the path then you’re changing the course of their plans. They were used to doing things one way, and you’ve disrupted it – perhaps you’ve thrown them off track?
10. Man trifft sich immer zweimal im Leben
I’ve saved one of the more complex German sayings for last. This one doesn’t translate particularly well, something like You always meet someone twice. There are two main ways to use this phrase. First, similar to don’t burn bridges – don’t treat someone badly as you part, because it’s possible or even likely you’ll meet them again. The second is more upbeat – it’s a small world! Even if two people have to be separated, chances are good they’ll get to meet again at some point in the future.
Now that you’ve equipped yourself with these ten German sayings or Redensarten, you’ll have no trouble finding the right word for the situation. Of course these are just the tip of the iceberg: remember that the best way to learn more German is to keep your eyes and ears open while you look for content that keeps your attention. Viel Glück!
Alex Thomas began learning a few phrases of German a while ago for a short vacation. It has been nearly six years since then and he has no plans to stop learning.
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