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German Animal Expressions, Part I

German, like many languages, uses a lot of idioms referring to animals. You've probably heard the English expression "I'm hungry as a horse" or the term "snail mail." What these expressions have in common in all languages is that they refer to some quality that is associated in that culture with a specific animal: Horses eat a lot of food and snails move very slowly—always compared to humans, of course. Let's take a look today at some German animal expressions.

 

Wohl aufs falsche Pferd gesetzt, hm?

Probably bet on the wrong horse, hm?

Caption 19, Marga Engel schlägt zurück Der Engel von Leipzig

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This one is easy, because English has the same saying with the same meaning: "to make a wrong decision," or "to support something that failed." It comes from racetrack betting or investing in a racehorse.

 

Wisst ihr, was ich der blöden Kuh gesagt habe?

Do you know what I said to the stupid cow?

Caption 28, Weihnachtsfilm Ein Sack voll Geld

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Cows are always being accused of being stupid, but since it's usually male humans who call women "stupid cows," perhaps it's really such men who are stupidly sexist. Thankfully, this awful expression in English is mostly confined to Britain, an island just outside of Europe. Sadly, the Germans seem to have adopted it—though perhaps it was the Germanic Saxons who first introduced it to Britain after all!

 

Sind die dummen Esel die Menschen und die richtigen Esel die Tiere?

Are the dumb donkeys the people and the real donkeys the animals?

Caption 15, Piggeldy und Frederick Der Esel

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If you call somebody an Esel in German, it means you think they are stupid or stubborn, similar to the English phrase "as stubborn as a mule." Mules are half donkey and half horse, of course. Piggeldy is making the point that perhaps it's humans who are dumb, and not donkeys. But of course Piggeldy is only a cartoon pig. Speaking of which...

 

„Wir haben ganz schön Schwein gehabt", sagte Frederick,

"We were very lucky," said Frederick,

Caption 33, Piggeldy und Frederick Reise nach Schweinebrück

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The literal translation of Schwein haben is "to have a swine" (or "pig"), but it means "to be very lucky." The saying apparently comes from old German festivals of marksmanship, where the worst shot was given a piglet as a consolation prize. So despite Schwein being a common German insult, the pig was considered a valuable possession in earlier times and thus meant business income and luck.

 

„Gibt es viele arme Schweine?“, fragte Piggeldy.

"Are there lots of poor swine?" Piggeldy asked.

Caption 21, Piggeldy und Frederick Arm

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Piggeldy, a cartoon pig, is literally asking if there are a lot of "poor swine" in the world. The joke intended here is that armes Schwein, figuratively spoken, means a person who is worthy of sympathy, as something bad has happened to them. Thus, Piggeldy is also asking if there are a lot of unfortunate people. It's similar to the English expressions "poor bastard," "poor wretch," or "poor devil."

 

Further Learning
Go to Yabla German and watch the above videos to get a better idea of the contexts in which they have been used. And remember, it's rude to call somebody a blöde Kuh, but it can show sympathy if you call somebody an armes Schwein. Funny isn’t it, how in German, calling somebody a pig can be a nice thing!

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