Top German Idioms Roundup

When was the last time you had a swine? Do you only understand "train station?" Is your life like a pony ranch? Is your nose full of it? Is it really about the wurst? Are you pressing your thumbs for me? If any of these phrases seem odd to you, now is the time catch up on some of the most common German idioms!

„Wir haben ganz schön Schwein gehabt", sagte Frederick,
"We pretty much had a swine [idiom: were lucky]," said Frederick.
Caption 33: Piggeldy und Frederick: Reise nach Schweinebrück

Maybe villages used to award pigs at farmer bingo games, but whatever the reason, "having a swine" means you're in luck in German!

Also, ich versteh' nur Bahnhof.
Well, I only understand "train station" [idiom: I don't understand anything].
Caption 27, Die Pfefferkörner: Gerüchteküche

"Bahnhof" might be one of the first words a new arrival to Germany learns, so if you only understand "Bahnhof," then you don't understand very much at all.

Ist das Leben für Sie ein Ponyhof?
Is life a pony ranch [idiom: easy, fun] for you?
Caption 1, Oktoberfest München: Auf der Wiesn

Apparently a pony ranch is the German idea of a "bowl of cherries"...

Aber seit dem gestrigen Halbfinale hab' ich die Nase voll!
But since yesterday's semi-finals, I have the nose full [idiom: am very disenchanted]!
Caption 23, Konjugation: Das Verb „mögen

One can only surmise that having your nose stuffed up could get pretty uncomfortable.

OK, jetzt geht's wirklich um die Wurst.
OK, now it's really about the wurst [idiom: getting serious].
Caption 35, Rhein-Main Szene: Miss Interkontinental

Germans traditionally take their sausages very seriously, so if it's "about the wurst", everybody is paying serious attention!

Deswegen müsst ihr mir ganz doll die Daumen drücken.
For that reason you have to press the thumbs [idiom, “cross your fingers”] for me very much.
Caption 25: Summer Cheergirl: Vorstellung der Kandidatinnen

Much in the same way that (as shown in the well-known scene in the film Inglourious Basterds) that a European will indicate "three" with the thumb and first two fingers, and an American with only the first three fingers, so too in Germany the thumbs are pressed rather than fingers crossed for luck.

Further Learning
Look up some common English idioms and see if you can find the German equivalents in a real world context in videos on German Yabla.

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Fake English in German

A pseudo-anglicism describes a word borrowed from English but used in other languages in ways that native speakers may not easily understand. For a native English speaker learning German, these pseudo English words can be a common source of misunderstanding, and German has more than its fair share of them!


Most people would think of a "cutter" as someone in the clothing trade who cuts cloth, or a cutting machine or a boat, but in German der Cutter (or in this case, die Cutterin) has a different primary meaning:


Es gibt eine Regie, es gibt einen Tontechniker, es gibt eine Cutterin.
There is a director, there is a sound technician, there is an editor.
Caption 32, Christian Brückner: Synchronstimme von Robert De Niro


If somebody offers to play Flipper with you in German, they aren't talking about playing with a talking dolphin:


Früher, da stand in jeder anständigen Kneipe ein Flipper.
There used to be a pinball machine in every decent pub.
Caption 19, Flipperautomaten: Kunstwerke für flinke Kugeln


If a German speaker ever asks you to find out about an Oldtimer, he doesn't mean an old man:


Sie sammelt sämtliche Informationen über Oldtimer.
It gathers all the information about classic cars.
Caption 37, Porsche 356: Der erste Porsche


In English news, a Shooting would be a tragic event, but in German:


Ich nehme euch mit auf die coolsten Shootings.
I’ll take you along to the coolest photo shoots.
Caption 10, Palina Rojinski: News for Original Girls


The German word Shooting is short for Fotoshooting, whose meaning should be pretty obvious by now!


Further Learning
Das Happy End, das Handy, das No-Go, das Public Viewing, der Smoking — the list of German words based on misconstrued English is a long one. Take a look at German Wikipedia and see if you can find some "fake English" words used in context on Yabla German.


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"Was für" is not "what for"

Although the German words was für may translate directly as "what for" as separate words, when you put them together they have a different meaning. If somebody asks you to do something in German and you want to know "What for?", you would properly respond with "Warum?" ("why") or "Wofür?", which is another way of saying "why."

In English, the word combination was für usually means "what" or "what kind":

Was für ein Geschenk soll ich dir mitbringen?     
What kind of present should I bring back with me for you?
Caption 14,  Märchen, Sagenhaft: Die Schöne und das Biest

Hach Gott, was für ein Tag!
Oh god, what a day!
Caption 8, Kein Kredit: im Land der Klone

The phrase was für in other contexts can also mean "something for":

Also, wäre der Modeljob definitiv was für dich?
So, would the modelling job definitely be something for you?
Caption 10, RNZ Top Model: Casting 2010

In the example above, the word was is functioning as a shortened version of etwas, which means "something."

Further Learning
Go to Yabla German and put in the search words "what kind" to see the different ways that was für is used in different contexts.

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Hold Your Positions!

The German noun die Stellung is usually defined as "position" in English. As in English, to know the specific meaning of the word, it is important to know the context in which it is used.

In this short TV ad, a provocatively dressed woman makes the suggestion:

Dann gehen wir schon mal hoch, ein paar neue Stellungen ausprobieren.
Then we'll go on up and try out a few new positions.
Caption 5, Klicksafe Werbung: Wo ist Klaus?

The "positions" she is referring to are the primary definition of Stellung in Duden, the German standard dictionary: to place the body in a particular posture.

In the next video, the speaker is referring to a celebrity who has been a patron of their non-profit activities:

Der Bülent hatte hier auch eine Stellung.
Bülent also had a position here.
Caption 64, Sallys Tortenwelt und Kochwelt: Backen mit Kindern & Auftritt bei Radio Rumms

Here the Stellung being referred to is a  job position or a role.

The word Stellung is also the first half of the word Stellungnahme, which means "statement" in the sense of a document that announces the position one is taking on a topic:

Grund für die Stellungnahme…     
Reason for the statement
Caption 21, Aufklärung der NSU-Verbrechen: SPD fordert Sonderkommission

This week's new video "Mama arbeitet wieder" shows us an idiomatic use of Stellung:

Ich halte hier seit fünfzehn Uhr die Stellung.
I’ve been holding the position [idiom: taking responsibility] since three o'clock.
Caption 2: Spielfilm: Mama arbeitet wieder

A looser literary translation might use the American English idiom "holding down the fort" (just "hold the fort" in British English), a military phrase dating from the middle ages meaning to keep a military installation occupied to prevent enemy takeover. Apparently the US State Department was objecting to its use as politically incorrect a few years ago.

Further Learning
Watch the above videos on Yabla German to get a better sense of the use of the noun die Stellung in real world context.

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How Embarrassing: "verlegen" as Adjective and Verb

Using the German adjective verlegen and the verb verlegen could lead to some embarrassing mix-ups if their meanings are not clearly understood. As you can see in this week's premiere episode of a new season of "Die Pfefferkörner," the meaning of the adjective verlegen is... embarrassed!

Um eine Ausrede bist du ja nie verlegen.
You are never embarrassed to make an excuse.
Caption 6, Die Pfefferkörner: Gerüchteküche

The German verlegen is often also translated to English as shy, awkward, bashful, or as you see in its adverbial form in this video on Yabla:

„Ach so, hm“, meinte Frederick verlegen.
"Ah, so, hm," said Frederick sheepishly.
Caption 34, Piggeldy und Frederick: Das Lachen

On the other hand, the verb verlegen has to do with more concrete matters:

… um eine ganz normale Hartsteinbetonplatte, die wir verlegen.
… with a totally normal hard stone concrete panel that we are installing.
Caption 19, Schadstoffarme Straßen: Neue Gehwegplatten für reinere Luft

Hundert Jahre nachdem das berühmte Kinderbuch erschienen ist, hat der Regisseur die Story in den Zweiten Weltkrieg verlegt.
A hundred years after the famous children's book was published, the director
relocated the story to the Second World War.
Captions 35-37, Kinotipp: Battleship und Unter Wölfen

The verb verlegen can also be translated as to publish, postpone, or evacuate. The German word for "publisher," which you see in nearly every German book, is der Verlag. Here you can easily see the connection to the verb verlegen.

Further Learning
For some advanced learning on the topic, go to the online Wiktionary and see some other examples of verlegen in context and some other related words.

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Pluralis Majestatis or the "Royal We" in German

The "royal we" form is mostly found today in fairy tales, medieval fiction, and fantasy literature such as "The Lord of the Rings" and "Game of Thrones." In centuries past, it was common for royalty and religious leaders to be referred to (and to refer to themselves) in the plural tense, based upon the conceit that, in referring to themselves, they were referring to "God and I." German uses the Latin term Pluralis Majestatis to denote the "royal we."

This obsolete form of personal pronoun does not present any grammatical problems in English, since it is commonly either rendered in modern English as "we" or "you" (in the plural sense), or in archaic English as thee, thou, thine etc., although these forms are also merely archaic and not necessarily reflecting the "royal we" form.

In German, however, the use of "royal we" can be initially perplexing. For the nominative second person singular pronoun, instead of the modern Sie  (you), the "royal we" form uses Ihr, with the Ihr always capitalized. Initially this may appear to be the same as the plural pronoun ihr, but is actually addressed to a single person:

Majestät, Ihr seid die Schönste hier.
Majesty, you are the most beautiful here.
Caption 86, Märchen, Sagenhaft: Schneewittchen

In standard German, the above sentence would have been written: Sie sind die Schönste hier. The "royal we" case Ihr conjugates the verb the same as the plural nominative second person pronoun ihr.

The accusative second person singular pronoun Sie (you), in a similar fashion, uses for the "royal we" form of the capitalized version of the accusative second person plural Euch:

Ich befreie Euch von dem Versprechen, Prinzessin!
I free you from the promise, princess!
Caption 58, Märchen, Sagenhaft: Hans, mein Igel

In standard German, the above sentence would have been written: Ich befreie Sie von dem Versprechen.

Further Learning
To further familiarize yourself with the use of the "royal we," go through the videos (listed on the right hand side of this lesson) on Yabla German that include extensive examples of Pluralis Majestatis.

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"Fertig" as idiom and slang

The German adjective fertig is typically translated as "finished" or "done," and we generally see it used on Yabla in its most common standard usage:

So, mein Apfelkuchen ist jetzt fertig.
So, my apple cake is now done.
Caption 37, Apfelkuchen: mit Eva

There are, however, a number of slang uses of the adjective, including its inclusion in the separable verb fertigmachen:

Ich mache euch fertig!
I'll finish you off [idiom: retaliate]!
Caption 12, Die Pfefferkörner: Eigentor

According to the Duden German dictionary, the definitions of the slang word word fertigmachen (or fertig machen) are: 1. to issue a sharp rebuke or reprimand; 2. to break or wear out somebody's will, to drive them to desperation; 3. to completely vanquish or physically destroy or kill; 4. to satisfy sexually or bring to an orgasm. The above translation is closest to the second and third meanings.

Probably the most common slang usage that you'll hear in everyday spoken German means "tired":

Wir sind fix und fertig, hä?
We are worn out, huh?
Caption 4, Deutschkurs in Blaubeuren: Der Relativsatz

The above video uses the full phrase fix und fertig, but even using only the word fertig in the right context is enough:

Und dann war ich wieder völlig fertig
And then I was completely down again…
Caption 14, Udo Lindenberg feat. Clueso: Cello

As you see here, fertig is translated as "down" in the sense of tired, or worn out, or in the American vernacular: blue!

Further Learning
Do a search on German Yabla for the word fertig to find some examples of its usage in a real-world context.

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Bieten versus Anbieten

I have been speaking German for well over three decades, and although I've only lived in Germany and spoken German on a daily basis for about 15 of those years, I still get confused occasionally by verb prefixes. As I was formulating a freelance job offer the other day, it struck me that I wasn't entirely sure about the difference between bieten and anbieten, both of which are commonly defined as "to offer" in English.

To confuse matters even further, the Duden dictionary, which sets the standards for the German language, gives the primary definitions as: anbieten: zur Verfügung stellen und seine Bereitschaft dazu erkennen lassen, zeigen and bieten: anbieten, zur Verfügung, in Aussicht stellen. As you see, the meanings seem nearly identical; in fact, the first definition of bieten is anbieten!

There is, however, a rule of thumb that can help you remember the main difference between the two: anbieten is the specific process or act of making an offer, whereas bieten is a general state or condition, that is, a standing offer or a feature.

To illustrate, here are a few examples of anbieten from Yabla German, first in present tense, then in past tense, then in simple tense as a separable verb:

Kann ich Ihnen einen Kaffee anbieten?
Can I offer you a coffee?
Caption 19, George und Donna: Die Milch macht's

Deutsch wird als zweite Sprache ab Stufe eins angeboten.     
German is offered as a second language from the first grade.
Caption 41, Strothoff International School: Imagefilm

Wir bieten unseren Tieren saisonale Produkte an, wie beispielsweise Weihnachtsbäume.
We offer our animals seasonal products like, for example, Christmas trees.
Caption 48, Umfragen: Zootiere im Winter

And some examples of bieten from Yabla German, first in present tense, then in past tense:

Yabla bietet dir das weltweit fortschrittlichste System.
Yabla offers you the most advanced system worldwide.
Caption 3, Yabla-Intro: Jenny

Und auch dieses Jahr ist wieder allerhand für Jung und Alt geboten.
And this year too, a lot is offered again for young and old.
Caption 5, Das Tollwood-Festival: BAP und Clueso in der Musik-Arena

Lastly, when someone is bidding in an auction you would always use the word bieten (or steigern), but never anbieten.

Further Learning
Make up some sentence examples in English using the word "offer" and then translate them into German to see if you understand the principal difference between bieten and anbieten.  Also, do a search on German Yabla for both of the words to find some examples of their usage in a real-world context.

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Ask the Dust

The title of this week's mini-lesson is from an American depression-era novel of the same title by John Fante, and is an allusion that can be taken both literally and figuratively. In most contexts, however, words take on their literal original meaning, as in the use of the word "dust" (German: der Staub) here:

Die Mischung aus Staub und Sonnenstrahlen ließ das gleißende Licht entstehen, das die tödliche Hitze im Film so glaubhaft macht.    
The mixture of dust and sunbeams gave rise to the glistening light that makes the deadly heat in the film so believable.
Captions 28-30, Hell: Science-Fiction-Kinotipp

This week’s video release, “Alpenseen,” however, uses the word “dust” in an idiomatic sense meaning “to leave.” The English idiom “to dust out” and the 1920s-era slang "to take a powder" have similar meanings.

Sie macht sich aus dem Staub.
She makes herself out of the dust [idiom: absconds].
Caption 45, Alpenseen: Kühle Schönheiten

Further Learning
Take a look at this German Wikipedia list of German sayings  and do a search on German Yabla  to see if you can find some of the sayings used in context in a video.

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Race and Gender Stereotypes in German Culture

The made-for-TV miniseries Mama arbeitet wieder explores the roles that men and women play at home and in the workplace in Germany. Studies show that for the fifth consecutive year, women earn on average 22% less than men in the same job positions, ranking Germany as one of the most wage discriminatory countries based on gender in the industrialized world.

In one scene of part 4 of  "Mama arbeitet wieder," Mark tells his boss that his wife is going back to work and requests to delay his transfer to Dubai. His boss responds:

Wenn das Mädel weiter Zicken macht, dann schaff' dir ein Exemplar der alten Gattung an.
If the girl continues to be bitchy, then get yourself an example of the old species [a more traditional woman].

This is misogynistic on several levels: first of all, he calls Mark's wife a Mädel, which is an ironic and often demeaning term term for a woman (equivalent to "stupid girl"); he then employs the term Zicken (literally a "she-goat") to classify her behavior as bitchy; he then suggests that Mark find a more "traditional woman."

The message of the series is actually pro gender equality, and the scriptwriters purposefully use such provocative and sexist language to point out how common gender stereotyping is in Germany. The writers additionally added racial stereotyping to the script. Directly after telling Mark to get a more "traditional" wife, the boss says to a worker walking by, who was not privy to the conversation:

Da gibt's nämlich nie Probleme, was, Mehmet?
With that there are namely never problems, right, Mehmet?

The name "Mehmet" is Turkish, and the worker's appearance suggests that he or his family originally came from the Middle East. Mark's boss is putting forth racial, religious and gender stereotypes in a single sentence by suggesting that men from the Middle East, or Moslems, always force the women in their households into "traditional" subservient roles.

Racism is strictly taboo in Germany due to its Nazi past, and by equating sexism and racism, the scriptwriters are attempting to heighten awareness of the seriousness of the problems that Germany currently faces in regard to gender discrimination.

Mama arbeitet wieder shows how a German man comes to terms in a positive way with modernizing his views and learning to drop stereotypes of a woman's role in the household and in the workplace. Watch the entire series on Yabla German.


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