You probably use them every day in English, without even thinking about it. They enrich language, bring speech alive and make you sound like a native speaker. I’m talking of course about idioms.
In this post you will learn 15 everyday German idioms, what they mean and their English equivalents. You’ll also see example sentences so you can so them in use in context.
Why Learn German Idioms?
Learning German idioms, Redewendungen, is a great way to improve the flow of a sentence and to get a meaning or feeling across that would otherwise be difficult to express. They will improve your fluency. You learn them as a ‘chunk’ which will give more thinking time for the rest of your sentence.
Because English is a Germanic language, you’ll notice that we share some idioms, or have some which are very similar. Have fun learning some of these, and make sure you try to use them in conversation to really fix them into your head.
Auf den Keks gehen
Translation: To get on the cookies
English equivalent: To get on one’s nerves
Meaning: To express irritation at something or someone. Why the German language has chosen cookies for this idiom is a mystery, but if someone stepped on your cookies you’d probably be annoyed!
- Der Typ geht mir auf dem Keks = That guy is getting on my nerves
- Das schlechte Wetter geht mir auf dem Keks = The bad weather is getting on my nerves
Einen Affenzirkus veranstalten
Translation: To put on a monkey circus
English equivalent: To make a mountain out of a molehill
Meaning: To express frustration that someone is making something seem a lot worse than it actually is.
- Er veranstaltet einen affenzirkus wegen gar nichts
- (He is making a big thing of nothing)
Etw. im Eimer
Translation: Something in the bucket
Meaning: Something is totally exhausted / broken
Usage: To describe something or someone that is totally exhausted or broken.
- Mein Auto ist im Eimer = My car is knackered / broken
- Ich hatte so viel zu tun, ich bin im Eimer = I’ve had so much to do, I’m totally exhausted
Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof
Translation: I only understand train station
English equivalent: It’s as clear as mud / It’s all Greek to me
Meaning / Usage: To express complete lack of understanding over something. A useful and common German idiom that is used as a stand-alone phrase.
Alles für die Katz
Translation: Everything for the cat
English equivalent: All for nothing
Usage: Used to express frustration when someone had made a huge effort, which was for nothing, unrewarded or unappreciated.
- Ich habe die ganze Woche an diesem Projekt gearbeitet und jetzt war alles für die Katz
- (I worked on this project all week, and it was all for nothing)
Ich habe die Nase voll
Translation: I have a full nose
Meaning: I’ve had it / I’ve had enough / I’m fed up
English equivalent: I’ve had it up to ‘here’
Usage: To express irritation at having too much to do, or have had enough of something.
- Ich habe die Nase voll von dir = I’ve had enough of you
- Ich habe die Nase voll von diesem Ort = I’m sick of the sight of this place
Nur ein Katzensprung entfernt
Translation: Something is only a cat jump away
English equivalent: Something is only a stone’s throw away
Usage: To describe something that is very near by, it would take no time at all to reach it.
- Der Strand ist nur ein Katzensprung entfernt
- (The beach is just a stone’s throw away)
Wie ein Stein geschlafen
Translation: Slept like a stone
Meaning / usage: Used in the same way as the English version, to describe a great night’s sleep.
- ‘Hast du gut geschlafen?’ ‘Ja ich habe wie ein Stein geschlafen!‘
- (‘Did you sleep well?’ ‘Yes I slept like a stone!‘)
Das kommt mir Spanisch vor
Translation: That seems Spanish to me
English equivalent: It’s all Greek to me
Meaning / usage: To express lack of understanding over what is said or written. It can be used a simple exclamation when you hear something you don’t understand.
Ich drücke dir die Daumen
Translation: I’ll squeeze the thumbs for you
English equivalent: I’ll cross my fingers for you
Meaning / usage: One of my favourite German idioms! Used in the same way as the English equivalent to wish someone good luck.
- Ich hoffe nur, dass es nicht schon zu spät ist. Ich drücke dir die Daumen!
- (I just hope it’s not too late. I’ll cross my fingers for you!)
You can also use this idiom to say ‘wish me luck’ which would be:
- Drück mir die Daumen = (squeeze the thumbs for me) = cross your fingers for me
Mit Kanonen auf Spatzen schießen
Translation: Shooting sparrows with cannons
English equivalent: Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut
Meaning / usage: This German idiom never fails to make me laugh! Far funnier than the English alternative. It means to use more force or measures than are necessary to solve a problem.
Nicht die hellste Kerze auf der Torte
Translation: Not the brightest candle on the cake
English equivalent: Not the sharpest tool in the shed
Meaning / usage: Used to refer to someone who is unintelligent.
- Er ist ein netter Mensch, aber nicht die hellste Kerze auf der Torte!
- (He’s a nice person, but not the sharpest tool in the shed!)
Unter vier Augen
Translation: Under four eyes
English equivalent: Face-to-face
Meaning / usage: Used when someone wants to speak to someone in private, face-to-face.
- Ich würde das gerne mit Martina unter vier Augen besprechen
- (I would like to discuss this with Martina in private)
Eine Hand wäscht die andere
Translation: One hand washes the other
English equivalent: You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours
Meaning / usage: Used to agree with someone that if they help you out / do you a favour, you will help them out in return.
Um die heißen Brei herumreden
Translation: To talk around the hot porridge
English equivalent: To beat around the bush
Meaning / usage: To talk a lot about something without getting to the point.
- Sie müssen aufhören, um den heißen Brei herumzureden und es einfach sagen!
- (You have to stop beating around the bush and just say it!)
German idioms are so much fun to use! Pick one or two to try out in your next conversation. There’s an idiom for every situation.
Which one is your favourite? Have I missed any? Leave a comment below.