15 German Idioms [That’ll Make You Sound Like a Native]

german idioms
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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!

Example sentences:

  • 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
auf den keks gehen

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.

Example sentence:

  • Er veranstaltet einen affenzirkus wegen gar nichts
  • (He is making a big thing of nothing)
German idioms

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.

Example sentences:

  • 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 bin im Eimer

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.

Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof

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.

Example sentence:

  • 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)
Alles für die Katz

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.

Example sentences:

  • 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
Ich habe die Nase voll

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.

Example sentence:

  • Der Strand ist nur ein Katzensprung entfernt
  • (The beach is just a stone’s throw away)
nur ein katzensprung enfernt

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.

Example sentence:

  • ‘Hast du gut geschlafen?’ ‘Ja ich habe wie ein Stein geschlafen!
  • (‘Did you sleep well?’ ‘Yes I slept like a stone!‘)
german idioms

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.

das kommt mir spanisch vor

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.

Example sentence:

  • 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
german idioms

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.

mit kanonen auf spatzen schießen

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.

Example sentence:

  • 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!)
nicht die hellste kerze auf der torte

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.

Example sentence:

  • Ich würde das gerne mit Martina unter vier Augen besprechen
  • (I would like to discuss this with Martina in private)
unter vier augen

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.

eine hand wäscht die andere

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.

Example sentence:

  • Sie müssen aufhören, um den heißen Brei herumzureden und es einfach sagen!
  • (You have to stop beating around the bush and just say it!)
um den heißen brei herumreden

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.

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