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Express it with words

Photo: The German idiom, “Der Apfel fällt nicht weit vom Baum/Stam,” could be used to say how much alike the boy and his father are. They even dress alike!

Photo: The German idiom, “Der Apfel fällt nicht weit vom Baum/Stam,” could be used to say how much alike the boy and his father are. They even dress alike!

Keva Hoffmann Boardman —

I have always found that the imagery of an idiom helps me to better understand a person’s meaning. However, discerning the meaning behind an idiom, or expression, in a foreign language is often challenging.

At the Sophienburg, we are faced with interpreting German expressions when we translate letters and newspaper accounts. While a true, literal translation often sounds like gibberish, we find that there is sometimes similarity in German and English idioms if we dig for the intended meaning.

Think of the following examples as “little pearls of wisdom” to take into 2022.

Eine einzige Nuss rappelt nicht im Sacke.
Literally – A single nut doesn’t rattle the sack.
Meaning – One event is insignificant; you can forgive one mistake.
Der Fisch stinkt vom Kopf her.
Literally – The fish stinks from the head down.
Meaning – Problems start at the top.
Ich bin keine Kuh, die man melken kann.
Literally – I am not a cow that man can milk.
Meaning – Said to those who always ask for money or for you to pay.
Wer weiss, warum die Gänse barfuss gehen.
Literally – Who knows why the geese go barefoot.
Meaning – That’s just how it is; like “Does a bear s**t in the woods?”
Die Kirche im Dorf lassen.
Literally – Leave the church in the village.
Meaning – Calm down, don’t go overboard.
Er hat das Pulver nicht gerade erfunden.
Literally – He didn’t invent gunpowder.
Meaning – Dim-witted; “he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed.”
Wer Feuer frisst, scheissst Funken.
Literally – He who eats fire, s**ts sparks.
Meaning – You get what you give; “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.”
Das ist ein Streit um des Kaisers Bart.
Literally – That is an argument over the emperor’s beard.
Meaning – Being pedantic; “splitting hairs.”
Du hast einen Vogel im Kopf.
Literally – You have a bird in the head.
Meaning – You are crazy.
Alles hat ein Ende, nur dir Wurst hat zwei.
Literally – Everything has an end, only sausage has two.
Meaning – (self-explanatory)
Langes Fädchen, faules Mädchen.
Literally – Long thread, lazy girl.
Meaning – Comes from sewing and means do the job right.
Lange Rede, kurzer Sinn.
Literally – Long speech, short meaning.
Meaning – Saying a lot without saying a lot at all.
Loch in Erde, Bronze rin, Glocke fertig, bim, bim, bim! (reference from a Schiller poem)
Literally – Hole in earth, pour bronze in, bell is ready, bim, bim, bim!
Meaning – Just get the job done without any fuss.
Lügen haben kurze Beine.
Literally – Lies have short legs.
Meaning – Lies will eventually be found out.
Alles aufs Spiel setzen.
Literally – To place everything on a game.
Meaning – To risk it all; “put all your eggs in one basket.”
An’s Kissen horchen.
Literally – To listen on the pillow.
Meaning – To go sleep; to “hit the sack.”
Aus einem traurigen Arsch kommt selten ein fröhlicher Furz.
Literally – Out of a sad a** seldom comes a joyful fart.
Meaning – If a person is a certain way, don’t expect them to behave contrary to that.
Bei ihm ist der Groschen gefallen.
Literally – The “Groschen” fell for him.
Meaning – Enlightenment; the “penny dropped.”
Bei Nnacht sind alle Kuhe schwarz/alle Katzen grau.
Literally – At night all cows are black/all cats are grey.
Meaning – Sometimes the difference between things doesn’t matter.
Es hat ihm die Sprache verschlagen.
Literally – It hit his speech.
Meaning – At a loss for words; flabbergasted.
Das ist Schnee von gestern.
Literally – This is snow from yesterday.
Meaning – This is nothing new.
Das ist gehüpft wie gesprungen.
Literally – This is jumped as well as sprung.
Meaning – It makes no difference; “six of one and half dozen of another.”
Das Leben its wie eine Hühnerleiter: Eng, steil und beschissen.
Literally – Life is like a chicken ladder: Narrow, steep and s**t upon.
Meaning – (self-explanatory)
Dem ist das Hemd zu kurz gekommen.
Literally – For him, the shirt came too short.
Meaning – He didn’t get his share.
Der Abend is klüger als der Morgen.
Literally – The evening is smarter than the morning.
Meaning – Hindsight is better than foresight.
Der Apfel fällt nicht weit vom Baum/Stamm.
Literally – The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree/stem.
Meaning – The child’s character is similar to the parent; “like father like son.”
Der hat ihm in die Grütze gespuckt.
Literally – He spat in his (someone else’s) porridge.
Meaning – Messed up someone’s plans/day; “he peed in someone’s cornflakes.”
Der Spatz in der Hand ist besser als die Taube auf dem Dach.
Literally – A sparrow in the hand is better than a dove on the roof.
Meaning – Be content with what you have; “a bird in hand is worth two in the bush.”
Die Kirschen in Nachbars Garten sind immer süsser.
Literally – The cherries in neighbor’s garden are always sweeter.
Meaning –“Grass is greener on the other side of the fence.”
Die Spatzen pfeifen es vom Dach.
Literally – The sparrows whistle it from the roof.
Meaning – The news is out; “a little birdie told me.”
Die Witze eines Reichen sind immer lustig.
Literally – The jokes of the rich are always funny.
Meaning – People laugh at the jokes of the one they want to impress or benefit from.
Die Würfel rollen wie sie wollen.
Literally – The dies fall as they want.
Meaning – Life’s unpredictability; “let the chips fall where they may.”
Dreck macht Fett.
Literally – Dirt makes fat.
Meaning – 5-second rule when food drops to the ground; “a little dirt never hurt anyone.”
Du gehst wie der Storch im Salat.
Literally – You walk like a stork in the lettuce.
Meaning – You are a picky eater or too careful a worker.
Eckige Eier legen kann ich noch nicht.
Literally – I cannot yet lay eggs with corners.
Meaning – I cannot do the impossible.
Ein grosser Hut macht noch keinen Edelmann.
Literally – A big hat does not make one a nobleman.
Meaning – Pretention doesn’t change the facts.
Er hat zu tief ins Glas geguckt.
Literally – He has looked in the glass too deeply.
Meaning – He is drunk; “deep in his cup.”
Er ist nicht auf den Mund gefallen.
Literally – He has not fallen on his mouth.
Meaning – He is quick with his replies, clever in his answers.
Es ist so sauer, da zieht es einem die Löcher in den Socken zusammen.
Literally – It is so sour, it pulls together the holes in one’s socks.
Meaning – Wow…that is really sour.

Sources: Guten Appetit!, Sophienburg Museum cookbook, Oscar Haas Collections, germanproverbs.wordpress.com