Deep, hidden meanings and bizarre-sounding phrases that make very little sense when taken at a literal level – idioms are a fascinating part of languages. Not only do they allow you to see deeper into the mind of the speaker, they can also provide an insight into the history and culture behind the saying.
Idioms are often slang or colloquial phrases that are used in specific contexts and have a meaning that goes far beyond the connotation of the individual words. The hidden meaning of these idioms is often nigh-on impossible to ascertain from the words themselves, making them particularly difficult for non-native-speakers. This also makes it extremely difficult to translate German idioms into English – a literal translation is no help here and, due to the very specific meanings attached to the various sayings, there are often no direct equivalents across different languages. (If you are interested in reading more on the this subject, check out our blog on how to translate idioms.)
Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof – I only understand train station
Imagine you are travelling in Germany and you start speaking in English to a local. In a bid to tell you that they don’t speak much English, they translate a common German idiom into English and say: “Sorry, I understand only train station. Can you repeat that please?”. Rather than directly translate the German saying “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof” into English, they would have been better off using an English idiom, such as “Sorry, it’s all Greek to me.” Translated German idioms often make very little sense as they are built on cultural and historical aspects that simply cannot be accurately conveyed in direct translations. It is a bit like trying to explain an inside joke to someone outside the loop.
The local who seemingly randomly started talking about train stations now needs to explain why they mentioned train stations completely out of context. The German idiom “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof” actually refers to a common situation at the train station that most of us will be familiar with. Imagine, you are standing in the middle of crowds of people, all rushing in different directions, people are shouting, there are 20 different platforms and you are late for your train. There is an announcement on the loudspeaker. Unfortunately, it appears to have been bought from a discount store – its quality is no match for the huge, noisy train station. You try your very best to discern from the announcement where on earth you should be heading and whether your train has left yet or not. But the only word that you can hear is “train station” (or “Bahnhof” in German) and, by the time you have worked out what the announcement said and found your platform, your train has already departed…
Butter bei die Fische – butter at the fishes
The previous German train station idiom makes some kind of sense once it has been properly explained, but there are also some German sayings that sound downright weird to native speakers, let alone non-native-speakers, both in terms of grammar and the words themselves. One example is “Butter bei die Fische.” This German idiom, which translates literally into English as “butter at the fishes”, features the incorrect article for the word fish, is missing any kind of context, contains nouns that you would normally struggle to pair in a sentence and an apparently random preposition. German grammar won’t help you here. Translating it into English won’t help either – “butter at the fishes” is as nonsensical as the German original. For a coherent explanation of this German idiom, you have to dig deep into the topography and history of Germany.
This idiom is from northern Germany (as you may have guessed, given that it is the only part of the country with a coastline!). An old tradition dictated that fish dishes were enhanced with butter. It was added just before the fish was served so that it would quickly melt over the hot food. If there wasn’t any butter, people wouldn’t eat the food, as it was deemed incomplete. This idea of something being incomplete has been carried over into the German saying, which is still used to this day. “Butter bei die Fische” actually refers to getting to the important part of something and is used to encourage the speaker to get to the point. In other words, butter symbolises completeness and clarity. The English idiom that best corresponds with this concept is probably “to cut to the chase” – something you would never have guessed by reading the idiom without any additional context!
A second, less common use of “Butter bei die Fische” is to use it to refer to someone’s wealth. Butter used to be one of the most expensive products around and something that only wealthy people in society could afford. Asking whether someone had “Butter bei die Fische”, or “butter with fish” in this case, was a common question to determine someone’s ability to pay.
The questionable and rather unique grammar in this German expression harks back to the formerly commonly used Low German version, which has since been adapted to standard German. Back then, the saying was “Butter bei de Fische”, whereby the “de” was understood as “under” or “near to”.
German idioms in English: some examples
|German idiom||Literal English translation of the German idiom||Actual meaning of the German idiom||Equivalent English idiom|
|Um den heißen Brei herumreden||To talk around the broth||To prevaricate||To beat around the bush|
|Klappe zu. Affe tot.||Mouth shut. Monkey dead.||This is the end of the conversation||And Bob’s your uncle!|
|Du gehst mir auf den Keks||You’re getting on my biscuit||You are annoying me||You’re getting on my wick|
|Schwein gehabt||Pig had||To be lucky||To have a stroke of luck|
|Jemanden etwas aus der Nase ziehen||To pull something out of someone’s nose||To tediously extract information from somebody||To drag something out of someone|
|Blau sein||To be blue||To be drunk||Three sheets to the wind|
|Nicht mehr alle Tassen im Schrank haben||To not have all the cups in the cupboard||To not be quite right in the head||To have a screw loose|
|Da wird ja der Hund in der Pfanne verrückt!||That will make the dog in the pan crazy!||When something is shocking (in a bad way)||That’s enough to drive you round the bend!|
|Einen Vogel haben||To have a bird||To be crazy||Mad as a hatter|
|Friede, Freude, Eierkuchen||Peace, joy, pancake||Love, peace and harmony||Everything is right as rain|
|Eine Extrawurst haben||To have an extra sausage||To get special treatment||To be treated like royalty|
|Seinen Senf dazugeben||To give his mustard||To give their opinion||To give their two cents worth|
Das ist mir Wurst – that is sausage to me
While we’re on the topic of food… There’s nothing more German than sausage. “Wurst” – the German word for sausage – is a common theme in German idioms, often in the context of disputes. During an argument, you basically have two options: either “eine beleidigte Leberwurst zu spielen”, which roughly translates into English as “playing the offended liver sausage”, or saying “das its mir Wurst” – literally “that is sausage to me” and walking away. The former is often used as a form of rebuke in response to an exaggerated reaction and insult.
The literal English translations of these two German idioms show that a little further explanation is required to get to the bottom of these sausage-based sayings.
The clue once again lies in the history books, this time in the Middle Ages. Back then, people believed that the liver contained vital juices that determined someone’s temperament. So it followed that if you were angry, then it was due to an enraged liver. The addition of the sausage derives from the fact that people used to say that liver sausages burst with rage when being boiled in water, because they were the last to be removed. The second German saying is also from the world of butchers and has a meaning along the lines of “I don’t care”. This comes from the idea that butchers used to put all the bits of meat that they couldn’t use in another way into sausages. In other words, they didn’t really care what the sausages contained.
And that seems like a suitable place to end this article!
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