10 Wunderbar German Idioms and Expressions

If your aim is to be able to speak German like a native, then you’ll need a firm grasp of colloquial and everyday speech. Often these things are learned later on in the language learning process, once you know your grammar and comprehension. But it’s always handy to have a few sayings and expressions under your belt to make sure you’re not completely confused by your first conversations with the German locals.

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1. Etwas auf die lange Bank schieben

To “shove something onto the long bench” is to put something off or procrastinate over something.

2. Was man sich eingebrockt hat, muss man auch auslöffeln

This expression is the equivalent of the English “you’ve made your bed and now you must lie in it.” The German version tells people that you have to dish out what you’ve cooked up.

3. Den Bock zum Gärtner machen

If you’re asking for trouble, a German person will say that you are turning the goat into the gardener. In other words, you’re setting yourself up for a fall by choosing a completely inappropriate animal to neatly prune your bushes.

4. Das sind mir bömische/spanische Dörfer

Whereas in English you might say “it’s all Greek to me” if you don’t understand something, in German you say that it’s a Bohemian or Spanish village to you – something completely foreign that’s outside of your frame of reference.

5. Man kann nicht auf zwei Hochzeiten tanzen

You can’t be in two places at once, have your cake and eat it or, as the Germans say, you can’t dance at two weddings. We suppose that “at the same time” is implied unless there’s a German rule that you can only ever attend one wedding.

6. Der Apfel fällt nicht weit vom Stamm

This expression refers to the similarity of two relations, very similar to “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”, but in German, the word is “trunk.”

7. Man soll das Fell des Bären nicht verteilen, bevor man ihn erlegt hat

One shouldn’t divide up a bearskin before killing the bear – don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched, or in plain English, don’t count on a good outcome before you’ve done the deed.

8. Ich bin keine Kuh, die man melken kann

If someone isn’t made of money or isn’t able to produce cash on demand, they say “I am not a cow to be milked.” A useful one for those of you with teenagers!

9. Es ist kein Baum, der nicht zuvor ein Sträuchlein gewesen

“There is no tree that was not once a sprig” – great things come from small beginnings. The English equivalent is “mighty oaks from little acorns grow.”

10. Er hat das Pulver nicht gerade erfunden

It’s always useful to know when someone might be insulting your intelligence. This phrase means “he didn’t invent gunpowder,” meaning that the person being talked about isn’t ever going to do anything special, or isn’t the smartest person in the world.

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Now, if you want to go beyond a few tricky phrases and truly master the German language, you’ll need to practice with a qualified native German teacher who can guide you in your learning process! With customized curriculums and flexible arrangements, our German courses are sure to suit your learning needs. You can even sign up for a Free German Trial Class and get started at no cost!

Editor’s note: Originally published on March 6, 2014. Updated on October 4, 2021.