A lively spoken language includes idioms that use figurative language to describe a situation. Idioms with the same meaning in different languages are rare and can almost never be translated one-to-one.
In this article, we present some of the most common German idioms and explain what they mean.
Idioms around happiness
Hals- und Beinbruch (Break a leg)
„Ich wünsche Dir Hals- und Beinbruch!“
„Na dann, Hals- und Beinbruch!“
The English version of this idiom is "break a leg“. When someone wishes you “break a leg”, they mean the exact opposite: they wish you good luck and hope nothing goes wrong. When translating the German version of this idiom literally, it means: "I wish you break your leg and neck”.
„Das ist ein echter Glückspilz!“
„So ein Glückspilz!“
Translated literally, this idiom indicates that somebody is a: "lucky mushroom.” If you are a “lucky mushroom”, you are unusually lucky in life. A variant of this expression is "das Glück gepachtet haben", which translates to “having the luck on lease". If you “have the luck on lease”, a lot of lucky coincidences happen to you on a regular.
„Da hast Du noch mal Schwein gehabt!"
This idiom literally tells you that you “had a pig“. If you “had a pig”, you have been really lucky. Something could have ended really badly, but in the end it was only half as bad.
Pigs, mushrooms, horseshoes and shamrocks are considered lucky charms, also in combination with each other. Especially on New Year's Eve, these motifs are often gifted as postcards, pendants or sweets.
Idioms around knowledge and understanding
Auf dem Holzweg sein (Being on the wrong track)
„Wenn Du das glaubst, dann bist du auf dem Holzweg.“
Literally this idiom means “being / walking on a wooden path”. The English counterpart is “being on the wrong track”. If someone is on the wrong track or on the "Holzweg", then that person is misinformed or draws wrong conclusions.
Tomaten auf den Augen haben
„Da hatte ich wohl Tomaten auf den Augen.“
„Hast Du Tomaten auf den Augen?“
This idiom translates to: “I had tomatoes on my eyes / Do you have tomatoes on your eyes?” With tomatoes on our eyes, we see badly. This is exactly what the idiom means: Somebody doesn't see something that actually can't be missed. This statement is mainly used when the person is looking for something that is obviously in his or her own field of vision but still can’t find it.
Den Wald vor Bäumen nicht sehen
„Ich habe den Wald vor Bäumen nicht gesehen.“
„Er sieht den Wald vor Bäumen nicht.“
This idiom is very similar to "having tomatoes on your eyes." This one translates to: “Not seeing the forest because of all the trees.” However, the point here is that one fails to see the bigger picture because one's view is only focused on the small things. Consequently, you can't see the forest because there are too many trees in front of it.
Jemanden auf den Arm nehmen
Variants: Jemanden an der Nase herumführen, jemandem einen Bären aufbinden, jemanden veräppeln
„Willst Du mich auf den Arm nehmen?“
„Da hat Dir jemand einen Bären aufgebunden.“
"Jemanden auf den Arm nehmen” literally means “Putting somebody on your arms.” In English you would say: “Are you kidding me?” This phrase, just like all other variants of it, is about lying to someone or fooling someone. Most of the time, this is not to be taken too seriously because the statements have an ironic component. Asked as a question (e.g., "Do you want to put me on your arms?"), you imply that you doubt the truth of someones statements.
In jemandes Fußstapfen treten (Following in someone's footsteps)
„Er trat in die Fußstapfen seines Vaters und wurde Bäcker.“
Footsteps are footprints left by someone as they walk. The person who follows in someone elses footsteps follows that person in his or her career. This can mean that the person takes over his / her business, succeeds him / her in a job, or replaces him / her in some other way. It is important that the predecessor is seen as a role model that’s being followed by someone else.
At the same time, the phrase also has a negative connotation, especially in today's world. Some claim, that those who always follow in the footsteps of others, leave no traces of their own.
Für jemanden die Hand ins Feuer legen
„Für den lege ich meine Hand ins Feuer!“
Meaning “I put my hand into a fire for you” - this saying refers to trials by fire in which people put their hands into fire. If someone was able to take it out unharmed, then that person had not lied. If you put your hand in the fire for someone else, you believe that this person is acting truthfully. To convey this to another person, you metaphorically put your own "hand in the fire".
Idioms in Germany are very diverse and their quantity is almost innumerable. This article only contains a very small selection of all idioms that the German language has to offer. Many German idioms are used quite unconsciously and are no longer even perceived as such. The more you deal with the German language, the more idioms you will get to know with time. If you don't understand a sentence or think it's illogical, you might want to check whether you're dealing with an idiom you don’t know yet.
You can find more interesting examples of German idioms on our blog:
Nr. 1: „Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof“
Nr. 2: „Die Katze im Sack kaufen“
Nr. 3: „Es ist zum Mäuse melken“
You want to learn more about the German language? Why don’t you attend one of our German courses? You can get all relevant information here.