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GERMAN LANGUAGE

REVEALED: The German versions of famous English sayings

From dancing at two weddings to killing flies, the German language has its own unique way of expressing the sentiments behind some of the most popular English sayings.

organic farm at a window
A chicken on an organic farm at a window opening in the scratching room. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marijan Murat

Though many popular English idioms are largely similar to their German equivalents, if you try to directly translate others into German you may be met with a rather perplexed look. 

Here is a break down of the (sometimes surprising) German versions of some of the most popular English idioms.

Zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagen

The German equivalent of the English “to kill two birds with one stone”, uses much smaller flying victims to describe achieving a dual purpose at once. It means literally to “beat two flies with one trap”.

READ ALSO: Why traditional German names are often used as insults

Wie du mir, so ich dir

If you find yourself mistreated in the same way you have behaved towards others, your counterpart might tell you “wie du mir, so ich dir”.

The English version of this phrase – “to get a taste of your own medicine” – is not used in German, so don’t try to directly translate it, unless you have a lot of friends who happen to be pharmacists.

Sich an die eigene Nase fassen

Heiko Maas (SPD), Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs, holds his nose during a press conference.

Heiko Maas (SPD), Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs, holds his nose during a press conference. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa/Pool | Marcus Brandt

In English, you might talk about “the pot calling the kettle black” to express irony or absurdity that someone accuses another person of exactly their own mistakes or shortcomings.

But in German, you’re unlikely to be understood if you start talking about kitchen utensils. Instead, you should tell someone to “touch your own nose.”

The origin of this saying is apparently down to an old Norman legal custom, in which a person who had unjustly insulted someone, had to touch their own nose with their hand while publicly apologising.

Example:

Anna war ganz schön sauer wegen meiner Verspätung. Dabei sollte sie sich an die eigene Nase fassen!

Anna was quite angry because of my lateness. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! 

Setz nicht alles auf eine Karte

The German version of “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” uses gambling rather than farmyard prudence to warn against taking big risks, and literally means “don’t put everything on one card.”

ein blindes Huhn findet auch ein Korn

The closest German idiom in meaning to “even a stopped clock is right twice a day” is the pejorative “a blind chicken also finds corn”, meaning that even the most incompetent can sometimes succeed.

ein gebranntes Kind scheut das Feuer

In English, you would say “once bitten, twice shy” to express that a person who has failed or been hurt when trying to do something is careful or fearful about doing it again. In German, you would literally say “a burned child is afraid of the fire.”

READ ALSO: What’s behind the strange German name for musical chairs?

Besser ein Spatz in der Hand als die Taube auf dem Dach

This avian idiom is very similar to “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, though in this version a safe sparrow in the hand is compared with a flight-risk dove on the roof. The meaning is however the same, and is used to advise people not to risk the thing they have for certain – but which is of lesser value – for something more valuable but not guaranteed.

Sparrows land on a woman's hand to pick up bread crumbs in Berlin.

Sparrows land on a woman’s hand to pick up bread crumbs in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance / Paul Zinken/dpa | Paul Zinken

im Handumdrehen

In English, you might talk about something happening “in the twinkling of an eye” if it passes very quickly. In German, the equivalent speedy movement is a turning hand.

Example:

Das Problem haben wir im Handumdrehen gelöst.

We solved the problem in no time.

Jemanden auf den Arm nehmen

If you want to talk about someone being deceived in German, you would refer to them being pulled by the arm, rather than by the leg as you might in English.

The saying refers to the naivety of children, who are easily pulled by the arm and are also (generally) more gullible.

Examples:

Dieser Witzbold hat schon sehr viele auf den Arm genommen.

This joker has already taken a lot of people for a ride.

in den sauren Apfel beißen

A woman bites into an apple.

A woman bites into an apple. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

When Germans want to express having to do something unpleasant but nevertheless necessary, they talk about biting into a sour apple rather than a bullet.

Man kann nicht auf zwei Hochzeiten gleichzeitig tanzen

The joy of eating your cake (but sadly not being able to have it, too) is replaced in German with the phrase “One can’t dance at two weddings at once” to express the frustrating truth that you can’t enjoy two desirable, but mutually exclusive, things.

Ohne Fleiß, kein Preis

A less severe version of the English “no pain, no gain”, this German idiom literally means “without diligence, no price.”

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GERMAN LANGUAGE

10 ways to talk about being drunk in German

Germany is famous for its love of beer and, with Oktoberfest now in full swing, here are some phrases to help you express various levels of inebriation in the German language.

10 ways to talk about being drunk in German

1. Betrunken sein

The most straightforward way to express alcohol-induced intoxication in German, which will leave no one in any doubt as to your state, is to use the word betrunken meaning “drunk”.

Example:

Es ist ihm egal – er ist betrunken!

He doesn’t care – he’s drunk!

2. Saufen

Next up is the most common word for “boozing” in German. Saufen can be used both as a verb and a noun to mean “to get drunk” or “drinking”.

Examples:

Lass uns einfach weiter saufen!

Let’s just keep drinking!

Ich habe kein Problem mit dem Saufen

I don’t have a drinking problem. 

3. Alkoholisiert sein

This is more of a formal way to talk about being drunk, and is equivalent to the English “to be under the influence of alcohol”. You’ll usually hear authorities and newspaper reports using this phrase to talk about alcohol-related incidents.

Examples:

Der Fahrer war alkoholisiert

The driver was under the influence of alcohol

Es ist aus Sicherheitsgründen untersagt, vor Spielbeginn alkoholisiert anzukommen.

For safety reasons, it is prohibited to arrive intoxicated before the start of the game.

4. Blau sein

This expression, meaning literally “to be blue” has a pretty disgusting origin story.

In the middle ages, the plant woad was used to create a blue colour for dyes.

Three young men run at the Bierathlon in Hannover in 2013. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

As only a small amount of alcohol was needed to speed up the dyeing process, using human urine containing alcohol was supposedly the cheapest way to ferment the dye.

READ ALSO: ‘6 German words I now use in English’

So the dyers drank beer all day and urinated into the vat where the plant was fermenting. Remember that next time you wear your favourite blue t-shirt. 

Example:

Er war so blau, dass er seinen Schlüssel nicht in die Tür bekam

He was so drunk that he couldn’t get his key in the door

5. Beschwipst sein

The phrase beschwipst sein is equivalent to the English “to be tipsy” and not yet in the full throws of drunkenness.

READ ALSO: German word of the day: Kneipe

The word was first used in Austria in the 19th century and can be traced back to the verb schwippen, meaning to sway, as it describes a drunk person who finds it increasingly difficult to walk in a straight line.

Example:

Ich bin nicht betrunken, nur ein bisschen beschwipst

I’m not drunk – just a little tipsy

6. Zu tief ins Glas schauen

This idiom is most likely a jokey rethink of the idiom tief ins Augen schauen meaning “to look someone too deeply in the eyes” as a way of saying “to fall in love with someone”.

This phrase for drunkenness has been in use in the German language since around 1700 and has even made appearances in many literary works, including those of Goethe.  

Examples:

Du solltest nicht zu tief ins Glas schauen, sonst musst du dir ein Taxi nehmen

You’d better not get too drunk, or you’ll have to take a taxi

Immer mehr Rentner schauen oft zu tief ins Glas

More and more pensioners get drunk often

 7. voll wie ein Eimer sein

This expression, meaning “to be as full as a bucket” is just one of a multitude of German expressions that include the word voll (“full”) to express drunkenness.

Grapes being carried in buckets to the transport vehicle on a vineyard in Bavaria. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Heiko Becker

There are numerous phrases that start with voll wie (“as drunk as”) and end in something heavy, such as Granate (grenade), Schwein (pig), Kanone (canon), and even voll wie ein tausend Russen (“full as a thousand Russians”). Why not try making up your own variation?

8. Einen im Tee haben

This idiom is believed to have originated in northern Germany, where a drop of rum was often added to tea on cold winter days for a warm comforting feeling and to protect against the cold – especially by sailors. After one or two, of course, you would be drunk, or at least a little tipsy.

Black tea is poured during a tea ceremony at the Bünting Tea Museum. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sina Schuldt

Example:

Er hatte ganz schön einen im Tee

He’s pretty wasted

9. einen sitzen haben

This phrase is a shortened version of the older einen Affen sitzen haben meaning “to have a monkey sitting” which was used to express a heightened state of inebriation. 

READ ALSO: 7 ways to talk about money like a German

The origin of the phrase is disputed, but most believe it is to do with the fact that fools and jesters would often carry a monkey on their shoulder.

Example:

Ich hatte gestern so richtig einen sitzen

I was so drunk yesterday

10. Kater

Although Kater is also the name for a male cat, this is the German term for “hangover” that you will inevitably need to use after consuming too much alcohol.

It’s widely believed that the origin of this word comes from the medical term “Katarrh”, an inflammation of the mucous membrane, which leads to symptoms such as cough, cold, malaise and headache – similar to those of a hangover.

A visitor to Oktoberfest lies heavily drunk on a meadow in 2017. Photo: picture alliance / Tobias Hase/dpa | Tobias Hase

Example:

Ich hatte am Sonntag einen schrecklichen Kater

I had such a terrible hangover on Sunday

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