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German Idiomatic Expressions: Becoming competent in no time at all Posted by on Apr 13, 2012 in Language

Language cuts both ways. On the one hand, language is an open system and allows its users to be creative and to produce as many novel expressions as wished, as long as they make sense. That is, it is not necessary to have ever heard a particular phrase or sentence before in one’s life in order to be able to produce it at some later point in time. For example, when you would like to report about a particular individual and unique experience you have made you cannot simply look up these sentences in a textbook. All you can do is to look for the right words and arrange them in a way that they make sense. In order to do so you need to know, at least, some basic grammar, which is, first of all, word order. Other subtleties of language like case ending of nouns and the conjugation of verbs are preliminary of secondary importance. On the other hand, a language can restrict you in how you can arrange several words in order to express a more complex meaning. The best example for that are a language’s idiomatic expressions.


Idioms are fixed phrases whose meaning cannot be inferred from the meanings of the individual words. They tend to be frozen in form and thus do not readily enter into other combinations or allow the word order to change. For example, a German expression for being lucky is Schwein haben, which literally means “to have pig”. As you can see, idiomatic expressions are speech forms that cannot be understood by literal translation. You must learn and memorize them along with their meanings.


Idioms are so special because they are usually culturally influenced. For example, the German expression seinen Senf dazu geben literally means “to give his mustard to something” but it means “to give one’s opinion”. The English equivalent for that is the idiomatic expression “to add one’s two cents”. Some German idiomatic expression are related to English, while others are not.


German idioms

English idioms

nicht in Frage kommen 

große Augen machen

vor die Hunde gehen

Ende gut, alles gut

to be out of the question 

to be wide-eyed

to go to the dogs

all’s well that ends well







reinen Tisch machen to clear the table(a “fresh start”) to clear the air
mit der Tür ins Haus fallen to fall with the door into the house; mostly in a negative sense(picture: Someone is in such a hurry to get into a house that he pushes the door off his hinges and then falls on top of it) to come straight to the point
Jemanden auf den Zahn fühlen Origin: By feelings a horse’s teeth, an expert can establish its age and value to give some a grilling
nach Strich und Faden according to nap and thread(origin: from weaving, referring to the two directions of the thread – warp and woof) good and proper
in die Binsen gehen Origin: a hunting term; a wild duck took refuge from the hunter by hiding in the rushes (Binsen) of a pond or lake. to go up in smoke
wie am Schnürchen laufen Origin: “die Schnur” is the string from which a puppet is dand manipulated. Hence, this idiom implies “perfect control” to go like clockwork



And what German idioms do you know?

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About the Author:Sandra Rösner

Hello everybody! I studied English and American Studies, Communication Science, and Political Science at the University of Greifswald. Since I have been learning English as a second language myself for almost 20 years now I know how difficult it is to learn a language other than your native one. Thus, I am always willing to keep my explanations about German grammar comprehensible and short. Further, I am inclined to encourage you to speak German in every situation. Regards, Sandra


  1. Sam:

    I am a bit let down… how did that make me competent. I expected some more general hints or web sources or something like that

    • Sandra Rösner:

      @Sam Very good Marick! 🙂

      Well, Sam, of course, you have to learn the idioms first and they appropriate meanings. Only then you will become competent in communicative situations because you need not think about how to combine several words in order to express a particular meaning, and you would sound more natural. Good luck!

  2. marick:

    …wie angewurzelt stehen bleiben.

    …ich drücke dir die Daumen!


  3. Pavel:

    I have to agree with Sam. While its great to point out idioms in a language (its a great way to get a feel for the language, to build vocabulary, and to sound more native-like) you can’t simply give a list of idioms and say “Go, learn these!” You absolutely must demonstrate the kinds of CONTEXTS these idioms are used in. Take “reinen Tisch machen,” for example: would one use the German phrase in a way similar to the English “clear the air,” ie. to talk about clearing a situation by voicing one’s opinions or misgivings? Or not? It’s useless to know an idiom if one can’t know what kind of speech situations it normally appears in. Moreover, if one misuses an idiom, it is immediately noticeble as a flaw to a native speaker, and can even obscure communication.