The German language, like any language, contains a number of peculiar turns of phrase. When you stumble across an idiom or become aware of funny German expressions, you might be pretty confused at first. A literal translation won’t make any sense to you (even Germans might have a hard time explaining what they really mean). Let’s dive into the exciting world of gross, disturbing and funny German expressions by looking at nine prime examples.
Funny German Expressions You Can’t Translate Literally
1. Auf dem Zahnfleisch kriechen
Literal Translation: crawling on one’s gums
Meaning: being completely exhausted
We don’t know where this expression comes from, but it conjures a pretty stunning image: Someone is so exhausted that, despite having his face on the floor and his teeth already scuffed, he crawls on his bare gums. Ouch!
2. Hals- und Beinbruch!
Literal Translation: Break your neck and leg!
Meaning: Good luck!
Why do we wish bad things on someone when what we really want to say is “good luck”? One explanation is that we want to play a trick on fate by saying something we don’t mean at all. It’s also possible that the phrase is a malapropism of the Yiddish expression hatslokhe u brokhe, meaning “success (luck) and blessings.” It’s related to the similar English expression, “Break a leg!”
3. Jemandem etwas aus der Nase ziehen
Literal Translation: to pull something out of someone’s nose
Meaning: to have to tediously extract ever bit of information from someone
This funny German expression doesn’t sound very appetizing. Linguistically, we also find it interesting because some sounds — nasal sounds, to be precise — really do come out of the nose. Most sounds are produced orally by air flowing from the mouth. By contrast, when it comes to nasal sounds, the rear, soft part of the palate (the velum) lowers, so that most of the air flows out through the nose. Some examples of nasal sounds are [m] and [n], and the nasal vowels in French. You can verify this by holding your nose and trying to make these sounds continuously. That doesn’t explain our weird saying, but at least you didn’t have to pull that information out of our noses.
4. Klappe zu, Affe tot
Literal Translation: flap shut, monkey dead
Meaning: this conversation is over
The background of this German proverb is as cruel as the wording suggests: In the past, small monkeys were displayed as attractions in wooden boxes at circus ticket booths. If these monkeys died, the flaps remained shut and no performances took place.
5. Ein Auge auf jemanden/etwas werfen
Literal Translation: to cast an eye on someone/something
Meaning: to take a liking to someone/something
Funny German expressions thrive on powerful imagery. Such is the case in this example: When someone casts an eye on someone else, it might sound romantic — until we learn more about where this phrase comes from. It’s a reference to the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders, in which two respected judges “[cast] their eyes on [Susanna] so intensely that they could no longer look up to heaven or think of righteous judgments.” The judges wanted to seduce Susanna, who was married. When they were rejected by her, they accused Susanna of adultery with the intention of thereby condemning her to death. The story just barely ends smoothly for Susanna, but we now know: This saying clearly does not have a romantic origin.
6. Blut und Wasser schwitzen
Literal Translation: to sweat blood and water
Meaning: to be very afraid, or to work very hard
This proverb also originates in the Bible. According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus sweated blood in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his crucifixion.
7. Das passt wie die Faust aufs Auge
Literal Translation: that fits like a fist on an eye
Meaning: two things go together very well
Ouch! Why should fists and eyes in particular stand for two things going together well, when in the best case scenario a black eye can be the outcome? Well, originally this phrase was meant to say just that: Fists and eyes simply don’t go together. But then it was apparently used ironically so often that the meaning turned into its opposite.
8. Haare auf den Zähnen haben
Literal Translation: having hair on one’s teeth
Meaning: being particularly assertive (often used in a sexist way when referring to women)
A hair in your soup is already disgusting. Hair on your teeth isn’t much better. Moreover, this idiom is quite sexist: According to this logic, the abundant growth of body hair is considered to be a sign of strong masculinity. As a result, it also follows that the more hair you have in unusual places, the stronger your masculinity. It is possible that the German proverb originally spoke of hair on the toes, but the idea behind the idiom and the pejorative connotation with regards to women remain.
9. Jemandem ist eine Laus über die Leber gelaufen
Literal Translation: someone has had a louse run over their liver
Meaning: someone is angered
Speaking of hair, we don’t want lice on our heads. They sound even more unpleasant inside our bodies, though. Where does this (hopefully anatomically impossible) saying come from? While today we poetically consider the heart and anatomically the brain to be where the emotions reside, in the ancient and medieval conception, the temperament was located in the liver. Because of the alliteration (both louse and liver begin with L), the small insect was well suited to be a symbol of a little nuisance that crawled over the liver. We’re already itching and tingling all over.
A version of this article originally appeared on the German edition of Babbel Magazine.