Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

German Numbers 0-12 Idioms: “Ach du grüne Neune” and others

Blumenstraße 9b, BerlinIdioms are a wonderful, expressive part of any language. But because you cannot guess the meaning from the words in them, they can be puzzling. And, some idioms are regional. From time to time, even native speakers come across idioms in their own language that they haven't heard before.

I spent my childhood years in Austria (and the Netherlands) before immigrating with my parents to Canada. In our family, we continued to speak German among ourselves. So when I returned to Austria and Germany as a teenager and young adult, I understood and used most of the idioms I've listed below.

But there was one exception:
When my father-in-law once exclaimed: “Ach du grüne Neune!” I had no idea what he meant. It only was clear that he was surprised at something. But why the number nine? - "Neune" - And with an "e" added on?
When I heard this expression again the other day, I consulted the Duden for more German idioms with numbers. The Duden is a German language dictionary published by the Bibliographisches Institut GmbH. It is updated regularly and can be searched online.
Below you'll find thirteen German Numbers Idioms:

German Idioms with Numbers 0-12

0 - Null: Null Bock haben.Ram goat
Idiom: Not feeling like it
Literally: To have zero buck. (Photo by Paxson Woelber on Unsplash)
Duden: Umgangssprachlich für Keine Lust zu, auf etwas haben. (Colloquial for having no inclination to do something or no desire for something.)
Origin: “Null Bock haben” became part of teen slang in the 1980's. A popular novel that came out in 1984 was called "Null Bock auf DDR", which described drop-out youth cultures in East Germany.
There's also some speculation that “Bock” (German for “buck” or “ram”) goes back to the Romani word “bokh”, meaning “hunger”. This would suggest that “null Bock haben” would mean "no hunger/desire for something".

1 - Eins: Jemandem eins auswischen.
Idiom: To pull a fast one on someone.
Literally: To give someone a swipe.
Duden: Umgangssprachlich für “jemanden schaden”. (Colloquial for "harming someone".)
Origin: The quick sweeping movement of a sword is likely the origin of this idiom. First used by fraternities to describe a quick attack in a duel, it gradually entered everyday language.

Hot Dog2 - Zwei: Alles hat einmal ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei.
Idiom
: There's an end for everything.
Literally: Everything has an end, only the sausage has two. (Photo by Charles Deluviu on Unsplash)
Duden: Scherzhaft für "alles muss einmal aufhören". (A humorous way to say that "everything has to end sometime".)
Origin: The saying has shown up in various places, including in Walter Scott's novel "Woodstock or the Cavalier" (1826). In 1987, the German pop singer Stephan Remmler of the music genre Neue Deutsche Welle composed and produced the song: "Alles hat ein Ende nur die Wurst hat zwei".

3 - Drei: Aller guten Dinge sind drei.
Idiom: Third time's the charm.
Literally: All good things are three.
Duden: Ausspruch zur Rechtfertigung von etwas, was jemand ein drittes Mal tut, oder zum dritten Mal probiert. (A way to justify doing or trying something for the third time.)
Origin: This saying probably goes back to the Middle Ages, when a council meeting took place three times a year. A defendant thus had three chances to face his judges. If he did not appear by the third time that the council met, he would be sentenced by default.

4 - Vier: Alle Viere von sich strecken. Man and dog relaxing
Idiom: To unwind. (Photo by Ralph (Ravi) Kayden on Unsplash)
Literally: To stretch out all fours (i.e. your arms and legs).
Duden: Sich behaglich ausgestreckt ausruhen. (Flop down into a comfortable position and relax.)
Origin: This idiom is based on the number four, the two arms and two legs of a human being.

Fünf - 5: Du musst auch mal fünf gerade sein lassen.
Idiom: Don't be a stickler.
Literally: Sometimes you have to let five be an even number.
Duden: Umgangssprachlich für "etwas nicht so genau nehmen". (Colloquial expression for stretching a point here and there, not insisting on perfection.)
Origin: Five is an uneven number. So, letting five be "even", means that you accept that something is not perfect or correct.

6 - Sechs. Eine Sechs schreiben.
Idiom: To flunk.
Literally: To write a six.
Duden: Eine Arbeit schreiben, die mit der Note 6 bewertet wird. (Write a test or exam that gets an F grade.)
Origin: This phrase refers to the grading system in German schools, which uses a 6 or 5 point scale. In that system, a "6" means a failing grade.

Well-worn Boots7 - Sieben: Mit Siebenmeilenstiefeln.
Idiom: At breakneck speed.
Literally: With seven-league boots. (Photo by Will Porada on Unsplash)
Duden: Mit sehr großen Schritten, sehr schnell voran gehen. (Getting ahead using very large steps, going very quickly.)
Origin: "Seven-league boots" appeared as "bottes de sept lieues" in the fairy tale "Le Petit Poucet" by the French poet and storyteller Charles Perrault. The tale was published in 1697 as part of Histoires ou Contes du temps passé. The seven-league boots gave to the wearer the ability to travel far and at high speed, i.e. he could do seven leagues in a single stride.

8 - Acht: Eine Achterbahnfahrt.
Idiom: A roller coaster ride.
Literally: A figure-8 train ride.
Duden: Schwanken zwischen Extremen; Auf und Ab. (Fluctuating, wavering between two extremes; Having ups and downs).
Origin: "Eine Achterbahnfahrt" is a high-speed ride in an amusement park set on an elevated rail, which often has the shape of an eight. The ride takes you through tight curves and sudden ups and down. In our times, you frequently hear people say that the stock market in Germany and elsewhere is "eine Achterbahnfahrt".

9 - Neun: Ach du grüne Neune!
Idiom: Good grief!
Literally: Oh, you green nine!
Duden: Umgangssprachlicher Ausruf der Verwunderung oder des Erschreckens; "Neune" eine Variante für "Neun". (A Colloquial expression of surprise or shock. "Neune" is a variation of "Neun", as in bowling when "all nine" pins fall - "alle Neune". )
Origin: Several stories around the origin of this expression exist. One tells of a theater on the Blumenstraße 9b in Berlin, which had its main entrance on the "Grünen Weg" (Green Road). The theater produced lively local plays. Behind the theater was a garden restaurant with chairs and tables said to have been painted green.
Another theory points to French fortune-telling cards where Pik Neun (English: Nine of Spade) is a green card and forebodes bad luck.

10 -Zehn: Da bringen mich keine zehn Pferde hin.Wild Horses
Idiom: Wild horses can't drag me there.
Literally: No ten horses will get me there. (Photo by Bethany Legg on Unsplash)
Duden: Umgangssprachlich für "unter keinen Umständen irgendwohin gehen, oder etwas tun". (Colloquial for "absolutely refusing to go somewhere or do something".)
Origin: One explanation for this idiom apparently goes back to the Middle Ages when ten horses were not enough compensation for taking a bride.
Another, more obvious one, is that horses are strong animals, but the person's dislike for doing something happens to be even stronger.

11 - Elf : Elfmeter schießen.
Idiom: Kick from the 11 meter penalty spot (in soccer).
Literally: Shooting eleven meters.
Duden: Nach bestimmten schweren Regelverstößen innerhalb des Strafraums verhängte Strafe, bei der der Ball vom Elfmeterpunkt aus direkt auf das Tor geschossen werden darf; Strafstoß. (A punishment given to a player after specific serious foul-play offenses within the penalty area. The ball can then be kicked from the eleven meter point directly onto the goal; penalty shot.)
Origin: "Elfmeter" signals that the spot is 11 meters away from the goal line. The penalty area (16 meter from the goal posts) and the 11 meter penalty spot were introduced in 1902. The first "penalty" shoot-out (to decide a tied game score) in the World Cup was on January 9th, 1977, when Tunisia beat Morocco.

5 to 12 on clock12 - Zwölf: Es ist fünf vor zwölf.
Idiom: It's high time.
Literally: It's five to twelve.
Duden: Es ist höchste Zeit einzugreifen, etwas zu stoppen. (It's high time we intervened or stopped something.)
Origin: One story about this idiom goes back to earlier times when a master builder and his crew were working on the scaffolding of a church tower. At "five to twelve" they would be warned to come down quickly, because the loud ring of the church bells would endanger the hearing of whoever was close by.
Right now, the expression "es ist fünf vor zwölf" is frequently used by health care officials in Germany to warn about the rapid increase of Covid-19 infections. You also hear it as a warning of the impending climate change crisis.

When you think about it, most of these expressions are quite apropos for many moments in our lives right now. How often have I thought to myself: "Darauf habe ich null Bock" (I really don't feel like doing this). Or: "Ich will nichts als alle Viere von mir strecken" (What I really want is get comfortable and relax). I especially like the idea of "Alles hat einmal ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei".
More seriously for language learners: When you practice these idioms, you also get some insight into how spoken language is put together. And, you can wow your German friends, by dropping one or two of these idioms into a Zoom conversation.

Posted on by Peter Rettig

Pre-Corona European Travels 12 – Bordeaux and Arcachon

Cité du Vin MuseumIn September 2019, as we flew from Amsterdam to Bordeaux, Ulrike and I had no idea yet how different our life would be in a few months.
I am writing this post just about a year later. Checking the websites of the places which we visited during our week-long stay in Bordeaux and travels through the Périgord region, I realize that many activities are out of reach at the moment: exploring Bordeaux by tram and bus, visiting museums, a wine tasting class in the Cité du Vin (see picture above), a river cruise with Bruno, visiting castles and the Lascaux caves, wine tasting in vineyards, etc, etc.
Fortunately, the memories and pictures from that trip will last us for a while. And maybe this post will motivate some readers to explore Bordeaux and its surroundings once the Covid-19 period has passed!

A Very Brief History of Bordeaux

As we usually do in a new city, we visited the local history museum, here the Musée d'Aquitaine. This gave us a quick and comprehensive overview of both Bordeaux's ancient and recent history.
We learned that Bordeaux's importance as a major port increased after the marriage in 1152 of Eleanor of Aquitaine with Henry Plantagenet (who is better known as Henry II and was King of England from 1152-1189).
The “English era” gave Bordeaux protection, and the wine trade and tax-free status with England made the city flourish right into the middle of the 15th century.Aerial view of the Port of the Moon in 1899
Annexed by France in 1453, Bordeaux eventually entered into another golden era in the 18th century, when it became France's busiest port, supplying much of Europe with coffee, sugar, cotton, etc from overseas. (Image by Hugo d'Alesi, 1899, Archives de Bordeaux métropole.)
After World War II, two long-serving mayors were responsible for Bordeaux's development: Jacques Chaban-Delmas from 1947-1995 and Alain Juppé from 1995-2019, both with various interruptions, as they also served as Prime Ministers under Jacques Chirac and Georges Pompidou respectively.
Today the Bordeaux metropolitan area has a population of about 780,000 with about 250,000 living in the city. As such, it is France's sixth largest city, the capital of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region and the center of a major wine-growing and wine-producing region.

Exploring Bordeaux by Tram

Bordeaux wireless tramNeither Ulrike nor I had ever been in Bordeaux or that part of France before. We especially looked forward to exploring the surrounding wine country as well.
Our rental apartment was near the Place Gambetta, right in the center of town. This allowed us to explore “la vieille ville” and other quarters on foot, and by using several tram lines that were nearby.
Eager to use the public transport system, trams and buses, we made the mistake of purchasing a seven-day transport card online. Why a mistake? Because each time we used a tram, we had to use our smartphone and internet connection to validate. (A better choice is to purchase a 7-day card in one of the public transport offices.)
And as the tram was our favorite mode of transport, we noticed one thing right away: there were no overhead wires in the city. We were intrigued. (See picture above of tram in front of the Bordeaux Opera.) I noticed that there was a center rail set in the pavement, but people normally walked over it, so obviously it could not be electrified.
A Google search and our visit to the Historical Museum solved the mystery: Mayor Chaban-Delmas had the last of the 38 tramlines, with their over 120 miles of tracks, removed in 1958. But plans for a subway failed because of the sandy soil and related costs.
The “Bordelaises and Bordelais” (women and men of Bordeaux) had to wait until 2003, Bordeaux wireless tram trackswhen the first of the now 3 lines (about 40 miles) of a modern tramway were opened. Mayor Alain Juppé had insisted that no overhead wires should spoil the view of the buildings in the city. Thus a ground-level power supply operates in the city, called APS (Alimenation Par Sol). The center rail is not continuous, but connected with what look like ceramic isolators. (You can see the center rail with the light brown isolator in the picture.)
In the city, electric power is supplied to the tram by the center rail with only the portion under the tram electrically live. Reportedly, the system had problems at the start, but seemed to work well while we were there. (We wonder, however, how it would work during snow and ice conditions.)
Once the tram leaves the inner city, the overhead lines appear again and each tram raises its collector arm (pantograph) to connect.

Cité du Vin

One of the must-see sites when you visit Bordeaux is Cité du Vin, the Bordeaux Wine Museum. You can get there either by tram or by water shuttle on the Garonne river. At the museum, you will learn more about the world's wine cultures than you'll likely remember. The permanent exhibition explains how “humans cultivate vines all over the world in a wide variety of natural conditions. Winegrowers have adapted, invented and modeled their landscapes and shaped them through their traditions.”
Cité du Vin wine shopWe also decided to take a wine tasting class in French. The teacher was entertaining and familiarized an international audience with the basics of French wine terminology. And while it certainly takes more than a one-hour class to become a real wine connoisseur, we became fully aware of how many vivid adjectives the French language has for describing wines.
For example: The level of “acidité” (acidity) can be described by words like “mou, vif, nerveux” (soft, lively, nervous); the level of “tanin” (tannin) with “souple, charpenté, âpre” (flexible, framed, harsh); the level of “onctuosité” (smoothness) with “creux, gras, lourd” (hollow, fat, heavy).
And most importantly, we learned: When you “name” (i.e. pin down with words) your own impression of the wine that you're sampling, you'll better remember a similar taste next time. (But it requires that you equip yourself with the relevant vocabulary to describe your impressions! Here is a link to such a wine glossary in English.)
The shop at Cité du Vin has a large selection of wines from the region (see picture above), and from the top of the spectacular building (where more wine tasting occurs), you have a spectacular view of Bordeaux and the Garonne river.

Bordeaux's Museums

Besides the Musée d’Aquitaine and la Cité du Vin, we also enjoyed the MECA,Bassin de Lumières exhibition poster musée des arts décoratifs et du design, and the Musée Mer Marine (Maritime Museum).
Indeed, when we visited the Maritime Museum, we were also intrigued by the nearby submarine bunkers. An unattractive remnant of World War II, which had housed the Italian submarine fleet at the time, its thick concrete walls and roof have made demolition cost-prohibitive.
At the time of our visit, parts of this base were just being converted into the Bassins de Lumières. While not yet open to the public then, the above link and picture give you an impression of a spectacular exhibit, which appears well worth visiting.

La Garonne and Le Miroir d'Eau

Miroir d'eau in front of Place de la BourseFor many cities a waterway adds to their special appeal and Bordeaux is no exception (see also Lisbon, Portugal). Pictures in the Musée d'Aquitaine showed us that before World War II and even into the 1960s, the Garonne river's waterfront had been a busy port, with ocean-going ships docking right up to the Pont de Pierre.
Today commercial harbor terminals and pontoons, especially for container ships, have moved downstream. But major cruise ships can still dock downtown, close to the Place de la Bourse and the Miroir d'Eau.
There is now a wonderful promenade that stretches from beyond the Miroir d'eau with mistPont de Pierre to the row of converted warehouses downstream. These hangars house various expositions and events as well as brand-name discount shops.
The Miroir d'Eau, in front of the Place de la Bourse is reportedly the world's largest reflecting pool with 37,100 sqft. It is indeed quite spectacular, both as a mirror and also when the rising mist begins to hide the people walking around.
I would be amiss if I didn't comment on the color of the Garonne river.Dordogne joins Garonne river I had already noticed the brown color of both the Garonne and the Dordogne rivers from the plane as it made its approach to the Bordeaux airport.
Bruno, our Garonne river cruise guide, made it his first point of business to explain why the Garonne is NOT “dirty”: the color is the end-result of a natural phenomenon. The sediment that the Garonne carries downstream meets the oceanic tides that come up the estuary. With salty water being heavier than fresh water, the undercurrent brings the sediment to the surface and coagulates in the form of microscopic flakes, producing the brown color. Nevertheless the Garonne is ranked as one of Europe's cleanest rivers!

Arcachon and the Dune du Pilat

Oysters lunch @ ArcachonAt the end of our one-week stay in Bordeaux we rented a car to explore the surrounding wine country. (More about that in another post.)
We had heard from friends that a visit to  Arachon was also a must: both for its famous oysters as well as for the “Dune of Pilat”. Arcachon is only a 40 mile drive from Bordeaux and a favorite weekend spot for many locals.
For centuries the name of Arcachon has been related to “great oysters”, and keeping the Arcachon Bay unpolluted is of key concern for many area residents. (Over the last 50 years there have been a number of natural and man-caused disasters affecting the oysters in the bay.) The area's oyster industry grows oysters for the French restaurant market as well as seed oysters for oyster growers all over Europe.
The delightful little Hôtel du Parc, where we stayed, was in walking distance to the Plage Pereire. After renting bicycles directly at the hotel, we were soon using the bike paths up and down along the beach.
We even made it all the way to downtown Arcachon and its harbor. The downtown area is not very attractive, as it is overbuilt with hotels and condominiums. However, the promenade along Arcachon Bay with its beach, promenade, restaurants and large marina is lovely. It was still bustling during the weekend even at the end of September. Sitting in one of the many restaurants, "people watching" can be a great pastime!
We sampled the famous “huitres” (oysters) at several restaurants. Our favorite was the Restaurant du Soleil, right at the beach, with a fabulous view of the sun set each evening.

Climbing up the Dune du Pilat was an amazing experience. Located just southClimbing the Dune du Pilat of the entrance to the Bay of Arcachon, the dune rises to over 300 feet above sea level and is about 1.7 miles long. The name “Pilat” (or “Pyla”, to the locals) originates from the Gascon word “philar”, which means heap or mound.
On the last September weekend there was a stream of visitors climbing up and down the dunes, some picnicking on top, others just watching the para gliders making their turns and  – because of the upwinds –  often landing above from where they started.
The dune has been observed to move backwards at the rate of about 15 feet per year, encroaching on the pine forest and swallowing up houses built at its base. This explains why the visitor center and large parking lot have been placed far in the back.

After our stay in Arcachon we still had a few days left to explore the “Médoc region” to the left of the Gironde estuary, but we'll report on that in our next post.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

From Hats to Boots - 25 Fun Idioms in English

The emperor's new clothesRecently I again came across Hans Christian Andersen's tale “The Emperor's New Clothes”. (picture from Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales Stained Glass Coloring Book, Image courtesy of Dover Publications)
Those of you who grew up with fairy tales will know the story:
Two scoundrels claim to fit the emperor with imaginary new clothes. They say that the clothes would be invisible to all who are stupid and incompetent. His subjects of course pretend not to see that the emperor is indeed naked as he proudly walks through the city.
It takes a child to say what everybody can see but is afraid to acknowledge:

“But he hasn't got any clothes on!”

(Sometimes I feel that many in the U.S. are behaving like the emperor's subjects in Andersen's tale ...)
The proverb "clothes make the man" is well known, and the English language is full of idioms that involve different items of clothing. Because idioms in a language don't mean what the individual words say, they can be confusing and challenging to non-native speakers.
Here are 25 idioms in English that all involve clothing items.

1. Idiom: Talking through your hat

Two hats

Meaning: Saying things that are absurd or not supported in any way. Talking about something without understanding what you're talking about.
Sentence: My brother tried to explain how a computer works. But if you ask me, he was talking through his hat. None of what he said made any sense.
(Photo by Max Anderson on Unsplash)

2. Idiom: Eating one's hat

Meaning: Expressing disbelief that something is true or will actually happen.
Sentence: If you really finish your homework today, I'll eat my hat.

3. Idiom: Something is old hat

Meaning: This means that an object, a film, a story, a phrase, etc., is outdated, old-fashioned, too familiar because it's been used frequently.
Sentence: That kind of story is old hat. I've heard it lots of times before.

4. Idiom: A feather in one's cap

Meaning: An achievement one can be proud of.
Explanation: The idiom may go back to the custom of a hunter putting the feather of a successfully slain a bird in his hat.
Sentence: Her promotion to manager is definitely a feather in her cap.

Glass in front of fireplace5. Idiom: Having a nightcap

Meaning: Having a drink at the end of the day or the end of a party.
Explanation: In earlier times, a "night cap" was actually a cap you put on before going to bed.
Sentence: This was a perfect day. Let's have a nightcap to round it off. (Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash)

6. Idiom: Ride on somebody's coattails

Meaning: Doing something by being associated with someone else.
Explanation: "Coattails" are the flaps at the lower part of a formal tailcoat which is long in the back and shorter in the front. Riding on someone's coattails evokes the image of a person standing on to those long back flaps.
Sentence: He got that important post by riding on the senator's coattails.

7. Idiom: Handle someone with kid gloves

Meaning: To be very careful and tactful when dealing with someone.
Explanation: A "kid" here is a young goat, so kid gloves are made of very soft leather.
Sentence: I have to be careful to handle my friend Alison with kid gloves. She gets offended easily.

8. Idiom: The gloves are offboxing gloves

Meaning: People are ready to fight or argue more aggressively.
Explanation: This expression probably comes from boxing, where gloves are supposed to cut down on the damage fighters do to each other. It also suggests the idea that a man would take his gloves off to get ready for a violent confrontation.
Sentence: What you said was really hurtful. As far as I'm concerned, the gloves are now off. (Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash)

9. Idiom: Keep your shirt on

Meaning: Stay calm, don't become impatient or angry.
Sentence: Please keep your shirt on, I'm sure we'll get there in time. I can't drive any faster.

10. Idiom: Lose one's shirt

Meaning: To lose a large amount of money or one's possessions.
Sentence: I put all my money into that investment, but unfortunately I lost my shirt.

11. Idiom: Have something up one's sleeve

Meaning: To have a secret scheme or plan of action. To have something in reserve that you can use if you need it.
Explanation: The idiom evokes a magician who can pull things out of a hat or coat to surprise his audience. It may also refer to a card player who has hidden a favorable card up his sleeve.
Sentence: Even if this plan doesn't work out for her, I'm sure she has a few other ideas up her sleeve.

12. Idiom: Wear your heart on your sleeve

Meaning: To allow your feelings to show.
Explanation: The expression dates back to jousting during the Middle Ages, where a knight wore the colors of his lady on his sleeve.
Sentence: Ralph wears his heart on his sleeve. It's easy to see when he's upset.

Cuff links on white shirt13. Idiom: Do something off the cuff

Meaning: Doing something spontaneously, without preparation.
Explanation: The cuff on a shirt is the band at the end of a sleeve. "Off the cuff" suggests reading a few words that were quickly put there as a reminder.
Sentence: I didn't have time to prepare a speech, so I said a few words off the cuff.

14. Idiom: Fly by the seat of your pants

Meaning: Do something using just guesswork or experience. Decide on the course of action as you go along.
Explanation: The idiom goes back to the early days of aviation, when planes did not have instruments to aid in navigation and communication.
Sentence: My boss put me on a project that I knew little about. For the first couple of weeks I was flying by the seat of my pants.

15. Idiom: Beat the pants off someone

Meaning: To show yourself to be much better than someone else. Decisively defeat someone in a competition.
Sentence: Our team beat the pants off our old rivals in yesterday's soccer game.

16. Idiom: Get something under your beltLeather Belt

Meaning: Getting experience that is important and useful.
Sentence: Once you get a few weeks of teaching under your belt, you'll feel more comfortable standing in front of the classroom. (Photo by Asiya Kiev on Unsplash)

17. Idiom: Hit someone below the belt

Meaning: Do something unfair to someone.
Explanation: This term comes from boxing, where it's against the rules to target someone below the waist.
Sentence: What you said was unfair and insulting. It really hit below the belt.

18. Idiom: Be in someone's pocket

Meaning: To be willing to do whatever a person says, especially out of weakness, for money, for personal gain, etc.
Sentence: The judge in the case was in the president's pocket.

19. Idiom: Line one's pockets

Meaning: To make a large amount of money, especially is dishonest ways.
Explanation: Lining something, means to cover it. So this idiom could well refer to putting money in your pockets. A similar expression would be "to feather one's nest".
Sentence: We were shocked to hear that our mayor was arrested for lining his pockets.

20. Idiom: Pull one's socks up

Meaning: To make a determined effort to achieve a target, to improve one's work, etc.
Sentence: This phrase originated in competitive running. At the start of a race, the runners would pull up their socks to get ready for the effort ahead.

Knock your socks off logo and product21. Idiom: Knock someone's socks off

Meaning: To have a strong positive effect on someone, by impressing or surprising them.
Sentence: Her speech knocked my socks off. It was inspiring and right on. (Picture courtesy of Knock Your Socks Off)

22. Idiom: Wait for the other shoe to drop

Meaning: To wait for an expected (negative) event or consequence.
Sentence: I lost my job and now I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. I may have to move out of my apartment too.

23. Idiom: Do something on a shoestring

Meaning: To do something using a very small amount of money.
Explanation: A shoestring is a shoelace, i.e. something that costs very little money. So, the expression means doing something or getting by with very little money.
Sentence: That's a really good film. But did you know that it was made on a shoestring?

24. Idiom: Get the boot

Meaning: To be fired from a job.
Explanation: Getting the boot literally means getting kicked out of a place.
Sentence: When the boss found out that my colleague was feathering her nest, she got the boot.

25. Idiom: Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps

Meaning: To achieve success through one's own efforts.
Explanation: A "bootstrap" is a "loop sewn on top or each side of a boot to make it easier to pull the boot on". According to the site Useless Etymology: The phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” originated shortly before the turn of the 20th century. It’s attributed to a late-1800s physics schoolbook that contained the example question “Why can not a man lift himself by pulling up on his bootstraps?” First it was meant to be sarcastic, later it started to imply that it's something one should be able to do.
Sentence: As nobody was around to help him, he had to pull himself himself up by his own bootstraps.

English is the fifth language that you can play to learn on this site, but primarily as "English for Spanish Speakers" and with a few games for "English ESL". To look for more idioms in English, or get more explanations and examples of the ones above, you can start with these sites: The Idioms, Writing Explained, The Grammarist.  But there are many more other sites, just search for "idioms".

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Cats, Windmills, Marionettes and More in Dutch Idioms

Scared cat in a treeDutch is spoken by 23 million people as a mother tongue. It's the only official language in the Netherlands, and one of three official languages in the neighboring province of Flanders, Belgium.
It also holds official status in Suriname (South America) and in the Caribbean countries of Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten.
Dutch is closely related to both English and German, and it's often said that in respect to grammar and vocabulary, Dutch comes between the two. (You'll find examples from the idioms below at the end of the post)
And even if you don't speak Dutch, you're sure to be amused by these 10 typical expressions. What got me going on this blog post was the idiom "de kat uit de boom kijken". My Dutch mom loved to use it and I, of course, knew what it meant. But I never really understood the literal meaning. In English, the literal translation is "to look the cat out of the tree". Huh?
So when my husband asked me to explain what that means, I couldn't. But his question did get me to find out what's behind the saying. Here it is.
And I've added a few other fun idioms that I grew up with.

1. De kat uit de boom kijken.

Idiom: To see which way the wind blows
Literally: Watching the cat [until it comes] out of the tree  (Photo by Lalita Tretiakova on Unsplash)
Explanation: To wait, not react immediately, but to first look carefully to see what's happening.
Origin: Onzetaal (see link at the bottom) suggests that the saying may go back to the way a dog will chase a cat up a tree, but then wait until the cat comes down again because dogs don't climb on trees. Apparently, the expression appeared already in the 18th century in a collection of proverbs.
Dutch Explanation: Afwachten, niet meteen reageren, maar eerst goed kijken wat er er aan de hand is.
German Idiom: Erst einmal sehen, wie der Hase läuft. (First of all see how the rabbit runs.)

2. Maak dat de kat wijs.

Idiom: Tell me another.
Literally: Make the cat believe that.
Explanation: Essentially, this idiom means: I don't believe you. Tell this nonsense to someone else.
The Dutch phrase "iemand iets wijsmaken" means "to make someone believe something (that may not be true)".
Dutch Explanation: Ik geloof je niet. Vertel die onzin maar ergens anders.

3. Een kat in de zak kopen.

Idiom: To buy a pig in a poke
Literally: Buying a cat in the bag
Explanation: Buying something without having looked at it before.
Origin: In earlier times, merchants at a market would often put a worthless cat into the bag instead of the pig or hare a person paid for. This worked especially well with inattentive customers.
Dutch Explanation: Iets kopen zonder het gezien te hebben.
German Idiom: Die Katze im Sack kaufen. (To buy the cat in a the sack.)

4. De molen is door de vang. Dutch windmill at rest

Idiom: It all went south.
Literally: The (wind) mill has [broken through] the catch. (This picture of a Dutch windmill was taken during our 2016 Canal boating trip in the Netherlands.)
Explanation: Everything is going wrong. The matter is lost.
Origin: The Dutch term "de vang" on a windmill is "the catch" or "the drum brake", which prevents the wheel from moving on its own, even in a storm. When the brake no longer holds, you lose control over the turning of the mill and that can cause problems or even accidents.
Dutch Explanation: Alles gaat helemaal mis, alles loopt fout. De zaak is verloren.

5. Dat is koren op zijn molen.

Idiom: That plays directly into his hands.
Literally: That is grain on his mill.
Explanation: That's useful to him. He'll use that as an argument for what he wants anyway.
Origin: Although windmills in the Netherlands were mostly used to pump water from lower lying areas, they were also used to crush grain.
Dutch Explanation: Dat komt hem goed van pas. Hij zal dat meteen gebruiken als argument voor wat hij toch al wilde
German: Das is Wasser auf seine Mühle. (In Germany there were many more watermills than windmills!)

Cattle eating grass on Dutch pasture near canal6. Over koetjes en kalfjes praten.

Idiom: To make small talk
Literally: Talking about little cows and little calves (Photo by Alwin Kroon on Unsplash)
Explanation: To talk about unimportant things.
Origin: This expression very likely originated in the Dutch countryside where farmers talk about their cattle with each other. But the idiom turns the meaning around: what may be important for farmers, turns out to be unimportant to everyone else.
Dutch Explanation: Over onbeduidende zaken spreken.

7. Een wit voetje willen halen.

Idiom: To curry favor
Literally: Wanting to get a little white foot.
Explanation: Seeking to advance oneself, often through flattery or fawning.
Origin: This curious expression goes back to an earlier time, when you had to pay toll while passing from one region to another. Apparently, if you had a horse with four white feet, you lucked out and did not have to pay. Later, when it became a more general idiom, one little white foot was enough.
Dutch Explanation: Bij iemand in de gunst willen komen, vaak door slijmen.

8. Van de prins geen kwaad weten.

Idiom: Butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.
Literally: To know no evil of the prince.
Explanation: a) To be totally innocent. b) To pretend you don't know anything about what's going on.
Origin: This is an old expression, dating back to the 17th century. Very likely, it refers to a prince from the House of Orange. You were either totally innocent and knew nothing. Or, you were aware that it was dangerous to speak badly about a powerful person, so it was better to keep such thoughts to yourself.
Dutch: a) Totaal onschuldig zijn. b) Doen als of je niets weet.

9. Nu komt de aap uit de mouw.

Idiom: The cat is out of the bag.
Literally: Now the monkey comes out of the sleeve.
Explanation: When it's suddenly clear what's going on.
Origin: This goes back to the magician's art of suddenly popping a monkey out of his sleeve. It suggests that something that was kept hidden suddenly comes out, for example someone's true intentions or character.
Dutch: Als ineens duidelijk wordt hoe iets zit.

10. Nu heb je de poppen aan het dansen.Dancing Marionettes

Idiom: Now the fat is in the fire.
Literally: Now you have the dolls dancing. (Photo by Sagar Dani on Unsplash)
Explanation: The quarrel or fight is starting. There's trouble ahead.
Origin: Puppet shows have been a popular form of entertainment since the Middle Ages. When the dolls start dancing - i.e. the puppet show starts - it's the beginning of conflict, quarrels, etc. Nowadays, the expression used for the moment when problems arise, when something starts going wrong.
Dutch Explanation: De ruzie of twist is begonnen. Problemen zijn onvermeidbaar.

In these our restless times, the last expression seems to come up a lot. I've heard it several times when listening to the Dutch Podcast NCR Vandaag, and most recently in the one talking about the German Wirecard scandal.
It's almost impossible to find the absolute equivalent of an idiom in another language, because expressions are often shaped by a people's culture. For example, the Dutch idiom "nu heb je de poppen aan het dansen" contains an "entertainment" factor (it's a "show"!), which "fat is in the fire" doesn't have.
To find out more about the above idioms or to look for others, go on these sites 33 Dutch Idioms, Onzetaal, A Taste of Dutch.

You may not speak Dutch, but if you speak English or German you'll find that these three Germanic languages share many cognates. In some of these, the meaning changes somewhat. Here are a few  examples from the idioms above:

English

Dutch

German

the cat

de kat

die Katze

make

maken

machen

the sack

de zak

der Sack

the mill

de molen

die Mühle

through

door

durch

the cow

de koe

die Kuh

the foot

de voet

der Fuß

come

komen

kommen

the puppet

de pop

die Puppe

dance

dansen

tanzen

Our recent posts looked at German, French, Italian and Spanish idioms

Dutch isn't one of our four languages that you can practice on GamesforLanguage. However, if you want to learn some basics in Dutch: greetings, polite phrases or travel terms, go to our - also completely free - sister site Lingo-Late, where we have 30+ or so Dutch phrases. You can Listen, Record Yourself, and Playback Your Voice, as many times as you want to learn and practice.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Bread, Flour, Cats and More in Spanish Idioms

Carrying 3 loafs of breadIn earlier posts we explored some of the lesser known German, French and Italian Idioms.
Spanish is spoken as an official language in 20 countries, and is rich in idioms and expressions. These are fixed phrases that have a figurative rather than a literal meaning. Here are 12 common expressions you may come across.

1. Nacer con un pan bajo el brazo

Idiom: to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth
Literally: to be born with a bread under your arm. (Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash.)
Explanation: This is said of a person who is very lucky or very privileged.
The expression may also go back to the idea that a new child born to a poor family will mean another pair of hands for bringing in the money.
Spanish: Se dice de una persona que es muy afortunada o muy privilegiada.

2. Ser pan comido

Idiom: to be a piece of cake
Literally: to be bread (to be) eaten
Explanation: You use it for something that's very easy to do.
Bread is a good image for something that is easy to get and doesn't need any elaborate preparation.
Spanish: Se usa para decir que algo es muy fácil de hacer.

3. Ser harina de otro costal Hands with flour

Idiom: to be a different kettle of fish
Literally: to be flour from a different sack (Photo by Jordane Mathieu on Unsplash)
Explanation: To be a separate matter, an entirely different thing.
This expression probably goes back to a time when people brought their own batches of various types of grain to collective mills. These batches were kept in separate sacks to keep them apart.
Spanish: Ser tema aparte.

4. Meterse en harina

Idiom: to get down to it
Literally: to get into the flour
Explanation: To buckle down eagerly to a job or task.
When a baker prepares bread, he is wont to put his hands right into the flour to knead the dough
Spanish: Empeñarse con mucho ahínco en una obra o empresa.

5. Estar en su salsa

Idiom: to be in one's element
Literally: to be in one's sauce
Explanation: To be in a familiar environment and to feel at home, comfortable.
Spanish: Estar en un entorno conocido y sentirse como en casa, comodo.

a cute cat6. Buscarle tres pies al gato.

Idiom: to make a mountain out of a molehill
Literal: to look for three legs on the cat (Photo by Ramiz Dedakovi? on Unsplash)
Explanation: You don't need to complicate things that are simple.
The expression doesn't make a lot of sense like this. It actually used to be: "buscarle cinco pies al gato, y no tiene más que cuatro" (to look for five legs on the cat, when it only has four) and over time it changed to this.
Spanish: No hace falta complicar algo que es sencillo.

7. Dar a algun gato por liebre

Idiom: to take someone for a ride
Literally: give someone a cat for a hare
Explanation: To deceive someone, con fool, trick.
In earlier centuries people were not always sure what meat they were eating. If they ordered rabbit stew, is that really what they got?
Spanish: Engañar a alguno, embaucar.

8. Empezar la casa por el tejado

Idiom: to put the cart before the horse
Literally: to start the house by the roof
Explanation: This expression is used when someone doesn't do something in the right order.
How can you build a house by starting with the roof? It can't be done, and when you try you're sure to run into problems.
Spanish:
Se utiliza cuando alguien no sigue el orden correcto para hacer algo.

9. En un abrir y cerrar de ojosa woman's beautiful eye

Idiom: in the twinkling of an eye
Literally: in an opening and closing of eyes (Photo by Amanda Dalbjörn on Unsplash)
Explanation: Something that happens quickly, in an instant.
The expression is said to go back to a passage in the New Testament, referring to the moment of resurrection that would happen in a flash.
Spanish: Algo que pasa rapidamente, en un instante.

10. Estar hecho como un flan

Idiom: to shake like a leaf
Literally: to be made like creme caramel
Explanation: To be very nervous or shaky.
This refers to people who are anxious, fearful, or unsteady for whatever reason.
A flan is a custard-like dessert that has a light texture and trembles when touched.
Spanish: Estar muy nervioso o tembloroso.

11. Pedir peras al olmo

Idiom: to get blood from a stone
Literally: to ask the elm tree for pears
Explanation: Asking for the impossible.
Looking for pears on an elm tree is a pretty futile exercise.
A pear is a sweet and delicious fruit. On the other hand, the small hairy fruit of an elm tree is not edible for humans.
Spanish: Pedir algo imposible.

12. Camina comenzado, medio andado.

Idiom: A good beginning is half the battle.
Literally: Road started, half walked.
Explanation: The first step is the most important one.
Once you take the first step, you're on your way. If you don't even take a first step, you won't make any progress.
Spanish: El primer paso es el más importante.

These expressions can be a fun topic of conversation no matter which Spanish-speaking country you're in. If your conversation partner appears puzzled by a "modismo" you're using, you may want to ask: ¿No se dice aquí? (Is it not said here?) 
During our one-month stay in Barcelona a few years ago, we had regular language-exchange meetings with a local student. He spoke Spanish, we spoke German, and we met in a neighborhood bar. Talking about equivalent idioms in our respective languages was a natural part of each session.

For the Spanish idioms that I've listed here, I looked at a number of different sites. You can find more about those expressions or look up new ones by clicking on the links of the sites: Significado y Origen de Expresiones Famosas   Diccionario de la lengua española   Happy Hour Spanish 

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Le Mani in Pasta and More in Italian Idioms

Making PastaFollowing our recent posts about German and French idioms, we are now looking at 12 Italian idioms.
A few years ago, we lived for several months in Rome, on Via di Genovesi in the Trastevere neighborhood. Our apartment was located directly across from a small restaurant, Le Mani in Pasta. (
Photo by Jorge Zapata on Unsplash)
It was then a restaurant for locals and none of the waiters spoke English. We loved going there. Our Italian at the time was still quite rudimentary and it was a fun challenge to order from the Italian-only menu. (The restaurant has since expanded and continues to be popular. A nephew who had dinner there with his family early this year liked it very much!)
As new Italian learners, we were puzzled by the form “le mani”, but our tutor explained that “the hand” in Italian is feminine: it's "la mano, le mani".
What had obviously thrown us off was that most Italian nouns ending with “o” are masculine. (Sometimes a look at related languages helps. It's “la main” in French, and - no surprise - “la mano” in Spanish. And even in German, the word hand happens to be feminine: “die Hand”.)

1. Avere le mani in pasta

Idiom: to have a finger in the pie
Literally: to have the hands in dough
Explanation: To be involved, especially in a business matter, or situation of power.
Italian: Essere addentro a qualcosa, in particolare a una questione d'affari, o a una situazione di potere.

2. Avere le mani di pasta frolla

Idiom: to be a butterfingers
Literally: to have pastry-dough hands; "pasta frolla" = shortcut pastry
Explanation: To be someone who drops things they are carrying or trying to catch, to be clumsy, awkward, not careful, not know how to do something or do it badly.
Italian: Essere goffi, impacciati, non accurati, non saper fare nulla o farlo male.

3. Calcare la mano

Idiom: to lay it on with a trowel
Literally: to tread or press down on the hand
Explanation: To exaggerate, especially regarding a punishment or accusation.
Italian: Esagerare in rigore e severità, soprattutto se riferito a una punizione, un'accusa.

4. Non perdere la mano

Idiom: to keep your hand in
Literally: to not lose the hand
Explanation: To not get out of the habit of doing something.
Italian: Non perdere l'abitudine di fare qualcosa.

5. Essere in gambaWomen soccer training

Idiom: to be on the ball (Photo by Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash)
Literally: to be on your feet
Explanation: To be in good health. Also more broadly speaking, to be smart, skillful, expert, efficient.
The first meaning alludes to the fact that a sick person is generally in bed and does not use their legs.
Italian: In buona salute. In senso lato anche intelligente, abile, esperto, efficiente.
Nel significato primo, allude al fatto che una persona malata sta generalmente a letto e quindi non usa le gambe.

6. Fare il passo piu lungo della gamba

Idiom: to bite off more than you can chew
Literally: to take a step longer than the leg
Explanation: To risk going beyond one's own possibilities.
Italian: Arrischiarsi oltre le proprie possibilità.

7. Prendere qualcuno in giro

Idiom: to pull someone's leg, take somebody for a ride
Literally: to take someone for a stroll
Explanation: To make fun of a person, mock, taunt or fool someone.
Italian: Farsi beffe di una persona, burlarla, canzonarla.

8. Tenere un piede in due scarpe

Idiom: to keep a foot in both camps
Literally: to have a foot in two shoes
Explanation: Staying involved in two situations (groups of people, opinions etc), while trying to profit from both of them.
Italian: Barcamenarsi tra due situazioni cercando di trarre profitto da entrambe.

9. Si è dato la zappa sui piedi

Idiom: to shoot yourself in the foot
Literally: He has given himself a hoe on the feet
Explanation: To hurt oneself, to come to harm oneself, particularly in a fit of anger.
It's used especially when someone hurts themselves while thinking they is harming someone else.
Italian: Farsi del male, procurarsi un danno, detto in particolare di chi agisce avventatamente o spinto dall'ira.
Usato soprattutto a proposito di finisce per nuocere a se stesso pensando di danneggiare qualcun altro.

Serving an omelet10. Ormai la frittata è fatta

Idiom: You can't unscramble eggs.
Literally: At this point the omelet has been made. (Photo by Cooker King on Unsplash)
Explanation: An exclamation that expresses resignation about a mess that was made.
Italian: Esclamazione, esprime rassegnazione per un guaio ormai avvenuto.

11. Rivoltare la frittata

Idiom: to turn the tables on somebody
Literally: to flip over the omelet
Explanation: To turn around a discussion, to change a situation to your advantage.
Italian: Rigirare un discorso, capovolgere una situazione a proprio vantaggio.

12. Avere grilli per la testa

Idiom: to have a head full of nonsense
Literally: to have crickets in the head
Explanation: To have strange, bizarre or overly ambitious ideas.
Italian: Avere idee stravaganti, bizzarre o troppo pretenziosi.

Since our stay in Trastevere, Rome, we've continued to have fun learning Italian in various ways and with various programs. Building our own GamesforLanguage site - together with native-language writers and speakers - has been a direct way to keep our hands in the language dough.
And, especially now that travel has become more complicated, our site and our blog has allowed us to connect with an ever growing online language community.
For more Italian Idioms check also https://www.theintrepidguide.com/italian-sayings-you-wont-forget/#.XuFSyPJ7nm0 or https://dizionari.corriere.it/dizionario-modi-di-dire/P/pasta.shtml.

Posted on by Peter Editor

Apples, Butter, Rain and More in French Idioms

 Three ApplesIn our last post, Sausages, Fruits, Ships, and more in German Idioms, we listed a number of typical German expressions. In fact, what prompted us to write it, was overhearing a German woman "translate" a German idiom into French by giving a literal equivalent.
In their literal translation, many French idioms are also confusing to a German or English speaker.
Below are 12 French idioms that you might not have heard yet.
(Whenever available, I added a French synonym from Le Petit Robert, a popular French language dictionary.)

1. Haut comme trois pommes

Idiom: knee-high to a grasshopper
Literally: as high as three apples (Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash)
Explanation: Refers to someone who is not very tall, or just very young.
Origin: Even if you put three apples on top of each other, what you have is still not very high.

2. Tomber dans les pommes

Idiom: to pass out
Literally: to fall into the apples
Explanation: to faint, lose consciousness [Petit Robert: s'évanouir]
Origin: This expression first appeared in 1889 and may go back to the writer George Sand, who used "être dans les pommes cuites", a play on "être cuit" (to be cooked, exhausted).

3. Mettre du beurre dans les épinardsSpinach in pan

Idiom: to put butter on your bread
Literally: to put butter on the spinach (Photo by Kim Daniels on Unsplash)
Explanation: It means to earn a bit extra, to top up your income, or to improve a situation that is troublesome. [Petit Robert: améliorer sa situation]
Origin: This expression goes back to a time when butter symbolized wealth, while spinach was a common vegetable. Putting butter on your spinach makes it taste better, richer.

4. Vouloir le beurre et l'argent du beurre

Idiom: to have your cake and eat it too
Literally: to want the butter and the money for the butter too
Explanation: You can't have it both ways, you can't have it all.
Origin: This expression appeared at the end of the 19th century and is a piece of good old fashioned common sense (bon sens paysan). Once you sell the butter, you have the money, but no longer the butter. Or, in other words, to get something you want you may have to give up something else.

Rainbow at Arcachon, France5. Parler de la pluie et du beau temps

Idiom: to make small talk
Literally: to talk about rain and nice weather
Explanation: It means talking about trivial things, exchanging chit-chat. [Petit Robert: dire des banalités]
Origin: The weather is an innocuous subject to talk about, so it's a safe topic among strangers or a way to talk around topics you want to avoid.

6. Faire la pluie et le beau temps

Idiom: to call the shots
Literally: to make rain and good weather
Explanation: It means to be in charge, to control the situation or determine what action should be taken [Petit Robert: être très influent]
Origin: The idiom is said to go back to mythical times when the gods had power over the world. They could change the weather, create storms, hurl lightning, etc.

7. Ce n’est pas la mer à boire.Looking at the ocean

Idiom: It's not that big a deal.
Literally: It's not the sea to drink.
Explanation: This is a metaphor for something that's impossible or very difficult to do. It's also used in its opposite meaning: C'est la mer à boire - it's very difficult. [Petit Robert: C'est, ce n'est pas difficile.]
Origin: The expression dates back to a 17th century fable by Jean de la Fontaine.

8. Chercher midi à quatorze heures

Idiom: to make a mountain out of a molehill
Literally: to look for noon at 2 pm
Explanation: To complicate things unnecessarily, to see difficulties where there aren't any. [Petit Robert: Chercher des difficultés où il n'y en a pas, compliquer les choses.]
Origin: This expression is said to date back to the 17th century as "chercher midi à onze heures" (to look for noon at 11o'clock), to look for something where's it's not.

Rolled in the flour9. Se faire rouler dans la farine

Idiom: to be taken for a ride
Literally: to get rolled in the flour (Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash)
Explanation: to be fooled, taken in, be cheated  [Petit Robert: tromper]
Origin: Flour-based makeup was often used in the theater and allowed actors to change how they looked and thus fool the audience.

10. Il ne faut pas mélanger les torchons et les serviettes.

Idiom: Don't mix apples and oranges.
Literally: One mustn't mix up dishtowels and napkins.
Explanation: Don't mix totally different things, don't combine things that are completely different. [Petit Robert: Il faut séparer, traiter différemment selon leur condition sociale, les choses selon leur valeur.]
Origin: This expression is based on the idea that you must not mix social levels - dishtowels were for servants and the poor, while napkins were for the bourgeoisie and aristocracy.

11. Ce n'est pas la mort du petit cheval.Small horse in grass

Idiom: It's not the end of the world.
Literally: It's not the death of the little horse. (Photo by Soledad Lorieto on Unsplash)
Explanation: It's not the worst thing that could happen. It's not as bad as it seems, even though it's a disappointment.
Origin: According to an article in Le Figaro by Claude Duneton, the expression "la mort du petit cheval" was probably coined in the 1930s and referred to losing one's bet on a horse that didn't win the race. The expression was picked up by d'Hervé Bazin in the title of his 1950 novel: "La mort du petit cheval." In it, the protagonist makes a shocking discovery about his mother but decides that it's not the end of the world.

12. Avaler des couleuvres

Idiom: to swallow a lie
Literally: to swallow grass snakes
Explanation: to be taken in, to believe anything, to take insults without protest  [Petit Robert: subir des affronts sans protester, croire n'importe quoi]
Origin: This expression came up already in the 17th century and suggests swallowing something slithery, tortuous. The image evokes unscrupulous people who in the olden days added a few grass snakes to a plate of eels without telling their guests or customers.

Learning a few idioms in your second language is not only fun, but it may very well break the conversational ice next time you try out your French, on zoom or in real life.

For the French idioms that are listed here, I looked at a few different sites. You can find out more about these expressions, or search for new ones: www.expression-francaise.fr www.thoughtco.com www.lawlessfrench.com/expressions www. linternaute.fr
I consulted Le Petit Robert, a single-volume French dictionary, for synonyms in French and added them to the explanations.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Sausages, Fruits, Ships and More in German Idioms

Sausages on GrillIdioms - in any language - can lead to hilarious laughter or confused looks, when they are translated literally into another language.
I was reminded of that last year in French-speaking Switzerland when a German with obviously limited French skills, express his frustration to his partner like this: “C'est me absolument saucisse!” (Lit. That's absolutely sausage to me.)
From his partner's confused look, followed by a loud chuckle, I concluded that she also understood the German meaning.
The German idiom “Das ist mir völlig Wurst” means “Das ist mir völlig egal” and translates as “I couldn't care less.” (Photo by Khamkhor on Unsplash)
Not surprisingly – Germans are fond of good sausages – and there are several other German, sausage-related idioms.
While some idioms can be understood with a little imagination, others are impossible to guess. And as no. 12 below shows, the meaning of some idioms can change over time.
Here are 12 German idioms that you may not be familiar with.

1. Spiel nicht die beleidigte Leberwurst!

Idiom: Don't get bent out of shape, don't be a sorehead!
Literally: Don't play the offended liverwurst!
Explanation: Someone goes off in a huff and sulks because his feelings were hurt.
German: Jemand zieht sich zurück und schmollt, weil er glaubt, dass man ihn gekränkt hat.
Origin: Scholars in the Middle Ages supposedly assumed that a person's emotions - anger, sadness, love, etc. - were produced in the liver. So if someone got annoyed, it's his or her liver where the emotion came from.
Plus, there's another traditional story behind the "offended liverwurst". There, a butcher has all kinds of different sausages in a kettle. When the kettle boils, he takes out all the other sausages first, because they need a shorter cooking time. So, the liverwurst bursts in anger because it's the only one left in the kettle.

2. In den sauren Apfel beißenBiting in a sour apple

Idiom: to bite the bullet
Literally: to bite into the sour apple (Photo by Khamkhor on Unsplash)
Explanation: To do something unpleasant, even though you find it hard to do.
German: Etwas Unangenehmes tun, obwohl es einem schwerfällt.
Origin: This expression is quite old. It comes up in one of Luther's letters where he writes: "Not lehrt in saure Äpfel beißen". (Hard times teach you to bite into sour apples.) It means, that if you have no other choice, you'll just have to eat the sour apples. For example, if you want to pass your exam, you have to study for it.

3. Mit dem ist nicht gut Kirschen essen.

Plate of red cherriesIdiom: Best not to tangle with him.
Literally: Eating cherries with him is not pleasant. (Photo by Monika Grabkowska on Unsplash)
Explanation: He's hard to get along with.
German: Mit ihm kann man nicht gut auskommen.
Origin: For this expression there's an interesting origin. It dates back to the Middle Ages when cherry trees were not abundant and grew mostly just in monasteries or in gardens of the rich. Should you be passing a group of dignified gentlemen eating cherries, it could happen that they would chase you off and spit pits into your face to boot. So, there are people that you wouldn't want to eat cherries with because they would treat you badly.
That could refer to people who think that they are better than you, and who are clearly contemptuous of who you are.

4. Wie man in den Wald hineinruft, so schallt es heraus.

Idiom: What goes around, comes around.Sunny forest
Literally: The way you call into the woods is the way it comes back. (Photo by Stepan Unar on Unsplash)
Explanation: The way you treat someone will determine their reaction.
German: So wie man jemanden behandelt, reagiert dieser auch darauf.
Origin: This expression probably goes back to the experience of hearing an echo in the woods - your voice bounces back after you've called to someone. The echo has a similar sound to what you called in the first place.
So more generally, if you shout at someone in anger, they often respond in anger too. If you don't treat others with respect, they may not respect you either.

5. Um den heißen Brei herum reden

Bowl of hot porridgeIdiom: to beat around the bush
Literally: to talk around the hot porridge (Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash)
Explanation: Avoid giving your honest and direct opinion.
German: Nicht ehrlich und direkt seine Meinung sagen.
Origin: Initially, the expression was: "Wie die Katze um den heißen Brei herumschleichen". (To tiptoe like a cat around the hot porridge.) The cat was of course looking for a cooler part of the porridge to start eating.
If you talk with someone who in the conversation tiptoes like a cat around the hot porridge, it means that they are afraid or reluctant to broach a certain subject.

6. Auf dem falschen Dampfer sein

Idiom: to bark up the wrong treeOld steamboat
Literally: to be on the wrong steamboat (Photo by ZEKERIYA SEN on Unsplash)
Explanation: To misunderstand something, be totally mistaken.
German: Etwas falsch verstehen, sich irren.
Origin: In the early 19th century, steamboat travel became increasingly popular in Germany, especially on the Rhine.
By 1850, steamship travel up and down the Rhine reached a million passengers. It was considered safer than travel by land, where raids and holdups were still common.
By 1900, transatlantic crossings by steamship were well established. If you now found yourself on the "wrong steamship", it was a real problem since the next harbor was often far off.
The image of being on the "wrong steamship" suggests a grave error, that someone was way off in their thinking.

7. Lügen haben kurze Beine.

pairs of legsIdiom: Your lies will catch up with you.
Literally: Lies have short legs. (Photo by Matheus Vinicius on Unsplash)
Explanation: It's not worth it to lie because the truth will come out.
German: Es lohnt sich nicht zu lügen, denn die Wahrheit kommt immer heraus.
Origin: The image of a Lie having short legs suggests that someone with short legs simply cannot run that fast. So, the Truth with its longer legs (as we assume) can easily catch up to the Lie and expose the untruth.

8. Das ist Schnee von gestern.

Idiom: That's old hat. Yesterday's snow
Literally: That is snow from yesterday.
Explanation: The matter is no longer important.
German: Die Sache ist nicht mehr von Bedeutung.
Origin: Possibly, this expression goes back to François Villon's "Ballade des dames du temps jadis", (Literally: Ballad of the Ladies of Long ago), which has the line "Mais où sont les neiges d’automne ?" (But where are the snows of autumn?)
When something is "snow from yesterday", it means that it's not new, not important, not interesting, not fresh.

9. Etwas mit in Kauf nehmen

Idiom: to put up with something
Literally: to accept something along with a purchase you've made
Explanation: To accept something because it's inevitable.
German: Etwas als unvermeidlich hinnehmen.
Origin: This expression comes from the traditional world of trade and commerce. It was often customary for merchants to offer the combination of a high quality product with one of lesser quality. Or, the combination of a product that was high in demand, with one not so in demand. If the buyer needed the former product, he would also accept to take the latter one.
In that sense, "etwas in Kauf nehmen", means that if you really want something, you would accept certain unavoidable disadvantages that come with it. Or, accept the risks of an action that you see as inevitable.

10. Wo gehobelt wird, da fallen Späne.

Wood shavingsIdiom: You can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs.
Literally: Where a (carpenter's) plane is used, shavings will fall. (Image Credit: Clem Onojeghuo on Sawinery)
Explanation: A decision can also have disadvantages.
German: Eine Entscheidung kann auch Nachteile mit sich bringen.
Origin: This is a saying that originated in the world of trades, and points specifically to a carpenter's craft. When you "plane" ("hobeln"), you keep removing layers of wood until you smooth out the rough spots.
On the one hand, this expression can be used to justify ruthless or drastic behavior. On the other hand, it can also be a bit of wisdom: Something that has a lot of positives could also have disadvantages.

11. Aus dem Schneider sein

Idiom: to be out of the woodsTailor at work
Literally: to be no longer a tailor (Photo by Salvador Godoy on Unsplash)
Explanation: "To be out of the tailor" means that you have overcome a difficult situation, that the worst is behind you.
German: Aus dem Schneider sein, heißt eine schwierige Situation überwunden, das Schlimmste überstanden haben.
Origin: In the card game Skat, to be no longer a "tailor" (a profession of low standing in earlier times) means that you have more than half of the points needed to win (i.e. more than 30 points).
The expression "aus dem Schneider sein" is still commonly used in German. Actually, I've heard it multiple times used in connection with the COVID-19 crisis in German TV broadcasts. When will we all be "out of the tailor"?

12. Das passt wie die Faust aufs Auge.

One eyeIdiom 1: They go together hand in glove.
Idiom 2: They go together like chalk and cheese.
Literally: That fits like the fist on the eye.
Explanation: Things go together very well or they don't go together at all.
German: Etwas passt sehr gut zusammen, oder gar nicht.
Origin: The German expression "Das passt wie die Faust aufs Auge" seems to have a clear message: Having someone put their fist on your eye is not a good thing. However, curiously enough, this expression is mostly used to mean the opposite.
Initially, the idiom was "Das reimt sich wie die Faust aufs Auge" (That rhymes like the fist on the eye). For one, "Faust" and "Auge" do not rhyme. Plus, fist and eye don't go together, the fist is hard, the eye is soft and delicate.
But already early on, the idiom was used ironically to mean the opposite, that two things fit perfectly together. Though, the original meaning shows up too.
So, to clearly understand what someone is telling you, you have to pay attention to the context in which it is used, and/or the speaker's tone of voice. For example, what does it mean when your partner tells you that your shirt and scarf go together like "a fist on the eye"?!

Keeping a few idioms in your German language “quiver” will make your language more colorful and authentic. And maybe at the next post-coronavirus dinner party you'll contribute to some laughter and fun.
For the German idioms that are listed here, I consulted a number of different sites. You can find out more about these expressions, or find new ones in these: Redensarten.net, Redensartenindex.de, Geolino Wissen, Wortbedeutung Info.

(For French idioms see Apples, Butter, Rain and more in French Idioms.)

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

3 Grammar Baby Steps for Self-Learners

baby-steps_by_david-brooke-martin-qa4-KH8UjRA-unsplashHow to deal with grammar is a question we get a lot from language learners. Yes, classroom learning often focuses a lot on grammar. I also plead guilty to having used this approach with my students during my college teaching years.

But I now know that it does not help your speaking abilities early on.
Fortunately, if you're learning a new language independently, it's okay to put grammar on the back burner.
Still, not focusing on grammar doesn't mean you ignore it completely. A good approach is to start with "baby steps" to learn gradually how your new language works.

Grammar in any language is a huge subject. However, knowing a grammar book inside out doesn't mean you can communicate in the language. All it means is that you can remember a lot of abstract rules. And these don't automatically translate into fluent communication.

So, what are a few "baby steps" that self-learners can take?
Here are the steps that work for me when I start out in a new language. (My examples are from the four languages on our site.)

Step #1: A Quick Glance At Grammar Basics

I do mean a "quick glance", and really just basic grammar.Grammar topics spread across page Do it in whatever way works for you - on the internet or in a basic grammar book.

You don't really want to know ALL the grammar rules right off. Especially not all the dozens of exceptions to those rules to boot.

What you want to know is how your new language works. How it is essentially different from your native language(s). Knowing these main differences will help you when starting out with conversations.

Pronouns

In English, you always use pronouns. The same goes for German and French.
Italian and Spanish usually drop the pronouns, unless they are needed for clarity or emphasis.

The Pronoun "you"

English has just one word for "you", and it works for familiar and formal, for singular and plural.

French, German, Italian and Spanish have different pronouns for familiar and formal, and also for singular and plural. You need to sort out which pronoun and/or verb ending to use for each of those situations.

Present Tense Verb Endings

English verb endings are pretty simple. Generally, you just have to watch out for the third person singular, which adds an "s". (I go, you go, he goes, we go, you go, they go.)  

For Italian and Spanish the personal endings of verbs are important because of dropped pronouns. For German and French, the different verb endings depend on which personal pronouns you use.

Articles and Gender

English has the definite article "the" and no gender for its nouns.

French, Spanish, and Italian have two noun genders, and German has three genders, plus various case-dependent forms of the definite article.

Negation

Each language has its own ways to express negation. English has "not", which is often attached to a helping verb and contracted: "don't, isn't, can't, won't, shouldn't".

Generally speaking, negation is simple in Spanish and Italian. In Spanish you put "no" in front of the verb, and in Italian "non". French uses the double negative "ne ... pas", and German has "nicht" for negating verbs and "kein" for negating nouns.

Basic Word Order

Here you don't want to learn any rules. You only want to observe and understand that there are differences.

Once you've had a quick glance at basic grammar differences between your native language and your target language, forget what you've read. It will all come back bit by bit, once you start listening, repeating and reading - a lot - in your new language.

Step #2: Look for Patterns

Patterns in sandWe may not feel that we are "wired for grammar" (as Noam Chomsky once suggested), but we are certainly wired for recognizing and internalizing patterns.

Sounds 

For children in their early years, language is primarily sound. Even as adults we hear spoken language all day - in conversations, on the radio, on TV, on the internet.

Sound remains an important part of communication. To engage with others, we produce the correct sounds to get the message across.

When we write, we often silently pronounce what we're writing.

Sentences

Learning the meaning of foreign words is important. But hearing and seeing them in complete sentences is essential: That's where "Grammar" is happening! 

When learning a new language be sure to include the sound of words, phrases and simple sentences. Listen and repeat as much as you can. It's important to get the sound of what you're learning into your ear.

As you listen, repeat and read, watch for patterns. Patterns of verb endings are basic, so listen and look for them. Watch out for the differences between questions and statements. Try to notice simple idiomatic ways of saying things.

Stories

Easy stories are a good next step. They will put essential vocabulary in context and therefore give you a more precise meaning of words and phrases.

Stories also show how the language works. You'll hear and see questions, responses to questions, emphatic forms, the use of familiar or formal "you", negation, word order variations, etc.

Reading & Writing

Once you're reasonably happy with your pronunciation, begin to pay closer attention to the written text as you practice listening and repeating. It will help you to master the correlation between sound and written text in your new language. It's a good way to get into reading.

Reading is a fantastic tool for acquiring vocabulary and for internalizing typical patterns of a language.

Step #3 More In-depth Grammar

When you're happily into your new target language,Grammar items when you continue to feel motivated and love the progress you're making, that's the time to tackle more grammar. But don't focus on rules. Focus on typical patterns. Below are two examples.

Gender and Articles

Suppose you've been reading and listening to Italian and notice that the simple English article "the" has several Italian equivalents: "il, la, lo, l', i, le, gli".
You've probably figured out the articles "il, la, i, and le". But you're curious enough to check when "lo" and "gli" are used. From then on, each time you see or hear "lo" and "gli" in context, you become more familiar with its use.

French and Spanish have two genders, feminine and masculine, and four articles that go with it. In French, there's "le, la, l', les". In Spanish, you have "el, la, los, las". Good to know, but pretty easy to figure out on your own as you're hearing and reading a story.

German, however, has three genders: "der, die, das" (masculine, feminine, and neuter) and the definite articles, including the plural forms, change depending on the case of the noun. So, it will take more effort to really learn the correct German forms.

You'll want to study the various article/case combinations written out in front of you. Then, saying the forms often helps to make them automatic. Still, perfect mastery is elusive for most, and that's okay. (You're not alone: Mark Twain in his “A Tramp Abroad”, Appendix D, makes some very funny, but cogent observations.)

Asking Yes-No Questions

There are often fundamental word order differences between languages. For example, it's not easy for foreigners to understand when to use "do" or "are" in a question in English.

For example, you say: "Do you know?", while the question, "Are you knowing?" doesn't make sense. On the other hand, you would tend to say "Are you going?" The question "Do you go?" needs more context, such as "Do you often go to the movies?"

French, too, has various ways to ask yes-no questions. But these are different from English. For one, you can put the question particle, "Est-ce que" at the beginning of a sentence and thus turn it into a question, "Est-ce que vous parlez anglais ?"

Then there's the inversion of subject and verb, as in "Parlez-vous anglais ?" Or, you can just add "n'est-ce pas ?" at the end of a statement: "Tu parles anglais, n'est-ce pas ?" Finally, in informal speech, you can just raise your voice at the end: "Tu parles anglais ?" Once you start paying attention to questions when hearing and reading French, these patterns will become familiar and you'll learn when to use which.

In Italian you can make a statement into a question by letting your voice go up at the end, and/or adding a tag: "È americano?, È americano, vero?, È americano, no?" It's as simple as that.

Similarly, in Spanish, you can change a statement to a yes-no question by using question intonation and sometimes adding a tag: "¿Hablas inglés?, ¿Hablas inglés, no? ¿Hablas inglés, verdad?" Or, in some cases, you can invert verb and pronoun: "¿Tiene Ud. sed?"

For yes-no questions in German, you normally invert subject and the personal verb: "Sind Sie Amerikaner?" Or, "Wollen Sie jetzt essen?"

Make Grammar a Treat not a Chore!

There are exceptions, but most language learners don't learn grammar to become fluent in grammar. They learn a language because they want to be able to speak with others. 

It's more fun to figure things out than to memorize rules. So, try to figure out little by little how your new language works. Don't focus too much on the rules.

Becoming fluent in another language is a hugely satisfying achievement. It's great fun to step out of your native language and step into another way of communicating. It can be a wonderful life-long adventure!

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She's a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments right here below!

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

How to Use the German Modal Verb "können"

Gamesfrolanguage.com: German Modal Shoot Quick GameOne of the most popular games on our site is the German Modal Shoot. It's a three-minute interactive online game that gives you a quick practice of the basic forms of the German modals.

What are Modal Verbs?

Modal Verbs are helping verbs, also called auxiliary verbs. They add a chunk of meaning to the main verb of a sentence.
In conversations they show up all the time.
German has six modals. They express ability, necessity, obligation, permission, a wish, etc. They are:

  • können (be able, can),
  • müssen (to have to, must),
  • sollen (shall, ought to),
  • dürfen (be permitted, may),
  • wollen (to want) and
  • mögen (to like).

So for example, take the sentence: Ich arbeite heute - Architect greeting foremanI'm working today, and add the modals:

  • Ich kann heute arbeiten. (I can work today.)
  • Ich muss heute arbeiten. (I have to work today.)
  • Ich soll heute arbeiten. (I ought to work today.)
  • Ich darf heute arbeiten. (I'm allowed to work today.)
  • Ich will heute arbeiten. (I want to work today.)

But: Ich möchte heute arbeiten. (I would like to work today.)
Arggh, here you would use the (subjunctive) "would" form in German: "möchte", not "mag".
(The present forms of "mögen" can't be used with an infinitive verb.)

The modal "können" - can, to be able - is a very useful helping verb.
But its changing forms and conjugations often make it frustrating for the English-speaking learner, who is only used to “can” and “could”.

Modal Verb "können" - Present Tense

In the Present singular form, "können" changes its stem vowel from "ö" to "a":

  • ich kann - I can
  • du kannst - you(fam.) can
  • er, sie, es kann - he, she, it can
  • wir können - we can
  • ihr könnt - you-all can
  • sie, Sie können - they, you(form.) can

Below are examples of different ways you can use it.
"Können" - for a polite offer or request:

  • Ich kann Ihnen helfen. (I can help you.)
  • Können Sie/Kannst du mir helfen? (Can you help me?)
  • Ja, das kann ich. (Yes, I can.)

"Können" to express know-how:

  • Er kann Gitarre spielen. (He can play the guitar.)
  • Kannst du Deutsch? (Do you know German? i.e. Are you able to speak German?)
  • Ja, aber ich kann kein Englisch. (Yes, but I don't know any English.)

"Können" to express possibility:

  • Das kann doch nicht wahr sein. (Surely that can't be true.)
  • Kann das wirklich stimmen? (Is that really correct?)
  • Ja ja, heute kann's regnen. (Yes yes, today it may rain.)

"Können" to ask or give permission:

  • Kann ich jetzt gehen? (Can I go now?)
  • Nein, das können Sie nicht. (No, you can't.)
  • Ja, du kannst. (Yes, go ahead.)

Did you get all this? If so try this Quiz #1 for "können" on our siter site Lingo-Late.
Or, if you are looking for a fun German Quick Game: Practice "Können"

Modal Verb "können" - Simple Past Tense

Unfortunately the Simple Past is not that simple for English speakers, who conveniently use "could" for all persons.
In German, the stem drops the umlaut, and is "konn-" for all persons. But you still need to add the so-called "weak" personal endings for the Simple Past:

  • ich konnte - I could
  • du konntest - you could
  • er, sie, es konnte - he, she, it could
  • wir konnten - we could
  • ihr konntet - you-all could
  • sie, Sie konnten - they, you could

Past situations:

  • Sie konnte mich nicht verstehen. (She couldn't understand me.)
  • Ich war in Deutschland aber ich konnte kein Deutsch. (I was in Germany but I didn't know German.)
  • Warum konntest du mich nicht anrufen? (Why couldn't you call me?)

For making excuses:
The Simple Past of "können" is also perfect for making excuses, especially when you add "leider" (unfortunately)

  • Ich konnte leider nicht anrufen. (Unfortunately, I couldn't call .)
  • Leider konnten wir nicht früher kommen. (Unfortunately, we couldn't come earlier.)
  • Mein Mann konnte leider seine Autoschlüssel nicht finden. (Unfortunately, my husband couln't find his car keys.)

Modal Verb "können" - Imperfect Subjunctive Tense

This unapproachable-sounding tense is actually easier, if you remember the Simple Past forms above. You just add an umlaut to every Simple Past form.

  • ich könnte - I could, would be able
  • du könntest - you could, would be able
  • er, sie, es könnte - he, she it could, would be able
  • wir könnten - we could, would be able
  • ihr könntet - you-all could, would be able
  • sie, Sie könnten - they, you could, would be able

Use this tense for polite requests (with or without "bitte"):

  • Könnten Sie mir bitte sagen ... (Could you please tell me ...)
  • Könntest du mir das Salz geben? (Could you pass me the salt?)
  • Könnte ich etwas anderes bestellen? (Could I order something different?)

Make a polite suggestion:

  • Wir könnten jetzt gehen. (We could go now. Let's go now.)
  • Ich könnte dich morgen anrufen. (I could call you tomorrow.)
  • Du könntest auch später gehen. (You could also go later.)

Express a tentative possibility:

  • Das könnte teuer werden. (That could get expensive.)
  • Es könnte morgen schneien. (It could snow tomorrow.)
  • Wir könnten den 8Uhr Zug nehmen. (We could take the 8 o'clock train.)

Related verbs: können and kennen

Hearing the difference between “können” and “kennen” is often a challenge for the beginning German learner.
We've seen that the auxiliary verb "können" means "to be able, to know how".
On the other hand, the verb "kennen", means "to know, be acquainted with", referring to a person, a place, a song, a book, etc.
You say:

  • Peter und ich, wir kennen uns. (Peter and I, we know each other.)
  • Ich kenne Helsinki noch nicht. (I don't know Helsinki yet.)
  • Kennen Sie London gut? (Do you know London well?)
  • Kennst du dieses Buch? (Do you know this book?)

One clue to know whether you hear a form of “können” or one of “kennen” is to listen for another verb: In most cases, the auxiliary verb “können” needs another verb. (But as you've seen above there are exceptions.)

So, go ahead and use "können" as much as you can.
Ich kenne dich nicht, aber ich weiß, du kannst es. (I don't know you, but I know that you can do it.)

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