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 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

Cool German Idioms 3 - Dach

roof 

das Dach - the roof

  • mit offenem Dach fahren
  • to drive with the top down
  • Literal: to drive with an open roof
  • jemandem eins aufs Dach geben
  • to show someone what's what
  • Literal: to give someone a smack on the roof
  • etwas unter Dach und Fach bringen
  • to complete something, settle it
  • More literal: to bring something into safety
  • Die Spatzen pfeifen es von den Dächern.
  • That's common knowledge.
  • Literal: Sparrows whistle it from the roofs.
  • Da ist bei ihm gleich Feuer im Dache.
  • He flies into a passion.
  • Literal: He right away has fire in his roof.
  •  
  • Du hast nicht alles unterm Dach
  • You are crazy.
  • Literal: You don't have everything under the roof.

 

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Cool German Idioms 2 - beissen

apple - Gamesforlanguage

Some idioms with "beißen"

in den sauren Apfel beißen
(literally: to bite into the sour apple)
to bite the bullet
 
die Farben beißen sich
(literally: the colors bite each other)
the colors clash
 
ins Gras beißen
(literally: to bite into the grass)
to bite the dust
 
den letzten beißen die Hunde
(literally: the dogs will bite the one who is last)
the last one's left holding the bag
 
ein Rätsel:
Was hat sieben Häute und beißt alle Leute?
What has seven skins and stings all people?
Antwort:
die Zwiebel (the onion)
Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Cool German Idioms 1 - blau

London Eye

 

Some Idioms with "blau"

 
 
ins Blaue fahren
(more literally: to drive into the blue yonder)
to take a trip without a clear destination
 
blau machen
(literally: to make blue)
to skip work
 
blau sein
(literally: to be blue)
to be drunk
 
die blaue Stunde
(literally: the blue hour)
time of dusk
 
das Blaue vom Himmel herunter lügen
(more literally: to lie so much that the blue color comes down from the sky)
to tell stories that aren't true
 
das blaue Wunder erleben
(literally: to experience the blue miracle)
to get the shock of one's life