15 Advanced German Phrases That Get Straight to the Poodle’s Core
Guten Tag. Danke schön. Auf Wiedersehen.
From the very beginning, you’ve been memorizing key German phrases.
But you’re way past those now. You’re an advanced learner.
Advanced German isn’t all about nailing your adjective endings, perfecting your cases and tearing through full-length novels. For better or worse, there’s some rote memorization still going on.
That’s where these advanced German phrases come in.
Idioms, Proverbs, Quotations, Oh My!
We’re talking today about a variety of German Redewendungen (sayings). Just as in English, there are many different kinds of expressions and figures of speech, including idioms, proverbs and quotations that are so famous that they’ve practically become idioms or proverbs on their own. The exact differences among these types of Redewendungen isn’t important for now. What’s important is that you learn to use them.
Think about it: You use expressions like these in English all the time.
Have you ever heard a German phrase and thought, “That’s Greek to me”? After thinking it through and guessing its meaning, did you hit the nail on the head? (Or did you make a monkey of yourself?) Has your teacher ever told you that practice makes perfect? Or when you’re practicing German, do you feel like you’re pulling teeth?
Using these phrases is one of the easiest ways to show that you’re truly mastering your second language and not grasping at straws to translate your thoughts directly from English. To top it off, if you ever do an official German certification test such as the Goethe Institute’s C1 or C2 exams, your use of idiomatische Redewendungen will even be part of your grade.
And let’s keep that learning pace strong. There are hundreds of these expressions that a German native speaker would know and use, so if you want to catch up, you’re gonna have to get started fast!
15 Advanced German Phrases That Get Straight to the Poodle’s Core
1. Des Pudels Kern
Literal translation: The poodle’s core
English idiom: The heart of the matter
We’re starting off ambitiously: a highly figurative phrase that was originally a quote from Goethe’s “Faust,” and it uses the genitive case to boot! The story behind why this expression features a poodle, of all things, isn’t important for our purposes. If you want to read all of “Faust,” go ahead. But you can also just use this phrase and sound advanced and educated anyway. After all, that’s the heart of the matter.
2. Unverhofft kommt oft
Literal translation: The unexpected often comes
English proverb: Expect the unexpected
This phrase is so common that simply hearing the word unverhofft can trigger some German natives to finish the rest of the phrase. The fact that it rhymes certainly helps people commit it to memory.
Unfortunately, it usually refers to unexpected bad things happening rather than good ones. I never expect to win the lottery…and, as expected, I never have. And yet car breakdowns, illnesses, stormy weather? Those happen all the time, even when you don’t expect them.
3. Besser ein Spatz in der Hand als eine Taube auf dem Dach
Literal translation: Better a sparrow in the hand than a dove on the roof
English proverb: A bird in hand is worth two in the bush
This is where we begin to see how German, which is practically English’s cousin, sometimes comes very, very close to our expressions without translating them word for word. Both of these phrases mean “don’t risk a sure thing,” and both of them involve holding or chasing birds, but they’re not quite the same in their execution.
4. Leben und leben lassen
Literal translation and English proverb: Live and let live
Of course, these cousin-languages can also sometimes be directly translatable. That’s what we see here, and it’s good advice in any language. If someone speaks differently from you, just live and let live!
5. die Spreu vom Weizen trennen
Literal translation: To separate the chaff from the wheat
English proverb: To separate the wheat from the chaff
Sometimes English and German expressions can be word-for-word translations of each other because they both come from the same source. In this case, that source is the Bible (Matthew 3:12). You don’t have to practice or endorse any one faith in order to see how the Bible has influenced European languages and cultures, so we’ll leave the religious angle at that.
If you’re not familiar with either version of the quote, it means “to separate the worthy from the unworthy” or “to separate the good from the bad.” If you don’t want to think about this in religious terms, imagine separating yourself (the wheat) from all the other German students and hobbyists (the chaff) who don’t practice as hard as you do!
6. Es gibt nichts neues unter der Sonne
Literal translation and English quote: There is nothing new under the sun
Again, we’re working with the Bible (Ecclesiastes 1:9). This phrase is perhaps a little less ominous, though. It simply refers to the fact that some things never change, and even “new” things can seem entirely familiar with enough experience and time.
7. ins Fettnäpfchen treten
Literal translation: To step in the grease bowl
English proverb: To put your foot in your mouth
This phrase is so old that Fettnäpfchen is hard to translate, and you’ll virtually never hear the word outside of this idiom. According to Duden, the saying relates to the 19th century tradition of having a bowl of shoe polish or grease near the door. To step in that bowl by accident would be awkward, so now the phrase is used for any awkward faux pas.
Asking a large but not pregnant woman when her baby is due? You’re stepping in a pretty big Fettnäpfchen.
8. Aller guten Dinge sind drei
Literal translation: All good things are threes
English proverb: The third time’s the charm
This phrase relates to a specific superstition about the number three being lucky. In English, people often allude to the idea that “good things come in threes.”
It’s also the tongue-in-cheek excuse of someone who makes the same mistake twice before trying again. It could be appropriate if you wreck both breakfast and lunch, but you’re still trusting yourself to cook the perfect dinner.
9. Alter schützt vor Torheit nicht
Literal translation: Age does not protect from foolishness
English proverb: There’s no fool like an old fool
It’s up for debate, but this German proverb may actually stem from a translation in Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” (act one, scene three). Whip this out with your parents or teacher the next time you’re feeling cheeky. They’re bound to love it (or perhaps hate it).
10. Viele Köche verderben den Brei
Literal translation: Many cooks spoil the porridge
English proverb: Too many cooks spoil the broth
Even though the two phrases have the same figurative meaning, we’re talking about two different foods: porridge/mash and broth. However, the fact that “broth” and brei sound alike may actually help you commit the phrase to memory.
Logically, it’s way easier to mess up something liked oatmeal or mashed potatoes than it is to mess up a broth. How do you even wreck a broth? Too many bouillon cubes?
11. Gegensätze ziehen sich an
Literal translation and English proverb: Opposites attract
Regardless of whether or not this proverb is true, it exists in both languages with an almost identical form. English speakers may associate the expression with the old Paula Abdul song, but German band Deichkind also uses the phrase in a new track, “Porzellan und Elefanten.”
12. Wer die Wahl hat, hat die Qual
Literal translation: He who has choice, has agony
There’s no established English proverb that I can think of when it comes to this expression, other than a variation like “more choices, more problems.” Sometimes proverbs only exist in one language but not others, and a literal translation is all we have. What’s certain is that everyone has felt this agony at some point. Sometimes making the right decision is really, really hard.
13. Gebranntes Kind scheut das Feuer
Literal translation: A burned child dreads the fire
English proverb: Once bitten, twice shy
If you get bitten by a vicious dog, you’re less likely to pet that dog in the future. If you get burned while playing with fire, you’ll probably never play with fire again. It’s the same logic. The two languages just use different metaphors to express the same idea.
14. ein Blitz aus heiterem Himmel
Literal translation: A lightning bolt from the fair sky
English proverb: A bolt from out of the blue
Ever wonder where the “blue” in “out of the blue” comes from? It’s the sky. The German idiom just makes this a little clearer. If something ever happens to you completely randomly, you could say it’s as if it fell from the sky—or, in the case of German, it hit you like lightning.
15. Ende gut, alles gut
Literal translation: Ending good, everything good
English proverb: All’s well that ends well
This expression also has ties to Shakespeare, but the proverbs in both languages probably existed before he wrote his famous play of the same title. He was a genius, but he couldn’t invent everything, and certainly not in multiple languages! Nevertheless, this is probably a fitting place to end our list.
Practicing Advanced German Phrases
Great, so you’ve read a list of 15 German Redewendungen. Now close your eyes and repeat as many of them as you can.
You probably didn’t get too far, did you? That’s because you still need to practice.
And hey, you’re an advanced learner by now. You know you can do it!