If Latin is the language of enlightenment, and French the language of love, what does that make German?
Well, to start with, the language of swine enthusiasts.
Pigs are significant in German culture, and common sayings are littered with mentions of them.
This and other cultural quirks make for some pretty funny English translations of things people say in Germany every day.
So how is all this convenient for your German learning?
Well, although idioms and pithy expressions aren’t the first thing that come up in a textbook, they’re one of the more fun parts of learning a new tongue.
At their best, they provide an insight into the people and what the culture values. And if nothing else, they often sound hilarious.
Either way, there’s no better way to showcase your German skills and impress the natives than by rattling off an appropriately-timed saying, and you’ll find plenty potential ones in this post.
But first, let’s take a quick look into that whole weird pig obsession.
German Sayings: Where Pork and Language Come Together
As mentioned, pigs get a bad rap in English. They’re associated with smelliness, untidiness and greed. They’re used as an insult for those who eat too much and men who behave like chauvinists. Even after “Charlotte’s Web” and “Babe,” they’re still the least respected animal on the farm.
Not so in Germany.
If language is a reflection of culture, then there’s no doubt about the swine’s place in the Fatherland. To be lucky in Germany is Schwein haben, or “to have pig.”
If you don’t know a person well enough to forgo formalities, you can tell them that you have “not yet kept pigs together” by saying Wir haben zusammen noch keine Schweine gehütet!
There are supposedly 1,200 kinds of sausage in Germany. There might be just as many idioms involving it.
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Without further ado, let’s start exploring some pig-related, other-animal-related and just plain funny German sayings.
For your instruction and amusement, here’s a list of sayings that are sure to bring a smile when translated to English, if not a downright laughing fit.
Funny Phrasings: 17 Common German Sayings That Are Hilarious in English
1. Da liegt der Hund begraben. (That’s where the dog’s buried.)
OK, so maybe after that build-up it’s not fair to start with a saying that’s not about pigs, but at least it’s animal-related.
Normally dead dogs are an occasion for sadness and lost childhood innocence, but the Germans use the subject toward more matter-of-fact means.
Translating as “That’s the heart of the matter,” it may sound funny to us, but in German it’s a useful sentence to show that you really know what the situation is about.
2. Kein Schwein war da. (There weren’t any pigs there.)
For the rest of civilization, the absence of swine is a prerequisite of a good place. Not so in sausage-savoring Germany. If there were no pigs, it means that nobody was there. A pigless-party is the worst kind in Germany.
3. Wo sich Fuchs und Hase gute Nacht sagen. (Where fox and hare say goodnight to one another.)
Do they kiss before going to bed? Is it a secret rendezvous? Do their partners suspect it?
We’ll never know, because where the fox and hare say goodnight to each other is in the middle of nowhere. While we might have relatives that live “out in the sticks” or “out in the boondocks,” the Germans have a more poetic way of designating a remote area.
4. Das ist mir Wurst. (That’s sausage to me.)
A very artful way of saying that you don’t care at all, this is considered even stronger than Das ist egal (That doesn’t matter). Still, a little ironic, because we know how much Germans actually care about sausage…
5. Sie hat einen Vogel. (Literally, “She has a bird.”)
America has crazy cat ladies. In Germany, it’s the people with birds you have to look out for. According to some sources, the saying comes from an old folk belief that the mentally ill had small animals living in their heads. Hence, saying someone has a bird is the equivalent of calling them insane.
6. Sie hat nicht alle Tassen im Schrank. (She doesn’t have all her cups in the cupboard.)
As long as we’re thinking of ways to call someone crazy, here’s another one, this one sometimes suggesting a lack of intelligence. Obviously, Germans being a prepared and orderly people, anyone who does not keep all of their drinking vessels in the appropriately designated place in the kitchen is not right in the head. Let’s not even get started on the silverware, which has you mixing up your genders to boot…
7. Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof. (I only understand “train station.”)
I’ll admit, I don’t know the word for “train station” in very many languages, but apparently the Germans do (perhaps so they can berate the trains for not being timely). Regardless, this idiom comes in handy when you don’t really understand something, meaning the same as “It’s all Greek to me.”
8. Alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei. (Everything has an end. Only the sausage has two.)
If you’re going to say that all good things must end, you might as well do it with style and in a way that your countrymen are going to understand. And who can argue with the logic?
9. Sie spielt die beleidigte Leberwurst. (She’s playing the insulted sausage.)
Is there any better way to say that a person is all worked up? Why have a cow when you can act like a wronged piece of pork? Maybe she was told she had a bird…
10. Mein Englisch ist unter aller Sau. (My English is under all pig.)
Pigs, although lucky and conducive to a good party atmosphere, are not that great for language learning. To say in German “My English is under all pig” is to suggest that it’s really bad. (To say it in English proves its own point.)
11. Das Leben ist kein Ponyhof. (Life is no pony farm.)
Life isn’t a rose garden. Apparently it’s also not a place where you can take your kids for rides. As you can tell, Germany is a country of both equestrian enthusiasts and realists.
12. Ins Gras beißen. (To bite into the grass.)
Purportedly tracing back to the “Iliad” and “Aeneid,” this term was originally associated with the death of soldiers. In English and French one would say “bite the dust,” the phrase perhaps being coined in drier weather. Either way, the person it was said about did not have pig.
13. Schlafen wie ein Murmeltier. (To sleep like a woodchuck.)
It appears that chucking wood (if a woodchuck could chuck wood) is a really tiring activity—hey, they have to snooze all winter. As a result, to sleep like a woodchuck is to sleep well.
14. Das kannst du deiner Oma erzählen. (You can tell that to your grandmother.)
This saying fits if you’re convinced the person who has just told you something is lying or over-exaggerating. You might think grandmas are too sweet and kind to lie to, or even that you grandma might be naive enough to believe you – either way, you dare them to pass it on to their grandma if they say it’s really true!
15. Nul acht funfzehn (So-so)
Alright, so this isn’t technically a complete saying or so funny in the English translation, but if you know the story behind it, it’s hilarious. Coming from the typical rifle given out during WWI (the 08-15), the numbers have come to be a clever code to describe something mediocre. Whether a date or a score on a test, nul acht funfzehn indicates the results were rather “standard issue” and nothing to write home about.
16. Die Kirche im Dorf lassen. (To leave the church in the village.)
I don’t know where else you would take the church, but it’s universally agreed upon that its place is in the village. Being told to leave it there is to be admonished to not get carried away. Besides, there are strict building ordinances in Germany.
17. Was Hänschen nicht lernt, lernt Hans nimmermehr. (What little Johnny can’t learn, old John will never learn.)
An old dog can’t learn new tricks, and neither can John. That’s why in Germany one often sees old people walking the streets in the middle of the day…there’s nothing new for them to do.
Now that you’re through chuckling at these handy German phrases, you can put them to work in earning the respect of the natives and making your language learning authentic.
Spice up the conversation with a little idiomatic color and put things in terms Germans understand. The sausage may have two ends, but learning German doesn’t have any.
And, for good measure, you might want to get yourself a pig.
Ryan Dennis was a Fulbright Scholar and previously taught at Pädagogische Hochschule Schwäbisch Gmünd. In addition to hating ketchup, British spelling and violence, he writes The Milk House—the only literary column about dairy farming.
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