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LEARNING GERMAN

12 quirky German expressions to spice up your language skills

Idioms in a foreign language are some of the hardest things to master. Here are some fun German idioms to give you a head start.

12 quirky German expressions to spice up your language skills
What does it mean when an Austrian says "to tie a bear on someone"? (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

However bamboozling expressions and phrases are at first, it’s definitely worth learning a few. At the least, you’ll have you’re native speaking friends cracking up at the fact that you can pull such pro-level German out of the bag. Plus, they add a level of comedy to language that always makes it more fun to speak.

1. “Jemandem einen Bären aufbinden”

Two female black bears born on February 4,2022, play during their first outing. (Photo by Frederick FLORIN / AFP)

Literally translated as “to tie a bear on someone”, this idiom has nothing to do with big furry beasts. The closest English equivalent is probably “to take someone for a ride” – essentially to deceive or mislead someone. With all the pitfalls of moving to a new country, it’s a phrase you may be the subject of in your early weeks in Austria.

2. “Die Kirche im Dorf lassen”

Houses by the lake in Hallstatt, Austria. Photo by Joss Woodhead on Unsplash

Translating as “leave the church in the village”, this one is probably more relevant in the rural, conservative areas! This idiom advises you to play it safe, or not to get carried away. Maybe a sound warning to a young person arriving in Austria from abroad for the first time…

3. “Wer weiß, warum die Gänse barfuß gehen”

(Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash)

“Who knows why geese walk barefoot” sounds like something Confucius might have said. An artful way to say, “that’s just how it is”. In other words, life is filled to the brim with pointless and idiotic realities. 99 percent of adulthood is wading through this bog of contradictions without thinking too much about it, making this idiom a handy one.

4. “Eine einzige Nuss rappelt nicht im Sacke” 

Chestnuts. Photo by Hansjörg Keller on Unsplash

Chestnuts. Photo by Hansjörg Keller on Unsplash

Literally, it means: “a single nut doesn’t rattle in the sack”. The perfect illustration of an opaque translation. Funnily enough, one way to understand this is through another German idiom: “einmal ist keinmal” – “once doesn’t count”. Essentially, this idiom implies that a single event is not statistically significant, or perhaps that a mistake can be forgiven the first time.

5. “Der Fisch stinkt vom Kopf her”

Photo by Jakub Kapusnak on Unsplash

Translated as “the fish starts stinking from the head”, this one seems particularly useful in the current climate of resentment towards political, business and industry leaders.

Attacking the idea that blame always trickles down, this phrase says that the problems always start at the top. Certainly one to be used in your next political debate.

6. “Ich bin keine Kuh, die man melken kann”

Photo by Ryan Song on Unsplash

Perhaps a bit more straight forward, this idiom translates directly as “I’m not a cow to be milked”. Save this one for your friend that always turns to you at the front of the shop queue or at the bar, asking if you could cover for them just once more.

7. “Mit Pauken und Trompeten durchfallen”

Photo by Josh Sorenson on Unsplash

Again one that makes sense more literally: “to go down with drums and trumpets”. To fail is to be human. The real distinction is in how we fail. This saying means to go down gloriously, all guns blazing, or to go out with a bang.

8. “Er hat das Pulver nicht gerade erfunden”

(Photo by GUILLEM SARTORIO / AFP)

We might say that someone is “not the sharpest pencil in the pack”, and this is the German equivalent. Literally “he didn’t exactly invent gunpowder”, this is a good phrase to describe a friend when they do something a little on the stupid side!

9. “Wer Feuer frißt, scheißt Funken”

Photo by Evgeniya Litovchenko on Unsplash

Quite bluntly: “he who eats fire s**ts sparks”. A masterpiece of Austria brevity and straight-forwardness. Perhaps the equivalent of “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword”. In other words: you have to stand by the consequences of your actions.

10. “Das ist ein Streit um des Kaisers Bart”

Photo: Richard Brend’amour, Krieg und Sieg 1870-71, publisher: Julius von Pflugk-Harttung / Wiki Commons

This idiom translates as “this is an argument over the emperor’s beard”. If you ever find yourself caught up in an argument with an Austrian, and they resort to semantic arguments, or being ridiculously pedantic, this is the phrase to use. The English equivalent would be “to split hairs”. That is, to make small and overly fine distinctions.

11. “Einen Vogel haben”

Photo by Jan Meeus on Unsplash

The direct translation of this one won’t help: “to have a bird”. But when an Austrian speaker asks you, “Hast Du einen Vogel?”, they’re omitting the implied “im Kopf” (“in you head”). No, they’re not enquiring about your pet ownership. They’re calling you crazy. If someone has asked you this and you told them about your beloved parrot, then we’re sorry to break the bad news.

12. “Alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei”

Photo by Bruno Kelzer on Unsplash

“Everything has an end, only the sausage has two”. Of course the Austrians have a sausage idiom, and this is certainly not the only one. It’s pretty clear what they’re saying, but it’s beautiful in its Teutonic pragmatism and simplicity.

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GERMAN LANGUAGE

The German language you need for summer in Austria

Summer in Austria is when people go outdoors to enjoy public pools, swim in rivers and lakes and complain about the weather. Here are a key few words and expressions to have at hand.

The German language you need for summer in Austria

As we near summer and scorching temperatures, it is about time to brush up on our (Austrian) German in order to enjoy the season to its fullest.

There is no shortage of activities that Austrians enjoy during the hottest months of the year and it’s essential to know some basic vocabulary to enjoy them to the fullest.

READ ALSO: Five of the best things to do in Vienna this summer

If you are more advanced, we also bring a couple of phrases and idioms locals use so that you don’t get too confused when you hear that it’s emperor weather outside.

Basic summer vocabulary

Here are some basic words to get you through the season:

Der See, or the lake. Especially in Austria, with its numerous beautiful lakes (and best bathing waters in Europe!), going for a swim in the lake or a river (der Fluss) is a perfect summer activity.

READ ALSO: Austria home to the ‘best bathing waters’ in Europe, new ranking claims

If you are in Vienna, you’ll likely visit one of the great Freibäder, the outdoor public swimming pools. Another common pastime during the season is parties and barbecues, die Grillparty, but don’t forget to check the rules in your area to see if you are allowed to light up the grill and which type.

Some basic vocabulary for these popular summer activities include die Sonnenbrille (sunglasses), das Wasserrutsche (water slide), das Eis (icecream), der Hut (hat), die Sonnencreme (sunscreen), and die Radtour (bike tour).

If you go through a summer heatwave (a Hitzewelle), you might look for places to cool down. Austria offers spots with Trinkbrunnen (drinking fountains), Bodenfontäne (ground fountains), and Sommerspritzer, which are cooling water sprinklers.

Some common expressions to use in summer

A few words are a bit more advanced or just more informal and a perfect way to describe certain summer feelings.

For example, the “monkey heat”, or Affenhitze, is a word German speakers use to describe those extremely hot days. So if you want to comment on what a scorcher of a day it is, you should say, “Heute ist eine Affenhitze”.

A similar expression is Sauheiß, literally translated to “pig hot”, for those unbearable heat days.

On the other hand, if the day is simply beautiful, sunny, with no clouds in the sky, Austrians will call it “Emperor weather”, or das Kaiserwetter. The urban legend goes that the idiom stems from Austrian history. Kaiser Franz Josef’s birthday, the August 18th, was often bright and cloudless.

And if you ever get caught in one of Austria’s Sommergewitter, the summer thunderstorm, you might hear someone say, jokingly: “Du siehst aus wie ein begossener Pudel!” it literally means “you look like a wet poodle” and, really, they won’t be wrong.

Heading to a public pool? This is what you should know

Sometimes, not speaking the local language can prevent people from trying activities involving talking with someone in German. While swimming in lakes or rivers won’t require any particular German vocabulary, if you want to enter the public pools (and you should, they are fantastic), you might need to know a few words.

Some public pools are “natural” ones, located by river banks. (Photo: PID / Christian Fürthner)

First, the open-air pools are called (singular) Freibad, an area by the river that is closed off and used as public natural pools would be a Strandbad (something like “beach pool”), a Hallenbad is indoors, Kombibad will have both indoor and outdoor pools, and a Familienbad is for families (adults are not allowed in without children).

Öffnungszeiten: opening times. The websites and signs will also state the “Kassaschluss”, which are closing times for buying an entry (usually you will see they are “eine halbe Stunde vor Badeschuss”, or half an hour before the pool closes).

READ ALSO: The best lakes and swimming spots in Austria

Eintrittspreise. These are the entry prices. There might be many different options here, including Kleinkinder (small children), Kinder (children), Jugendliche (young people), and Erwachsene (adults). If you feel young at heart and are confused about how much you must pay, don’t worry: there are usually birth years next to the prices. So, for example, adults are those born in 2003 and earlier.

Other entry options may include Familienkarte (family card, they will specify how many adults and children) and time-based cards, such as “Nachmittagskarte”, for example, for people who want to spend half a day or less.

You can also find season passes, but in general, the whole process of buying and entry is relatively straightforward. In Vienna, it is even possible to buy day tickets online. However, not every pool will have online sales for many weeks in advance or on weekends when demand is high.

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