German phrase of the day: Um des Kaisers Bart streiten

If you're stuck in a fruitless argument, this phrase in German might be just the thing you need to get out of it.

German phrase of the day: Um des Kaisers Bart streiten

Why do I need to know “Um des Kaisers Bart streiten”

Because it not only has an interesting history behind it, but can also be a useful way to end a conversation that’s going nowhere. 

What does it mean?

Um des Kaisers Bart streiten literally means to argue about the emperor’s beard. You may already have heard the word Kaiser, meaning emperor, when visiting a museum or learning about Austrian history. Streiten, meanwhile, means to argue or quarrel. It can be helpful to think of the English word “strife” here as a way to remember it.

As you might expect, the phrase doesn’t actually refer to conversations about imperialists’ facial hair. Instead, it’s used to describe debates over trivialities or things that don’t really matter – usually without any hope of finding a resolution. A colloquial alternative would be “um Nichtigkeiten streiten”, which means to quarrel over nothing. 

The idiom became the theme of a poem by the 19th century poet Emanuel Geibels titled Von des Kaisers Bart. In the poem, three young men argue in a pub about whether Frederick the Great’s beard was blonde, red or white – and end up in a sword fight.

Where does it come from? 

There are various theories about the origins of the phrase.

One theory suggests that the emperor’s beard is a distortion of the Latin phrase “de lana caprina rixari”, which means to quarrel over goat’s wool, i.e. about nothing. The analogy relates to the fact that “lana” (wool) was such a vague term that it was unclear whether it referred to sheep’s wool, the wool of other animals, or even material from plants.

Since “Geißbart” (goat’s beard) in German sounds rather similar to “Kaisers Bart”, some academics believe that the Latin phrase transitioned from goat’s wool to emperor’s beard over time. 

There are also some quite literal instances of scholars having meaningless arguments over emperors’ facial hair. For example, historians are said to have argued fiercely over whether Emperor Charlemagne wore a beard or not. 

Use it like this: 

Die beiden streiten mal wieder um des Kaisers Bart.

The two of them are arguing about nothing again.

Man sollte nicht um des Kaisers Bart streiten.

One should not quarrel about trivialities. 

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German phrase of the day: Es ist noch kein Meister vom Himmel gefallen

Anyone struggling with learning German (or any big skill) could use this popular piece of reassurance.

German phrase of the day: Es ist noch kein Meister vom Himmel gefallen

Why do I need to know this?

If you’re getting down on yourself for not doing something you are still learning just right – be it playing the piano or speaking German – you can gently comfort yourself with this phrase. Or you can confidently cite it to reassure your perfectionist friend or family member that they are indeed making great strides towards their goal.

What does it mean?

Literally translated as “There is still no master which has fallen from the sky,” the expression gets the idea across that no one is born – or comes pummeling down from the heavens – as an expert at something.

Rather they become a Meister (or at least halfway decent) through continuous hard work and discipline. 

READ ALSO: How to remember the gender of German words

The saying is similar to the also widely used “Übung macht den Meister” (Practice makes the master) or the English version: Practice makes perfect. 

Not surprisingly, Austrians and Germans – who pride themselves on industriously reaching their goals – have several other equivalent sayings. They include “Ohne Fleiß kein Preis” (There’s no prize without hard work) and “Von nichts kommt nichts” (Nothing comes out of nothing).

Where does it come from?

The popular phrase can be traced back to the Latin “Nemo magister natus”, or no one is born a master. Another version is “Nemo nascitur artifex” or no one is born an artist. This explains why so many languages have similar expressions.

What are some examples of how it’s used?

Sei nicht so streng mit dir selbst. Es ist noch kein Meister vom Himmel gefallen.

Don’t be so hard on yourself. No one is born perfect. 

Mein Trainer sagte, es sei noch kein perfekter Schwimmer vom Himmel gefallen.

My coach said that no one is born a perfect swimmer.

READ ALSO: Six German expressions to entice your Wanderlust