10 Common German Idioms and Their English Counterparts

Learning languages is one thing, but mastering them fluently and naturally is a completely different challenge. To express yourself at a native level in a language like German, it is not enough to simply cram vocabulary and grammar rules. One of the key to truly authentic language competences lies in German idioms and figurative expressions that are rooted in the culture.

Literal translations often make no sense with these German idioms – these unique combinations of words pack wisdom, wit and metaphors in a way that only native speakers are truly familiar with. Easy German made a video on typical German idioms:

Learn these 10 German idioms with us now!

GermanLiteral TranslationTrue Meaning
Tomaten auf den Augen habenTo have tomatoes on one’s eyesTo be oblivious or naive
Das Kind mit dem Bade ausschüttenTo throw out the baby with the bathwaterTo go overboard when trying to make a change
Einen Bären aufgebunden bekommenTo be told a tall taleTo be lied to
Öl ins Feuer gießenTo pour oil on the fireTo make a bad situation worse
Sich die Beine aus dem Leib stehenTo stand until one’s legs fall offTo work extremely hard
Den Löffel abgebenTo hand in the spoonTo die, to pass away
Gut Ding will Weile habenGood things take timePatience is a virtue
Einen Kater habenTo have a tomcatTo have a hangover
Sich einen Wolf gelaufen seinTo have walked a wolfTo be very tired
Mit der Tür ins Haus fallenTo fall into the house with the doorTo speak very directly/bluntly

1. Tomaten auf den Augen haben (To be unaware of what’s happening around you)

Meaning: To be oblivious, naive or unable to see the obvious truth about a situation.

Explanation: This idiom likens being naive or oblivious to having tomatoes over one’s eyes, blocking the ability to see clearly.

Example:

Marie: Hast du gesehen, wie Sven sich von Julia hat austricksen lassen? [Did you see how Sven let Julia trick him?]
Peter: Ja, der hat echt Tomaten auf den Augen. Er ist viel zu gutgläubig. [Yeah, he really has tomatoes on his eyes. He’s way too gullible.]

2. Das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten (To go overboard when trying to make a change)

Meaning: To throw out the baby with the bathwater (to go overboard when trying to make a change)

Explanation: This saying cautions against rejecting something valuable while trying to get rid of something undesirable.

Example:

Mutter: Wir müssen die Hausordnung überarbeiten, aber lass uns nicht das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten. [We need to revise the house rules, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.]
Vater: Ja, wir sollten die guten Regeln behalten und nur die problematischen ändern. [Yes, we should keep the good rules and only change the problematic ones.]

3. Einen Bären aufgebunden bekommen (To be lied to)

Meaning: To be told a tall tale (to be lied to)

Explanation: This expression likens being lied to or deceived with an elaborate story as having a bear tied onto you.

Example:

Lena: Hör mal, Max hat mir erzählt, er sei ein Prinz aus Saudi-Arabien! [Listen, Max told me he’s a prince from Saudi Arabia!]
Sven: Da hat er dir aber einen Bären aufgebunden! Er kommt doch aus Berlin. [Then he really told you a tall tale! He’s from Berlin.]

4. Öl ins Feuer gießen (To make a bad situation worse)

Meaning: To pour oil on the fire (to make a bad situation worse)

Explanation: This metaphoric phrase refers to making an already difficult or tense situation even worse, just like adding oil would intensify a fire.

german idioms meaning pouring oil on fire

Example:

Sarah: Lass uns mal über das Thema reden, wenn wir beide ruhiger sind. [Let’s discuss this topic when we’re both calmer.]
David: Okay, sonst gießen wir nur Öl ins Feuer und die Situation eskaliert. [Okay, otherwise we’ll just be pouring oil on the fire and the situation will escalate.]

5. Sich die Beine aus dem Leib stehen (To work extremely hard)

Meaning: To stand until one’s legs fall off (to work extremely hard)

Explanation: This hyperbolic phrase depicts working so hard that you stand for so long your legs feel like they’ll fall off your body.

Example:

Chef: Mensch, Sie haben sich ja die Beine aus dem Leib gestanden bei diesem Projekt! [Man, you really worked until your legs almost fell off on this project!]
Angestellte: Ja, es war eine Mammutaufgabe, aber ich bin froh, dass wir es geschafft haben. [Yes, it was a mammoth task, but I’m glad we got it done.]

6. Den Löffel abgeben (To pass away)

Meaning: To hand in the spoon (to die, to pass away)

Explanation: This euphemistic idiom refers to dying as “handing in the spoon,” as if one is too weak to continue eating.

Example:

Oma: Mein alter Freund Otto hat leider den Löffel abgegeben. [My old friend Otto unfortunately handed in the spoon.]
Enkel: Oh, das tut mir sehr leid für dich, Oma. [Oh, I’m very sorry to hear that, Grandma.]

7. Gut Ding will Weile haben (Patience is a virtue)

Meaning: Good things take time (patience is a virtue)

Explanation: This proverb reminds us that good or valuable things can’t be rushed and require patience.

german idioms meaning depicted by a rose growing on a field

Example:

Kind: Mama, wann ist der Kuchen endlich fertig? [Mom, when will the cake finally be ready?]
Mutter: Gut Ding will Weile haben, mein Schatz. Lass uns noch ein bisschen warten. [Good things take time, my dear. Let’s wait a little longer.]

8. Einen Kater haben (To have a hangover)

Meaning: To have a tomcat (to have a hangover)

Explanation: This idiom equates having a hangover to metaphorically “having a tomcat,” like feeling as miserable as a sick cat.

Example:

Andreas: Mensch, du siehst ja richtig fertig aus heute Morgen! [Man, you look really done for this morning!]
Markus: Ja, ich habe nach der Party gestern echt einen fetten Kater. [Yeah, I really have a fat tomcat after the party last night.]

9. Sich einen Wolf gelaufen sein (To be very tired)

Meaning: To have walked a wolf (to be very tired)

Explanation: This rustic phrase compares the exhaustion of being extremely tired to having metaphorically “walked a wolf.”

Example:

Ulli: Diese Wanderung heute hat mich echt alle. Ich bin fix und fertig. [This hike today really took it all out of me. I’m exhausted.]
Karin: Kein Wunder, du bist dir ja einen richtigen Wolf gelaufen! [No wonder, you really walked a wolf!]

10. Mit der Tür ins Haus fallen (To speak very directly)

Meaning: To fall into the house with the door (to speak very directly/bluntly)

Explanation: This idiom depicts someone speaking extremely bluntly, as if they “fell through the door into the house” without any tact.

Example:

Petra: Ich muss mit der Tür ins Haus fallen – der Bericht den du geschrieben hast, ist wirklich schlecht. [I have to just come out and say it – the report you wrote is really bad.]
Kollege: Oh, vielen Dank für deine Ehrlichkeit. [Oh, thank you for your honesty.]

Practice the German idioms with worksheets

It’s now time to put everything into context. Here’s a flashcard exercise to practice the German idioms!

But this is not all! Click the button now and get access to all of the exercise:

Want to learn German idiomatic expressions? Learn German idioms with Conversation Based Chunking

Conversation Based Chunking proves an effective method when learning German idioms.

Regular practice of German idioms, coupled with an understanding of literal translations will help you become fluent in the language. Sign up now to get the German Conversation Based Chunking Guide.

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