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10 German expressions everyone should know

For many, the German language remains a mystery. It sounds harsh, seems impossible to learn and has absurdly long words (“Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän” may be my personal favorite). And although it’s not one of the most spoken languages in the world, it does have nearly 100 million native speakers, and another 100 million that speak it as a second or third language. Beyond that, I’d argue that it’s one of the most expressive languages out there – as these strange expressions prove.

Use these with your taxi driver in Berlin, or in conversation with that cute barista in Munich, and you’re guaranteed to get at least a smile (and possibly better service).

1. “Das ist mir Wurst”

The literal translation is: “This is sausage to me”

What does it mean and how is it used? This expressions is used if you are indifferent or don’t care about something. Germans often use this phrase as a simple response – so if someone asks you ”Was möchtest du heute machen?” (What would you like to do today?”) and you don’t have a preference, you can simply reply with “Das ist mir Wurst!” Fancy sounding even more like a local? Adapt the word “Wurst” to “Wurscht” – which is the southern slang for sausage.

2. “Nur Bahnhof verstehen”

The literal translation is: “To only understand train station”

What does it mean and how is it used? If someone tells you “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof” (I only understand train station), it means that they have absolutely no clue what you are talking about and you will either need to explain it again or change the topic completely. In English the equivalent expression would be “It’s all Greek to me”.

3. “Jemandem die Daumen drücken”

The literal translation is: “To press your thumbs for someone”

What does it mean and how is it used? In Germany they use this expression to wish someone good luck. It is often also accompanied with someone raising their fists and showing you that they are literally pressing their thumbs for you. To say it correctly, you would word it this way: “Ich drück’ dir die Daumen!” or in English: “I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you”.

4. “Ich glaub mein Schwein pfeift”

The literal translation is: “I think my pig whistles”

What does it mean and how is it used? Before you think we’ve gone totally bonkers, we know the idea of a whistling pig is ridiculous. In fact, this is the origin of the expression – because a whistling pig would be so ridiculous that no one would believe it anyway. Germans use the phrase when they cannot believe something to be true or to express that they’re really surprised. If you are looking for an English equivalent, “I think a horse is kicking me” probably comes closest.

5. “Ich glaub’ ich spinne”

The literal translation is: “I believe I spider”

What does it mean and how is it used? Germans love their metaphors – especially if they include animals. However, since the actual origin of this idiom is debatable, the word “spinne” could also derive form the verb “spinnen” (to spin). Nonetheless, this phrase is widely used throughout Germany to express one’s surprise (both in a positive or negative way) or to show great disbelief about a situation. A comparable English phrase would be “I think I’m going crazy”.

6. “Fix und fertig sein”

The literal translation is: “To be fixed and finished”

What does it mean and how is it used? This phrase is commonly used to express that you are completely exhausted. In English, you would probably say something along the lines of “I am completely knackered” or “I am all wiped out”. If you want to use this expression correctly in German say: “Ich bin fix und fertig!” Alternatively, you could also say “Ich bin fix und alle” – where the word “alle” refers to “empty”.

7. “Na?”

The literal translation is: “What’s up?”

What does it mean and how is it used? It’s not that easy to get a German to engage in a conversation but if you know someone very well you can easily start a sentence with “Na?” and they will respond. Na is actually one of the easiest ways of saying both “hello” and “how are you?”. If you want to be a bit clearer, combine the word Na with something along the lines of “Na, alles gut?” (How are you?) or “Na, was machst du so?” (What are you doing?).

8. “Bock haben”

The literal translation is: “To have a goat”

What does it mean and how is it used? This expression derives from the old Rotwelsch word for “Hunger” (hunger) – namely “bokh”. This phrase is most commonly used to show that you either fancy something or are totally unwilling to do a certain activity.

“Ich hab voll Bock auf Bier” (I’m totally up for a beer)

“Ich hab null Bock auf Kino!“ (I have zero interest in going to the cinema!)

If you want to ask someone whether they fancy doing something, you can word the expression as a question: “Wir gehen was essen. Hast du Bock?” (We are eating out. Wanna come?)

9. “Jemandem auf den Keks gehen”

The literal translation is: “To go on someone’s cookie”

What does it mean and how is it used? Believe it or not, this German expression has nothing to do with cookies (sadly). In fact, it is used to express that someone is getting on our nerves. You will most commonly hear someone yelling “Du gehst mir auf den Keks!” – which means that they are getting thoroughly annoyed by someone.

10. “Die Nase voll haben”

The literal translation is: “To have the nose full”

What does it mean and how is it used? This expression is just another, more creative, way of saying “enough is enough”. It’s often used when someone is fed up with a particular situation and no longer wants to talk about it. For example, if you are fed up with the loud music your friend is playing you would say “Ich habe die Nase voll von der lauten Musik!” (I am fed up with the loud music.) You might often hear people say “Ich habe die Schnauze voll!” – in which case they replaced the word “Nase” (nose) with the less polite slang word “Schnauze” (snout).

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