German Idioms Decoded (plus potatoes)


When I was a little kid my grandmother (or as we called her “Oma”) taught me my first German word: Kartoffel, which means “potato”. At the time, I had no idea how extremely beloved these tubers were to Germans, so in hindsight it makes sense that would be the first word I learned.

After living in Germany for six and a half years as a grownup, I discovered that the only things Germans love more than potatoes are puzzling figures of speech. One such example goes: Die dümmsten Bauern haben die dicksten Kartoffeln! which literally translates to: “The dumbest farmers have the fattest potatoes”.

Over the years, my love of strange German idioms also grew strong and deep like a potato. Here’s a list of some of my (non-potato themed) favourites along with some examples of how to properly use them in English.

  • Lass die Kirche im Dorf!
    Literally: Leave the church in the village!
    In other words: Don’t get carried away.
    Example: You don’t want to eat your weight in potatoes? Leave the church in the village!
  • Die Arschkarte ziehen
    Literally: Pulling the ass card
    In other words: Having bad luck
    Example: We’re out of potatoes?! We really pulled the ass card today!
  • Ich hau mich auf’s Ohr!
    Literally: I’m going to throw myself on my ear!
    In other words: I’m going to bed.
    Example: I’m exhausted from all the potato eating. I think I’ll throw myself on my ear!
  • Dumm wie Dosenbrot!
    Literally: Dumb as tinned bread!
    In other words: Really really dumb.
    Example: That guy hates potatoes? He’s dumb as canned bread!
  • Eier in der Hose haben
    Literally: Having eggs in the pants
    In other words: Being brave
    Example: Some people like a man with eggs in his pants. Personally, I love a man with potatoes in his pockets!
  • Das passt wie die Faust aufs Auge!
    Literally: It fits like a fist fits an eye!
    In other words: Perfect
    Example: A potato in the pot is like a fist fits an eye!
  • Pi mal Daumen
    Literally: Pi times thumb
    In other words: Approximately
    Example: Pi times thumb is how much I need potatoes in my life.
  • Da haben wir den Salat!
    Literally: There we have the salad!
    In other words: It’s all fucked up
    Example: No potato salad? Now we have the salad there!
  • Seinen Senf zu etwas abgeben 
    Literally: Give your mustard to something
    In other words: Give your (unsolicited) two cents
    Example: I’ll give my mustard to your potato salad recipe: It’s potatastic!
  • Im falschen Film sein
    Literally: Being in the wrong movie
    In other words: Finding yourself in a strange or confusing situation
    Example: Carrots for dinner? I feel like I’m in the wrong movie.
  • Die beleidigte Leberwurst spielen
    Literally: Playing the offended liverwurst
    In other words: Being adorably offended
    Example: You act like an offended liverwurst when you go into potato withdrawal.
  • Den Löffel abgeben
    Literally: Giving up the spoon
    In other words: To die
    Example: He gave up the spoon! And the potato, too!

Living the Traum

I live in Germany, a land where everything cool is 15 years in the future, for example: Contemporary music, fashion and acceptance of other races. The things that I’m used to enjoying in North America which seemed totally mundane are still extremely exotic here. Like brown sugar. Or cream soda. Or root beer. I can usually find whatever I need at the Asian specialty food shop, which is odd because you’d think that they would be catering to the Asian community, not homesick Canadians who don’t want to interrupt their plans for early onset type II diabetes.

But in Chinatown in Toronto, the Asian stores don’t need your business. They don’t need to cater to your strange white person preferences. Everything is written in Chinese as a way of deterring your patronage… Like, “I think this is a cantaloupe, but it could also be some kind of seafood?” I lived in Chinatown for a few years, so I actually forgot how to shop at other grocery stores. I would walk into a big box grocery store and be like ‘Where do they keep the dried squid? Do they even stock Ginger Balls? Did they sell out of square watermelons?’

In Munich, it can be hard to get authentic foods. It’s getting better now, but there was a time when Pizza and Sushi were made and sold at the same place. Unless the cook is half Italian and half Japanese, I am not putting either of those in my mouth. I guess I understand the machine-gun principle behind offering Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese food—I mean, why not cover your bases?—but as a customer… you can’t really expect that they are going to do any one of those particularly well. I once ordered the sampler plate and got a sushi stuff egg roll floating in green curry soup.

Munich is a relatively safe city… Very low crime, squeaky clean. The only thing that really terrifies people in Munich is this thing called a Zug, which translates to ‘draft’. No, I am not talking about forced military service, I am talking about a slight breeze indoors. Now, drafts are very dangerous in Germany. Nothing scares a German more than moving air. In Germany, drafts are the number one cause of the common cold. Contrary to popular belief, germs do not cause colds—drafts do.  Every German knows that necks are particularly sensitive to drafts. If there is a draft, you must immediately cover your neck to protect yourself from getting a cold. If you sit in a draft when you already have a cold from a previous draft, you’ll likely be dead before sunrise.

The panic that moving air causes is the reason why there is no air conditioning in Germany. Anywhere. Not at work, not at home, not even on public transportation. Once when my Dad and brother came to visit, my husband and I took them to the Alps for a day trip. On the way home, the train broke down and 200 people were forced to sardine themselves into a bus intended for 85. It was already a hot day and the stank of 200 people who just climbed a mountain was not really contributing to the atmosphere. So when the temperature reached about 40 degrees, I asked my Dad to crack the window above him which only slid about 4 inches. As soon as those 27 fresh air molecules entered the bus, the guy sitting across from us whips out a T-shirt from his backpack and covers his neck. The struggle is real, people.