1. Education
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Favorite German Words and Expressions

From Readers and “Das schönste deutsche Wort” Contest


Also see: The Most Beautiful German Words

Reader-Contributed Idioms
In a previous feature, Idioms: Talk Like a German, I promised that if you would send me your own favorites, we would publish the results. Well, the response was more than I hoped for, and we're still behind in adding your contributions. If I have missed a favorite you sent in, it's only because of time or space limitations. (But also see Proverbs and Idioms from Readers.)

Your favorite German expressions came in various types or flavors. In order to organize them a little, I have arranged them more or less by category. Please keep in mind that regional variations exist, and it's best to get familiar with the local meaning of any idiom or expression before you use it.

Redewendungen (Idioms/Expressions)
Donald Pike wrote to tell me that he likes this graphic expression to describe a person who is "a little slow on the uptake": Bei ihm/ihr fällt der Groschen pfennigerweise. ("In his/her case the dime falls more like a penny.") It's something like saying "a lightbulb comes on, but dimly" or the British "the penny drops." The German imagery is of a (ten-pfennig) coin falling and activating a vending machine or pay phone.) One more of Don's favorites is "mit jemandem unter vier Augen sprechen," another graphic way of saying "to speak privately ('among four eyes') with someone."

Lila Cleary sent in two ways to express that someone is crazy or nuts. Her personal favorites are: Er spinnt, and Sie hat einen Vogel. The "spinnen" expression may go back to a time when mentally ill inmates in prison were given spinning work to calm them and occupy their time. The idiom has been made well-known in the German version of the "Asterix" cartoon series, in which Asterix and his pal Obelix are always commenting about the crazy Romans: "Die spinnen, die Römer!" ("They're nuts, those Romans!")

Brigitte Dubiel (our forum manager) contributed a group of expressions, all of which use some variation of the German verb "fallen" or the adverb "fällig."

  • Was fällt dir denn eigentlich ein? (What's the big idea?)
  • Warum ist mir das nicht eingefallen? (Why didn't I think of that?)
  • Das ist mir auch aufgefallen. (I noticed that, too. )
  • Die Gasrechnung ist fällig. (The gas bill is due.)
  • Die Stunde ist ausgefallen. (The class was canceled.)
Rodney McFadden pointed out this interesting expression: Es ist (einfach) zum Schießen. = "It's (simply) too funny for words." The German actually says, "It's to shoot." Rodney also pointed out the danger of reversing the "i" and the "e" or in mispronouncing the word "schießen" in this common idiom. A variation is: Es ist zum Schreien. ("It's a scream.")

Belinda Lang offered three favorite expressions. The first sounds like something it's not: Da liegt der Hund begraben. = "That's the crux/root of the matter." This expression actually has nothing to do with buried dogs, but comes from the Old German word die hunde, meaning "treasure." (But German has dozens of "Hund" expressions that do concern dogs--far too many to cover here.) Belinda also mentioned: auf gut Deutsch ("in plain language, to put it plainly") and etwas auf die hohe Kante legen ("to save something for a rainy day"). The latter expression goes back to a time before paper money when coins were wrapped in rolls and placed on a high ledge ("hohe Kante") for safe keeping.

Diane Hollingsworth likes an expression that she learned from the secretary at a language school where she once worked in Germany. The secretary would say of particularly difficult clients: Er/sie kann mir gestohlen bleiben. This expression, which dates back to at least the 1820s, implies that someone could be "stolen" or kidnapped without anyone being too concerned about it.

Most Beautiful German Words
Before we continue with more German expressions, let's look at some special German words. What do these five German words have in common? Rhabarbermarmelade, lieben, geborgen, Habseligkeiten, and Augenblick were chosen in a worldwide contest as the five most beautiful words in German. To discover how they were ranked and what they mean, see The Most Beautiful German Words.

Suggestions for das schönste deutsche Wort came from people in more than 100 countries. Other "most beautiful" words entered in the Goethe Institute-sponsored contest were:

  • die Libelle - dragonfly
  • nichtsdestotrotz - notwithstanding, nonetheless
  • die Streicheleinheit - tender love and care
  • die Heimat - homeland, native country, hometown; natural habitat
  • die Sommerfrische - summer holiday/vacation; enjoyment of summer days
  • der Feierabend - quitting time; evening, time off from work

NEXT > German Proverbs and Sayings

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. German Language
  4. Vocabulary
  5. Favorite German Words and Expressions

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.