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Extra sausages, tap-dancing bears, and idiomatic tomatoes

dog in pan

What makes idioms so wonderful is that they make communication easier and, in my opinion, add an element of fun to language. By definition, an idiom is a figure of speech where the ‘meaning [is] not deducible from those of the individual words’. Thus, if you’re not a member of a certain ‘language club’, the real meaning of an idiom will probably not be immediately obvious to you. Every language learner is grateful when they find that idioms from their native language exist in the language they’re studying. Take, for example, ‘the die is cast’. Originally from alea iacta est, this idiom has entered many other European languages: die Würfel sind gefallen, le sort en est jeté, il dado è tratto.

Unfortunately, it isn’t always that easy—idioms are incredibly hard to master for any language learner. Even after many years of studying English (my mother tongue is German), I still come across idioms that I have never heard before. Some are harder to remember than others and there are occasions when I mix them up, use the wrong preposition, throw different idioms together, etc. The results span from unintelligible or amusing, to downright embarrassing. When you hear an idiom for the first time, it’s usually quite obvious that what is said shouldn’t be taken literally. So far so good! Figuring out the real meaning is the challenge. For example, I would think it highly unlikely that it would really ‘rain cats and dogs’. However, what kind of rain are we talking about? Heavy rain? Drizzle? Similarly, I would claim it impossible that someone could really ‘live in someone else’s pocket’. Nevertheless, if you’re lucky, a bit of Sherlock Holmes guesswork will help you figure out the real meaning. The problematic expressions are the ones where the relationship between the meaning of the individual words and the expression is too arbitrary to make a connection.

An extra sausage, with warm rolls and mustard

Let me take this opportunity to introduce you to a few of the idiomatic gems of the German language. Where would we be without food and drink? An all-time German favourite is ‘to ask for an extra sausage’ (eine Extrawurst verlangen). You might not find it surprising that any German would rejoice at the prospect of an extra sausage. Accordingly, it means that you’re asking for special treatment. Now, what else do the Germans like? If something ‘is going like warm rolls’ (weggehen wie warme Semmeln), it is ‘selling like hot cakes’. Note how preferences differ! Why not top this off with a mustard-related idiom? Someone who likes to ‘add their mustard’ (seinen Senf dazugeben) is a person who will always give their opinion, whether it’s asked for or not. The meaning of this idiom might be deducible from context, but apart from that wouldn’t be immediately apparent unless you knew a bit about eating habits throughout German history. Back in the olden days, mustard was considered a delightful addition to every meal. Even if it didn’t go with what was being served, you still got a portion—arguably as unwelcome as some people’s opinion! A much-loved beer-related idiom is ‘hop and malt is lost’ (Hopfen und Malz ist verloren): something or someone is a hopeless case. And then there is one of my all-time favourites (although its link to food and drink is rather tenuous!): ‘the dog goes crazy in the pan’ (der Hund wird in der Pfanne verrückt). Lots of questions to be asked here but, as an idiom, it is simply a way to express that you consider something ‘unbelievable’.

Kill two birds or two flies?

Contrary to what the above paragraph might suggest, German idioms don’t just revolve around food and drink. Some idioms are quite similar to their English counterparts, apart from some subtle (or not-so-subtle) differences. English speakers tend to ‘move heaven and earth’, whereas Germans will ‘put heaven and hell in motion’ (Himmel und Hölle in Bewegung setzen). The next one is interesting insofar as the principle is the same, but the victim and the murder weapon are not. Instead of ‘killing two birds with one stone’, Germans ‘kill two flies with one trap’ (zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagen).

However, as some of the earlier examples show, you can’t always rely on the similarity bonus. Trying to convince you to come to a party, a German person might well try to entice you with ‘a bear tap-dancing’ at the venue (da steppt der Bär). Only there isn’t really going to be a dancing bear there–they’re just promising you that it will be a good party. Also, please do not expect a magic trick if a German speaker tells you they will ‘eat a broom’ (einen Besen fressen) if you manage to do x, y, or z … they won’t. Similarly, they would never seriously ask you to fry up a stork for them (da brat mir einer einen Storch). They’re simply expressing their astonishment. It is also unlikely that you will meet a (sane) person with tomatoes on their eyes (Tomaten auf den Augen haben). If someone has ‘idiomatic’ tomatoes on their eyes, they’re oblivious to what is going on around them.

See how useful and wonderful idioms are? You may ‘only understand the railway station’ (nur Bahnhof verstehen) in the beginning, but don’t be afraid to ‘make an ape out of yourself’ (sich zum Affen machen). Sometimes you have to get it wrong before you can ‘hit the nail on the head’ (den Nagel auf den Kopf treffen). And when you do, you’ll be ‘as happy as a snow king’ (sich freuen wie ein Schneekönig).