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German Slang

One common mistake made by beginning language learners is to assume that expressions can be translated word-for-word from one language into another (see German vs. English vocabulary). They’ll take an expression such as “to bite the dust” and render it into something like “zu beissen den Staub.” Besides its word order problems (the phrase would go “den Staub beissen” in German), this literal translation makes absolutely no sense to a German-speaker. In the German language, when one “bites the dust,” one actually “bites into the grass” (ins Gras beissen), perhaps because Germany is much greener than the wild West associated with this expression in English, although the German expression goes all the way back to the 16th century.

German has many interesting and colorful turns of phrase, some of which are obvious in their meaning, and some of which are not. There are several other interesting “grass” expressions in German that relate to a variety of situations. Das Gras wachsen hören means to “hear the grass grow” or, in other words, to think you’re so clever that you can even hear the grass grow. Über etwas Gras wachsen lassen (to let grass grow over something) means to leave something in the past, to allow something to be forgotten.

An innocent word like Pantoffel (slipper) can take on hidden meaning in German. A Pantoffelheld is literally a “slipper hero.” However, most Pantoffel expressions have to do with being “hen pecked” or a husband/man dominated by a wife/woman. A Pantoffelheld is a man under the foot of a woman, a hen-pecked husband. The Held or “hero” part of this word is meant ironically.

Vogel (bird), is another dangerous word in German. To say that someone has a bird (einen Vogel haben) means they are crazy. To show someone einen Vogel (a bird) in Germany is the same as showing someone the bird in America – meaning that someone is crazy.

While we’re on the topic of animals, the German word Schwein (swine, pig) is one to take care with, since it can be a very insulting term. But oddly enough, “Schwein haben” (lit., “to have pig”) is good. The expression is used to say someone was lucky or “came out smelling like a rose,” as in “Er hat Schwein gehabt.” (“He was in luck.” or “He was a lucky dog.” ).

A few short-but-meaningful expressions: Ein Glückspilz (a lucky mushroom) is a person who experiences unexpected good fortune. Vitamin B is good connections (gute Beziehungen) to influential people, an expression that came out of World War II and food rationing. Vitamin B2 is even better connections. A fairly recent term is Schickie-Mickies for “yuppies.” A Windel-Mercedes (Windel = diaper) is a fancy baby carriage. The list could go on and on. The essential fact is that even if you are familiar with the German language basics, if you don’t know German slang you will be lost in many casual German conversations. Ordinary Germans use plenty of colorful slang phrases and expressions when sharing day-to-day experiences, chatting over a coffee at work or over a beer at the local bar. German slang is an essential part of everyday German conversation that strangely is often overlooked by German learners.