Idiomatic Expressions I Learned in Germany: Insights from My Journey

Hallo, Deutschlerner. In this special lesson, I’m excited to share with you the fascinating world of German idiomatic expressions that I discovered during my unforgettable journey through Germany this summer. As part of my school’s GAPP exchange program, I stayed with a wonderful host family and immersed myself in the rich German culture.

Throughout my two-week stay, I encountered quirky phrases that left me scratching my head at first, but soon I realized they were the “idioms” that add color and flair to the German language. From vultures that know it all to magic tricks up sleeves, these expressions hold unique stories and historical origins that intrigued me.

6 German Idioms to Talk Like a Native - B1 German Phrases

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What are idioms?

They are called “idioms” because the word comes from the Greek word “idioma,” meaning peculiar phrasing. And here I just thought it was referencing how you might feel like an idiot, if you don’t understand the meaning of them and you have to just sit there with that awkward blank stare on your face smiling and nodding. Well, to avoid all of that, I’m going to teach you these idioms that I heard all of the time while in Germany this summer. 

Weiß der Geier

We’ll start with the one I heard most often. Weiß der Geier. You may already be aware that “weiß” can have one of two meanings. If it is a verb, it means to know. If it is an adjective, it means white. In this case, we mean the verb “to know”. A “Geier” is a vulture. 

This phrase literally means “Knows the vulture.” You could also phrase it as “The vulture knows.” In conversation, it would make the most sense to add in the word “only” to make it take on the same meaning as the German. “Only the vulture knows.” The closest English equivalent that I can think of is “Heaven only knows.”, “God only knows.” or “Lord only knows.”

So how do we use this phrase? Basically, if you use it when you don’t care about who actually knows the information, because why would you care what a vulture knows?

Hey, wo ist dein kleiner Bruder? –
Hey, where is your little brother? 

Weiß der Geier. Dieser Typ ist immer in Bewegung. –
Lord only knows. That dude is always on the move. 

Warum hat sie so viel Gepäck? –
Why does she have so much luggage? 

Sie bringt ihr ganzes Zuhause mit. Sie hat alle Kleidung, Schuhe und weiß der Geier was noch. –
She is bringing her entire home with her. She has all of her clothes, shoes and God only knows what else. 

The Origins of “Weiß der Geier”

Now, if you are wondering where this wonderful phrase came from, because I definitely was, it is actually kind of the opposite of the English phrase. While we tend to say “heaven” or “God” is the only one that knows, the German phrase used to be a reference to the devil. “The devil knows.” But, since it was considered in poor taste to mention the devil by name, people substituted his friend the vulture. 

Hol mich doch der Geier!

Another random tidbit to go along with this phrase, is the phrase “Hol mich doch der Geier!” which is again the opposite of what we say in English. We might say something like “Jesus take me now.” Basically saying, “get me out of this situation, I can’t take it anymore.” It is used something like “darn it” 

Ich werde diese Prüfung nicht bestehen. Ich habe versucht alles zu lernen, aber mein Kopf ist immer noch leer. Hol mich doch der Geier! –
I will not pass this test. I have tried to learn everything, but my brain is still empty. Jesus take me now.

Fuchs dich mal rein!

The next phrase on my list was actually only mentioned in one conversation that I had while in Germany, but it was such a cool phrase that I had to add it to the list. The phrase is “Fuchs dich mal rein.” A “Fuchs” is, of course, a fox, but in this phrase, it is kind of being used as a verb. It literally says “Fox yourself in there.” 

It is used to say that someone is diving right in and immersing oneself in a particular topic or subject matter, usually with the aim of gaining a deep understanding or becoming proficient in it. For example: 

Wenn du Deutsch lernen willst, musst du dich reinfuchsen. –
If you want to learn German, you have to dive right in. 

Wie kann man seine PC-Kenntnisse erweitern? Fuchs dich mal rein. Je mehr du an einem Computer arbeitest und spielst, desto mehr kannst du lernen. –
How can one expand their computer knowledge? Dive in. The more you work and play at the computer, the more you will learn. 

aus dem Ärmel schütteln

Next up we have “Aus dem Ärmel schütteln”. This phrase literally translates as “to shake out of the sleeve”. In English we have the phrase “off the cuff”, which has a similar meaning, as a cuff is the end of a sleeve. This phrase is basically used to say that someone came up with something or did something so easily that it seemed like a magic trick. 

This is where both the English and German versions originate from. Magicians will often do tricks that make things seem to appear out of thin air. This is usually done by keeping something up their sleeve. While in English, we focused on the end of the sleeve, the cuff, in German they focused on the action of shaking whatever it was out of the sleeve. 

Let’s talk about magicians.

It is also the reason for the English phrase “nothing up my sleeve”, because many magicians will try to prove that they aren’t using the cliche trick of hiding something up their sleeve. This led to the wider use of the phrase meaning that the person is not hiding anything or is not up to something. In German they say “etwas in der Hinterhand haben”, which is like “having something behind their hand”. 

How to use “aus dem Ärmel schütteln”

Anyway, back to “aus dem Ärmel schütteln”. Let’s see some examples of how you might use this in a conversation. 

Ich habe keinen Plan für morgen in der Schule geschrieben. Es ist sowieso egal. Ich kann einfach etwas aus dem Ärmel schütteln. –
I haven’t written a plan for school tomorrow. It probably doesn’t matter. I can always pull something out of my sleeve. 

Was Ryan Reynolds so lustig macht, ist seine Fähigkeit, lustige Sprüche aus seinem Ärmel zu schütteln. –
What makes Ryan Reynolds so funny is his ability to come up with funny sayings off the cuff. 

das A und O sein

Next up we have “das A und O sein”. This comes from the Bible when it says God is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. This phrase is used when something is the key success factor or the essential information/facts, all that is important or of significance. The best English translation I could find is “the be-all, end-all”. It is everything. Without it, there is nothing. Let’s see “das A und O” in action. 

Ohne Englisch kann man gar nicht anfangen. Bei uns ist Englisch das A und O. –
Without English you can’t do anything. For us English is the be-all, end-all. 

Beim Räuchern ist die Temperatur das A und O. Man muss langsam und bei einer niedrigen Temperatur kochen. –
While smoking, the temperature is the be-all, end-all. You have to cook slowly and at a low temperature. 

nicht ohne sein

Another phrase I often heard in Germany is “nicht ohne sein”. This is used in similar situations to “das A und O sein”. It means that whatever it is should not be underestimated or devalued. 

Ich muss mich auf die Matheprüfung vorbereiten. Ich habe Herrn Weber. Seine Prüfungen sind nicht ohne. –
I have to prepare myself for the math test. I have Mr. Weber. His tests are legit.

Wie fandest du den Film gestern Abend? –
What did you think of the film last night? 

Er war sehr spannend. Die Wendungen in der Handlung waren nicht ohne. –
It was very exciting. The twists in the story line were uh… well… wow… like…  

Das ist mir Wurst.

The last phrase on the list means that you don’t care. It might be a familiar one to you, but I’m going to put a bit of a twist on it. The phrase “Das ist mir Wurst.” literally means “That is sausage to me.” In English, I would probably say “It’s whatever.” 

The reason I left this one on my list even though it has been covered by literally every blog that has a post about German idioms is because I was in Baden-Württemburg, where the Swabian is the main dialect. This dialect is marked by several features, but the one that stood out the most is the use of the sch sound where other dialects simply say S. So erst becomes erscht. Musst becomes muscht. And Wurst becomes Wurscht. So the phrase, as I heard it in Baden-Württemburg, was “Das ischt mir Wurscht.” To be fair, even non-Swabian speakers say it as “Wurscht” with this phrase. 

If you want me to make a video about my observations of the Swabian dialect, leave a comment below. In the meantime, let’s get to some examples. 

Was wollen wir zu Abend essen? –
What do we want for dinner? 

Das ist mir Wurst. –
I don’t care. 

Dein Schuh ist offen. –
Your shoe is untied. 

Das ist mir Wurst. Ich werde sie mir bald ausziehen. –
I don’t care. I’ll take them off soon. 

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