70 Popular idioms for every occasion + meaning and origin

Idioms accompany us "at every turn". They make our everyday language more versatile and colorful. We have created an overview of popular and well-known idioms for you. So you learn more about their meaning and origin and can expand your vocabulary.

Idioms are linguistic phenomena that occur together again and again. They have become firmly established in our linguistic usage and often pose a challenge for learners of a new language.

Interesting facts about idioms

What idioms are

The scientific term for phrases is Phraseologism Or Idiom. Idioms have a fixed word connection to each other due to their overall meaning, but are still not bound to a fixed sentence form. This phrase is a special case of collocation.

Collocation is a linguistic phenomenon and an umbrella term for when words frequently occur together with certain other words (z.B. Achieve/set/pursue a goal). In the case of the idiom, these words are fixed (z.B. a bear).

Difference between idioms and proverbs

The terms "proverb" and "idiom" are often used synonymously. Thereby they differ substantially in the use of language. In fact, idioms can be used much more flexibly than Proverbs.

Proverbs rely on their fixed sentence form and do not work in parts or in a different word order. Idioms can usually be used in different ways. For example:

  • Can you go shopping for me tomorrow? – The you can forget.
  • That I let them write off again, Can make it up.
  • He can make up his mind, that I forgive once again.

In addition, proverbs are often rather life wisdoms or sweeping generalizations. Idioms are rather a way of expressing something with certain words that have become fixed in their word context over time.

The reason that the terms are often used interchangeably is that the boundaries sometimes become blurred, and some idioms have evolved over time into proverbs through use in a particular sentence form (z.B. "This is as certain as the Amen in the church.")

Idioms in other languages

Phrases in other languages

Like proverbs, phrases in other languages often don’t translate literally. Their meaning is often the same or similar, but the choice of words differs enormously.

The phrase "the train has sailed" means "miss the boat" in English. This idiom has the meaning of not seizing an opportunity that will not come again.

An example of a literal match is the English phrase: "the best of both worlds", meaning "the best of two worlds". However, the fact that these matches are so rare makes it particularly difficult to remember the idioms when learning a foreign language.

It’s more complicated than classic vocabulary learning. For example, the German "Schluss fur heute" could not be translated literally into English as "end for today". The correct translation of the phrase "call it a day" must be memorized.

German idioms, their meaning and origin

German phrases, their meaning and origin

Here we have compiled the best known and most popular German idioms for you. For this you will find a small summary of meaning under each item.

For most idioms, we’ve also added a bit of information about their origin. This is how you can learn more about your everyday language use and better understand the people around you who often use familiar phrases.

You might even find some new idioms to add to your repertoire and breathe some fresh air into your language usage.

If you are looking for a specific phrase, just hold down the Ctrl key and the F key at the same time on your PC keyboard. A small search field opens, in which you can then enter individual words or parts of the phrase. With this search function you save a lot of time.

Such a search function is also available on your cell phone. Just click on "Search on page" under the settings icon.

To remove one’s makeup
Significance: An activity is omitted. Often as a response to a request: "You can forget it."

Get out of the way
Meaning: To steal away.
Origin: In soldier jargon, the training ground was also called a field. He who was getting out of the way, he was shirking.

Saying something through your teeth
Meaning: Expressing something only in an implied, indirect or cryptic way.
Origin: In the Baroque period, it was unseemly to openly approach the lady of one’s heart. For this purpose there were sofas with two seats (back to back). Now, if one wanted to talk undisturbed without physical contact, one did so whispering behind the fan. So no chaperone could miss a beat. There were often flower arrangements on the backrest, so the whisperers spoke "through the flower".

08/15 (Pronounced: zero-eight-fifteen)
Meaning: Mediocre, simple, standard, ordinary.

Fob someone off with something
Meaning: Giving someone an unsatisfactory answer.
Origin: A suitor is told by an inferior meal that his desire for the bride will be rejected.

Example of an idiom: "The nuts and bolts"

The A and O (Alpha and Omega)
Meaning: the essential, the most important, the most lasting.

There the bear is tap dancing
Significance: There is something going on, there are a lot of people, something is happening there.

Being on the move
Meaning: Be on the road, not be there. For example: "She is always on the move."
Origin: Axle of a rolling vehicle.

Squeeze something
Meaning: Scan everything.
Origin: During the chase, the game was chased out of the undergrowth with wooden rattles.

Playing the monkey for someone/Making a fool of oneself
Significance: To obey another person or make a fool of oneself for them.
Origin: Jugglers used to perform at fairs with animals, including monkeys. They performed tricks and were sometimes harassingly trained.

I’ll eat a broom.
Significance: Find something absurd or consider it highly improbable. For example, "If he really wins the lottery, I’ll eat a broom."

To lose the thread
Meaning: To be at a loss in a narrative or during a process of understanding.
Origin: Probably this idiom originates from Greek mythology. With the help of the thread that Ariadne gave him, Theseus found his way back out of the labyrinth of Daedalus, where he had just hunted down the Minotaur. If Theseus had lost the thread, he would not have known what to do next.

To behave like an elephant in a china store
Meaning: Being inconsiderate, acting unwise, rude or tactless.

Everything in butter
Meaning: Everything in order.
Origin: Valuable goods, such as porcelain, used to be poured into boxes of liquid butter. After the butter solidified, they were protected from breaking during transport.

"To teach someone a lesson"

To teach someone a lesson
Meaning: To teach someone a lesson.

Give the monkey sugar
Meaning: To be hilarious in a frenzy.
Origin: The phrase appears several times in Theodor Fontane’s works.

To copy something
Meaning: To imitate, copy, plagiarize.
Origin: Engraving was a technique for reproducing images in the early modern period.

To pull the wool over someone’s eyes
Meaning: To lie to or deceive a person.
Origin: From the old German word "bar", which meant like "burden" or "levy".

Not seeing the forest for the trees
Meaning: To get bogged down, to be distracted from the main point by many secondary matters.

Be built close to the water
Meaning: To be sensitive or emotional, to have to cry quickly.

Now we have the presents.
Meaning: Usually a negative comment to an unpleasant surprise. Comparable with "Now we have the salad."
origin: Bescherung refers to the gifts placed under the Christmas tree. So with this idiom, an originally positive surprise (gifts) is used sarcastically for a negative surprise.

To put something behind one’s face
Meaning: Drinking alcohol.

The German phrase: "comparing apples and oranges"

Comparing apples with pears
Meaning: Compare the incomparable.

Get your money’s worth
Meaning: Receive his just punishment.
Origin: Originally, each helper at a slaughter got (s)one piece of fat off as a reward.

To put one’s foot in one’s mouth
Meaning: To embarrass oneself, to accidentally do something embarrassing.
Origin: In farmhouse parlors, a grease pot used to stand between the door and the stove to re-grease wet boots. One should not step into it by mistake.

To bite the bullet
Significance: Do something unpleasant by necessity.

To buy something for an apple and an egg
Meaning: To buy or sell something very cheaply.
Origin: Apples and eggs cost relatively little.

I think I’m going to laugh at the monkey.
Meaning: Expressing highly unpleasant surprise.
Origin: In 19. In the 19th century, the saying originated in Berlin and was: "Ik denke, der Affe laust mir" (I think the monkey is laughing at me).

Keep an eye on someone/something
Meaning: Taking a liking to someone or something.
Origin: This phrase comes from an appendix to the biblical book of Daniel: "And when the two elders saw her walking in it every day, they were inflamed with desire for her, and became fools over her, and cast their eyes on her so much that they could no longer look up to heaven or think of righteous judgments."

It’s as sure as the amen in the church.

"That is as sure as the Amen in the church"

Meaning: You can rely on this.
Origin: "Amen" (translated from Hebrew: so be it) ends liturgical prayers. So this word is sure to appear in any church service.

Eliminate a mistake
Meaning: Do something well, iron out.
Origin: In the month of March, sheep that were not suitable for further breeding were sorted out in the past.

To outdo someone
Meaning: Outdoing or ousting someone.
Origin: In jousting, the winner was the one who knocked his opponent off his horse or his horse’s back in a jousting match. Stung by the saddle.

Grate licorice
Meaning: To flatter in an obvious way.
Origin: Licorice is a perennial whose root contains sugar juice. The licorice symbolizes the sweet words.

Acting like a bake fish
Meaning: To be silly or still immature.

Three monkeys
Meaning: To symbolize, not to see, hear, or say anything (bad).

This is a testimony of poverty.
Meaning: Inability, inappropriate behavior.

To get something off one’s sleeve
Meaning: To invent something, to think of something quickly to get out of a difficult situation.
Origin: After a possible cheat at a card game. In the case of a bad hand, one helped oneself to good cards hidden in the sleeve. An older interpretation even says that in former times, when the robes still had wide sleeves, not only the hands could be warmed in them, but also smaller objects could be stowed in them, which one then shook out of the sleeve again.

The phrase "to have tomatoes on one’s eyes"

To have tomatoes in one’s eyes
Meaning: Not seeing/recognizing something.

To be a faithless tomato
Meaning: Being unreliable, not keeping appointments or promises.

One should guard something/someone with a watchful eye.
Meaning: One should watch something/someone well.
Origin: Argos, in Greek mythology, was hired by Hera to watch over Io so that there would be no philandering with her husband Zeus. Some of his 100 eyes always stayed awake while the others slept.

Get your ass in a sling
Meaning: To be in an unpleasant situation.

Only understand train station
Meaning: Not understanding or wanting to understand anything.
Origin: First World War. The soldiers, tired from years of war, only wanted to hear the word "station," which to them was synonymous with going home.

Trick 17
Meaning: An instant solution to an unusual problem.
Origin: Derived from an English card game in which 17 was the highest score.

have no idea of what to do and how to do it
Meaning: Having no idea about anything.
Origin: The idiom has its origin from the in the Middle Ages and the early modern period. There, the job of the night watchman, whose work – blowing a horn at full hour – was considered undemanding and poorly paid.

"To be "over the hill"

To be over the hill
Meaning: The worst phase of something (z.B. Of having overcome an illness or injury).
Origin: Derived from the principle that climbing a hill to reach the top is more difficult than descending it.

Fight like a berserker
Meaning: To behave impetuously or unreasonably.
Origin: Derived from the Norse sagas, in which the "bear skinners" struck out without shield or reason.

Staying on the ball
Meaning: Sticking to one thing.

Then it’s curfew!
Meaning: Then it’s night time/end of the event.
Origin: From military language, where at a certain time the serving of beer to the soldiers had to cease – tapping was thus cancelled from that time onwards.

To keep the ball low
Meaning: To hold back, not to take risks, not to attract attention.

Not getting off on the right foot
Meaning: Having achieved nothing/not being successful. Or, not being able to agree with someone (Similar to, "not being able to come to an agreement").
Origin: The idiom originates from the Middle Ages. Someone who had acquired land was given a green branch planted in a clump of soil on the plot of land. In other words, someone who had not succeeded in getting a green branch is someone who had not succeeded in owning his own land.

"Help someone out"

Helping someone out
Meaning: Giving someone clues that help them understand.

Putting on a face
Meaning: To go faster or to speed up.
Origin: Some trace the idiom to the workings of mechanical transmissions in the early days of the automobile. Others see the origin in medieval households, where large cooking kettles were hooked into a rack over open hearths. To increase the temperature in the pot, it was lowered a tooth – it was "added a tooth".

Fighting hard
Meaning: Fight relentlessly and hard.
Origin: Before the days of boxing gloves, boxers fought with bandages wrapped around their fists. They were not mainly used to protect the hands. The tighter they were wrapped, the harder the fist blow was.

Something has been put on the back burner
Meaning: An accomplishment has been greatly delayed.

Not mincing words
Meaning: To state an opinion clearly and say directly what one thinks without sugarcoating it.
Origin: Theatrical language. In ancient times before the theater mask, a fig leaf hid the actor’s face so that he could not be held accountable for his acted words.

Making blue
Meaning: Playing hooky, not showing up for work or school without a valid reason.
Origin: Probably derived from Blue Monday. This used to denote the work-free Mondays of the craftsmen.

These are Bohemian villages to me
Meaning: Something is unknown or incomprehensible to me.
Origin: When Bohemia was still part of the Danube Monarchy, many of the country’s children understood the Czech spoken there or. not the Czech place names.

A well-known expression: "That seems Spanish to me"

That seems Spanish to me.
Meaning: Something is strange, unfamiliar, or arouses suspicion.
Origin: Some under Emperor Charles V. customs introduced to Germany from Spain caused a stir and confusion.

To go off on a tangent
Meaning: Leaving quickly or in a hurry.
Origin: You no longer have time to put on your shoes in peace and quiet.

To be as dumb as a post
Meaning: To be very unintelligent.
Origin: Refer to cheap bean straw for furnishing the bedsteads of the poor in the Middle Ages.

Smell the roast
Meaning: To become perplexed or alert in time. Anticipate something bad.
Origin: The idiom goes back to a fable in which a farmer invites an animal to dinner. The animal turns back at the doorstep because it smells the scent of a roasted fellow from the kitchen.

To have a crush on someone
Meaning: Being in love/crushing on someone.
Origin: In student language, this alluded to the arrows of the Roman god of love, Cupid.

To be contaminated
Meaning: To be muddled, disorganized, and unworldly; off track or quirky

There is nepotism!
Meaning: A vice lamented since time immemorial, favoring relatives and friends.

"To be washed with all waters"

To be up to all the tricks of the trade
Meaning: Being sly, intrepid, or cunning.
Origin: Probably from the sailor’s language. One who has cruised all the oceans of the world had a great deal of courage, cold-bloodedness and experience.

To bring something up to scratch
Significance: To improve something, to put in order.
Origin: The term originally comes from the military, where one must follow the man in front when lining up and lining out. Thus, if the line was crooked, it was "put up a gauntlet".

To turn the tables
Meaning: To change roles.
Origin: The one who was able to snatch the deadly spear from his opponent moved from the role of the attacked to that of the attacker.

Meaning: Being subjected to critical or derisive reactions from others.
Origin: As late as World War II, offenses against comradeship were punished by a run through two lines of soldiers. The soldiers beat with pointed rods the one who committed the offense.

It is necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff
Meaning: To separate or distinguish the important from the unimportant.
Origin: Using a blower, the much lighter chaff was blown farther away than the grain it previously surrounded.

Not being able to hold a candle to someone
Significance: Be far inferior to him.
origin: This idiom has been around since 16. Century. In the Middle Ages, when people still ate with their fingers, servants bowed low and gave guests water to wash their hands after a meal. Those who were not even allowed to undertake this humiliating task were far inferior to everyone in terms of social status.

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