60 German proverbs + meaning and origin

Proverbs accompany us in our everyday lives and are an integral part of our language. They are often used to reinforce arguments or to give advice. We have compiled the most famous proverbs for you and inform you about their meaning and origin.

Proverbs are part of our everyday language. We use them automatically and assume that our interlocutor understands their meaning. Younger generations in particular have to learn what they mean, because their meaning is usually not immediately recognizable.

Interesting facts about proverbs

Interesting facts about proverbs

In the older generations often even more proverbs are used than among younger people. Expressions like "That doesn’t make the roast any fatter either." slowly dwindle. Nevertheless, most people know what they mean because they are still in circulation.

In the following we will tell you something about the history of proverbs and their difference to idioms, define their meaning and give reasons for confusing hybrid forms.


Proverbs are often short folk sayings that have been passed down through generations. They usually describe a certain behavior or life experience that has become firmly established in the thesaurus, i.e. the vocabulary of a language.

The scientific term for the proverb is the Paromie. Proverbs are of different age and originate from different epochs of our time. In the Middle Ages, more precisely from the 12th century. In the Middle Ages, more precisely from the 12th century onwards, they were used above all to make universally valid statements and to reinforce arguments through their general validity.

A certain skepticism towards proverbs crystallized only in the late Middle Ages around the 14th century. Out of the nineteenth century.

In some ways proverbs also resemble so-called farming rules. They have also established themselves as folk sayings and describe weather rules that are important for the harvest. They can also be true, but do not always have to be true.


We have selected three different definitions of the proverb for you. They clearly describe the characteristics that make up a proverb and distinguish it from popular phrases, which usually do not have much meaning. We will explain the difference between proverbs and sayings in the following chapter.

  1. "A proverb is a short phrase based on long experience."
    (Miguel de Cervantes, Spanish writer)
  2. "A proverb is a commonly known, firmly coined phrase that expresses a rule of life or wisdom in a concise, short form."
    (Wolfgang Mieder, linguist and literary scholar)
  3. "Proverb: A succinctly and aptly formulated piece of wisdom that generalizes certain social experiences to a high degree. Their author is unknown; often of popular imagery."
    (Dictionary of linguistic terms. Leipzig: VEB Bibliographical Institute 1985. S. 227.)

Difference: proverbs and idioms

Difference: proverbs and idioms

The terms "proverb" and "idiom" are often mistakenly used interchangeably. The difference lies in the flexibility of their use: a proverb is not flexible and can be used as a saying only in a certain order as a fixed sentence.

A proverb, on the other hand, can also be merely a phrase or a specific term that can be flexibly incorporated into a wide variety of sentences. Both proverbs and sayings are part of our cultural heritage and are used often and with pleasure.

Examples of proverbs:

  • Exceptions confirm the rule.
    Meaning: the mention of an exception suggests that there is a rule.
    Origin: From Latin.
  • Pride comes before the fall.
    Meaning: arrogance, overconfidence and arrogance cause failure.
    Origin: Biblical.
  • After it no cock crows.
    Meaning: Something is not of interest, not worth mentioning, without meaning.
    Origin: New Testament.

Examples of proverbs:

  • The Alpha and Omega
    Meaning: the most important, the essential; comes from alpha and omega – the beginning and the end.
  • 08/15
    Meaning: mediocre, ordinary, simple, plain
  • keep an eye on someone/something
    Meaning: find favor with someone/something.

Proverbs in other languages

Proverbs in other languages

Since proverbs differ from language to language, they do not always translate one-to-one. Even if their meaning is sometimes similar, different formulations are found in different languages.

One example is the German proverb "Hals und Beinbruch.", which in English is "Break a leg.", so literally translated "Break (yourself) a leg." means. The proverb means nothing else than "Good luck./Good luck." That’s why it’s important, especially when learning languages, to include common proverbs as well.

This fact makes the cross-linguistic use of proverbs even more difficult and creates all the more confusion in foreign language use. However, there are also some proverbs that can be translated literally.

For example, the English "The early bird catches the worm." exactly the same as the German proverb "The early bird catches the worm.", comparable with the proverb "First come, first served.". The meaning could also be stated more clearly: he who acts quickly has an advantage.

Unsuccessful proverbs

It is interesting that there are now more and more hybrid forms of proverbs, or individual words are suddenly replaced and they alienate the original form.

This is partly because the younger generation no longer has a proper connection to proverbs, and partly because exponentially growing globalization and increasing migration have made more language contact and language mixing possible.

Thus, for example, English proverbs can be translated literally into German, or proverbs and idioms can be confused when learning German.

Examples of failed proverbs:

  • One should always have a triumph up one’s sleeve.
    Correct would be: "You should always have another trump card/an ace up your sleeve."
  • There’s hope and lard lost.
    The correct meaning would be: "That’s where all hops and malt are lost."
  • In strength lies tranquility.
    Correct would be: "In the rest lies the strength."
  • After all, we all have to pull in the same boat.
    This is a hybrid of "We all have to pull in the same direction." and "We are all in the same boat."

Popular German proverbs, their meaning and origin

Popular German proverbs

In this chapter you will find proverbs that you can use on different occasions. We’ll help you understand them by explaining their meaning and origin in more detail.

You have certainly used some of them without knowing more about them. Proverbs are firmly part of our vocabulary, but even within Germany they can be used differently from region to region. If you come across a proverb you don’t know, you can look it up here.

First come, first served.
Meaning: Whoever gets there first has an advantage.
Origin: In the Middle Ages, farmers had to line up with their grain in front of the mill and wait until they could grind their grain. Whoever got there first could quickly go home with his flour. The farmers who came late had to stand in the crowded queue for a long time.

Broken pieces bring luck.
Meaning: If something breaks, you will be lucky.
origin: The loud clinking of glass or dishes is said to drive away evil spirits. In the past, the word "shard" had the meaning "clay vessel" and many filled "shards" meant enough supplies and therefore good luck.

The early bird gets the worm.
Meaning: It pays to get up early. It is easier to work in the morning, thus early risers achieve more.
Origin: It is the literal translation of the Latin textbook phrase "aurora habet aurum in ore". It refers to the personified dawn (aurora), which wears gold in its mouth and gold in its hair. Earlier, "the early bird catches the worm" was evidenced by a letter written by Erasmus of Rotterdam to his student. He gave him the advice "aurora musis amica" (the morning hour as a friend of the Muses), which means "morning is the best time to study".

All that glitters is not gold.
Meaning: Appearances are deceptive. Deficits, mistakes and shortcomings can often only be discovered on closer inspection. Something is not delivered as promised.
Origin: Not occupied.

He who digs a pit for others, falls into it himself.
Meaning: He who sets a trap for others, falls into it himself. A warning is given against reprehensible actions: those who wish to harm others also run the risk of harming themselves.
Origin: This proverb comes from the Old Testament: "He who digs a pit may fall into it himself"." (Koh 10:8)

The rats leave the sinking ship.
Meaning: To turn away from failing, unsuccessful plans or ventures, or to flee from an unpleasant situation.
Origin: Rats used to be common on sailing ships. According to sailors’ beliefs, they were the first to leave the ship when doom threatened and became an indicator of impending shipwrecks.

Cobbler, stick to your last.

Cobbler, stick to your last

Meaning: Don’t criticize something you don’t know anything about. Stick with what you know how to do.
Origin: This proverb is attributed to the painter Apelles. A cobbler noticed that an eyelet was missing from a shoe in one of his paintings. Apelles completed the eyelet. When the proud cobbler then criticized a leg as well, Apelles replied that the cobbler should stick to his last. (The last is usually made of wood and imitates a human foot). He helps the cobbler to model the shoe.)

He who sits in a glass house should not throw stones.
Meaning: Do not reproach anyone for his faults or qualities that you have yourself.
Origin: From Germany. More exact is not documented.

Even a blind hen sometimes finds a grain of corn.
Significance: Luck or success is sometimes possible even in spite of lack of skills. A thing can also succeed by chance.
Origin: The origin is not clearly documented. Most often, this proverb is used pejoratively and refers to a lack of ability.

What you can get today, do not put off until tomorrow.
Meaning: One should do unavoidable or important tasks directly, instead of putting them off further and further. They add up, cause more stress and have to be dealt with eventually anyway. Another possibility is that an opportunity opens up that should be seized before it passes by.
Origin: Probably from Luther’s translation of the Bible.

Better the bird in the hand than the dove on the roof.
Meaning: Rather settle for something safe, mundane, that you can safely achieve, than want something bigger and more valuable, where there is a risk that you will not achieve it.
Origin: This proverb appeals to the frugality of people. They should be content with what they have and not dream of the unattainable.

Still waters are deep.

Still waters run deep.

Meaning: Introverts have a side to themselves that they keep hidden. The proverb is used, for example, when someone shy suddenly surprises by loud and conspicuous appearance or someone who otherwise does not show his skills, suddenly impresses with special skills.
Origin: From nature. Waters with a calm surface can contain strong currents further down. The exterior does not suggest the core.

All good things come in threes.
Meaning: A kind of justification that the third attempt to do something will work out.
Origin: The number three had great significance in the Germanic and medieval legal systems. Germanic popular and judicial assemblies were held three times a year, and a defendant was also summoned three times before being sentenced in his absence.

Pride comes before a fall.
Meaning: Arrogance, overestimation of oneself and arrogance lead to a fall, respectively to failure.
Origin: This proverb comes from the Bible. In the first translation it read, "Proud courage comes before the fall".

Has a louse run over your liver? / He’s got a bug up his ass.
Meaning: If you are in a bad mood? Something has upset you? Often the term is used for little things that cause trouble.
Origin: The proverb is based on the medieval belief that the human liver is the source of passion, temper and also anger. The louse stands for something small, insignificant and only later joined the proverb. Before here it merely: Has something run over your liver? / Something has gone over his liver.

Other well-known proverbs and their meaning

Other well-known proverbs and their meaning

After explaining some still very common proverbs in terms of their meaning and origin, here you will find a list of other proverbs. We have only briefly summarized their meaning here, so that we can present you with a wide range of proverbs and you can quickly find what you are looking for.

You may even discover a new proverb that you can readily incorporate into your everyday speech. If you spend a lot of time with languages and their facets, not only your rhetorical skills will improve, but your writing skills as well.

  1. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
    Meaning: Everyone has his own taste. For everyone something else is beautiful.
  2. Long speech, short sense.
    Meaning: Said when you talk around something when you could have expressed it more briefly. Long story short" is often followed by a concise summary of what has been said.
  3. It’s a no brainer.
    Meaning: This is unacceptable, an impertinence, not to be borne, exceeds the measure.
  4. Lies have short legs.
    Meaning: Lies are discovered after a short time and are not worth it. Similar to: "Honesty is the best policy".
  5. All roads lead to Rome.
    Meaning: There are several ways to complete a task. Comparable with: "All rivers flow into the sea."
  6. The apple does not fall far from the tree.
    Meaning: A child adopts characteristics or behaviors of its parents or a child has obvious hereditary characteristics of the appearance of its parents.
  7. Old love does not rust.
    Meaning: Those who have loved each other for a long time, will love each other in the future.
  8. The dumbest farmer has the fattest potatoes.
    Meaning: A person who makes a high profit without much mental effort.
  9. Age before beauty.
    Meaning: The younger ones give way to the older ones. This proverb is today often used ironically-deprecatingly and can be misunderstood.
  10. The devil is a squirrel.
    Significance: One must never be too sure, even from supposedly harmless can unexpectedly evil emerge.
  11. Age does not protect from folly.
    Significance: Even old and experienced people make mistakes.
  12. The cat does not let the mouse.
    Meaning: You can’t change a person’s fixed habits.
  13. Attack is the best defense.
    Meaning: Offensive behavior is more likely to lead to successful defense than defensive behavior.
  14. A burnt child shies away from the fire.
    Meaning: If you’ve had a bad experience with something once, you probably won’t do it again.
  15. April Fool’s, he doesn’t know what he wants.
    Meaning: In April the weather is unstable and can change quickly.
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