In this post I am sharing with you a selection of German animal phrases and sayings that you might find amusing and I will explain what they actually mean.
In German we use animal names either as Kosenamen (terms of endearment) as in “Bärchen” or the opposite when we want to offend someone and for swearing for example “Schweinehund”. But animals also often crop up in German sayings and phrases. Here is a selection of some animals used in phrases, which you might have not heard of before. Please note that I tried to translate some of these literally, but with others I just found it impossible.
Aal (m) = Eel
sich aalen = to lounge about or sunbathing on the beach
Affe (m) = Monkey
Ich denke mich laust der Affe = well, I’ll be damned
mit affenartiger Geschwindigkeit = lit. “with monkeylike speed”. Means incredibly quickly.
Affentheater as in “So ein Affentheater” = exaggerated fuss
Maulaffen feilhalten = to gawp
nachäffen = to mimic
du bist wohl vom wilden Affen gebissen = lit. “you’ve been obviously bitten by a wild monkey”. Means you’re off your rocker
seinem Affen Zucker geben = lit. “to give your monkey sugar”. Means really let oneself go
einen Affen sitzen haben = to be plastered
sich zum Affen machen = make a monkey out of somebody
Bär (m)= Bear
einen Bärenhunger haben = lit. “to have the hunger of a bear”. Means to be extremely hungry
jemandem einen Bären aufbinden = to tell someone a lie
jemandem einen Bärendienst erweisen = to render a disservice
auf der Bärenhaut liegen= lit. “to lie on bear skin”. Means to laze about
bärenstark sein = lit. “to be strong like a bear”. Means to be very strong
Someone who is bärbeibig = is scowling
Bock (m) = Ram
to be bockig or bockbeinig = to be stubborn
jemanden ins Bockshorn jagen = to bluff or intimidate a person
keinen/einen Bock haben = not to fancy or to fancy doing something
einen Bock schieben = lit. “to shoot a ram”. Means to commit a blunder
den Bock zum Gärtner machen = lit. “to make the ram the gardener” Means to choose the wrong person for the job – I actually have never heard of this myself!
Elefant (m) = Elephant
wie ein Elefant im Porzelanladen = equivalent to “like a bull in a china-shop”
aus einer Mücke einen Elefanten machen = equivalent to “to make a mountain out of a mole-hill”
das Elefantenbaby or das Elefantenkücken = describes a fat young girl
Ente (f) = Duck
lahme Ente = “lame duck” means someone who is slow or a slowcoach
Zeitungsente = false newspaper report or canard
Esel (m) = Donkey
Esel is not only used as a pejorative as in “Du alter / Du dummer Esel” meaning silly fool it also has the following uses:
Eselsohren haben as in “Das Buch hat Eselsohren” = the dog-eared book
ein Packesel = is a beast of burden
eine Eselsbrücke = a mnemonic
die Eselei = stupidity
Fliege (f) = Fly
eine Fliege can also be a bow-tie
Zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagen = equivalent to “to kill two birds with one stone”
Keiner Fliege etwas zuleide tun = to be completely harmless
Floh (m) = Flea
Flöhe husten hören = lit. “to hear the fleas cough”. Means “to know it all before it happens”
Flöhe haben = lit. “to have fleas”. Means to have money.
jemandem einen Floh ins Ohr setzen = lit. “to put a flea in someone’s ear”. In contrast to the English equivalent this actually means “to put an idea in somebody’s head”.
Lieber einen Sack voll Flöhe hüten, als…= lit. “to rather care for a sack full of fleas than..”. Means even if you paid me a million pounds I wouldn’t.
Fuchs (m) = fox
Fuchs = often used to describe a sly person
Wo sich Fuchs und Hase gute Nacht sagen = lit. means “Where the fox and the hare say good night to one another”. It describes a rather isolated and remote place. Another rather less poetic phrase is “am Arsch der Welt”.
Pfennigfuchser = a penny-pincher
Fuchsteufelswild = livid or hopping mad
Hammel (m) = Ram
Hammel = often used to describe a stupid person
Neidhammel = is an envious person
Jemandem die Hammelbeine langziehen= to tell somebody off
Hammelsprung = parliamentary division (vote)
Hase (m) = Hare
Mein Name ist Hase = I’m not saying anything
ein alter Hase = an old hand
der Hasenfuss or Angsthase = coward
wissen, wie der Hase läuft = lit. “to know how the hare runs”. Equivalent to “to see or know which way the wind blows”.
ach, da liegt der Hase im Pfeffer = That’s the real trouble; There is the rub
falscher Hase = lit. “fake hare” means meat loaf
Skihase = a woman on skis
Hecht (m)= Pike
der Hecht im Karpfenteich sein = lit. “the pike in the carp pond”. Means “to be a new broom” or “to be a live wire full of new ideas”. Also to be the kingpin.
ein toller Hecht= an incredible fellow
hechten= to dive headlong
Hechtsprung (m) = racing dive or pike vault
es zieht wie Hechtsuppe = there is a terrible draught
Huhn (n) = chicken and Hahn (m) = cockerel
Huhn is the generic word for chicken and also denotes the female chicken (also called “Henne”)
Da lachen ja die Hühner = you must be joking
ein verrücktes/fideles/dummes Huhn = a nutcase, idiot or stupid twit
ein Hühnchen mit jemandem rupfen = to pick bone with someone
Ein blindes Huhn findet auch mal ein Korn = lit. “A blind hen also finds a corn”. Means anyone can have a stroke of luck once in a while.
mit den Hühnern zu Bett gehen or mit den Hühnern aufstehen = to go to bed earlier / to get up with the lark
herumlaufen wie ein aufgescheuchtes Huhn = lit. “to run about like a startled chicken”. Means to run about in a great panic or to run about like a headless chicken.
A Hahn can also be a tap.
Er ist der Hahn im Korb = lit. “he is the cock in the basket”. Means to be the cock of the walk.
Da kräht kein Hahn nach or danach kräht kein Hahn = no one could care less about it/him/her
to be a Streithahn = to be a quarrelsome person
Jemandem einen roten Hahn aufs Dach setzen = lit. “to put a red rooster on someone’s roof”. Means to set somebody’s house on fire. I haven’t heard of this one before and it is rarely used.
A Hahnenfuss = is a buttercup
Hund (m) = dog
The word Hund is often used in compounds to describe something that’s very bad. For example Hundewetter = very bad weather, hundemüde and hundekalt = extremely tired/cold
hundsmiserabel = extremely bad
der Windhund = is a greyhound, but also a windbag
auf den Hund kommen = to go from bad to worse
vor die Hunde gehen = to go to the dogs
bekannt wie ein bunter / scheckiger Hund = be a well-known figure.
ein dicker Hund = lit. “a thick dog”. Means a real bloomer or goof.
das ist ein dicker Hund = that’s a bit thick
mit allen Hunden gehetzt sein = to know every trick of the trade – another one I haven’t heard of before.
kalt wie eine Hundeschnautze = lit.“cold as a dog’s snout”. Describes a person with no feeling.
verhunzen = the verb verhunzen is derived from verhundsen which has Hund in it and means to make a mess of something or spoil something.
ein armer Hund = poor devil
da liegt der Hund begraben = lit. “that’s where the dog is buried” Means that’s what’s causing it or that’s the real reason.
da wird der Hund in der Pfanne verrückt = lit. “the dog goes crazy in the pan” Means it’s quite incredible.
Damit kannst du keinen Hund hinterm Ofen hervorlocken = that won’t tempt anybody.
Das ist zum junge Hunde kriegen = it’s enough to drive you to despair.
Viele Hunde sind des Hasen Tod = lit. “Many dogs are the hare’s death” Means it’s one against many – I didn’t know this one either.
Katzen (pl) – cats
Kater (m)= tom cat
einen Kater haben, verkatert sein = means to have a hangover.
ein Katerfrühstück = is a hangover breakfast.
Katze(f)= cat in the generic sense and female cat
Die Katze im Sack kaufen = lit. “to buy a cat in the sack” Means to buy a pig in a poke.
Die Katze aus dem Sack lassen = same as in English – to let the cat out of the bag.
die Katzenmusik = cat music describes discordant music.
der Katzenjammer= hangover
der Katzensprung = a stone’s throw
Wie die Katze um den heissen Brei gehen = to beat about the bush.
die Katzenwäsche = cat’s lick; to have an inadequate wash.
der Katzentisch = lit. “cat table”used jokingly as meaning the children’s table.
Alles ist für die Katz = lit. “everything for the cat”. Used when things turn out badly; equivalent to all was in vain.
Laus (f) = Louse
sich lausig fühlen = to feel lousy or rotten
Ihm/Ihr ist eine Laus über die Leber gelaufen = lit. “a louse ran over her /his liver”. Means he/she got out of the bed the wrong side.
sich eine Laus in den Pelz setzen = to let somebody/oneself in for something
Lausbub = a Lausbub is a little rascal
Mich laust der Affe! = well, I’ll be damned or blowed
lausige Zeiten = hard times
Maus (f) = Mouse
weisse Mäuse sehen = lit. “to see white mice”. Means to have hallucinations or to see pink elephants.
mausen = to pinch or steal
sich mausig machen = to be unpleasant about something – Not an expression I am familiar with.
mucksmäuschenstill = to be very silent
da beibt die Maus keinen Faden ab = there’s nothing to be done about it
ein paar Mäuse = a few quid
eine graue Maus = a colourless nondescript sort of a person
Mops (m) = Pug
a Mops = describes a fat person
to mopsen = means to pinch or steal something, but it can also mean to annoy (I didn’t know this last meaning).
However sich mopsen = means to be bored or to be annoyed
Someone who is mopsfidel = is someone who is very jolly or cheerfu
to be mopsig = means to be podgy or tubby
while the plural Möpse = can also mean tits
die paar Möpse = such peanuts or such a piffling sum
Pferd(n)= Horse / Rappe (m) = black horse / Schimmel (m) = white horse/ Rob (n) = horse (poetic)
Mit ihm/ihr kann man Pferde stehlen = he/she is a good sport
der Pferdefuss = can mean the hoof of the horse, but also snag
der Pferdeschwanz = can mean the actual tail of a horse, but also pony tail (hair)
das Steckenpferd = hobby horse
auf Schusters Rappen = on foot
Amtsschimmel = red tape, bureaurocracy, officialism
der Amtsschimmel wiehert = that’s bureaurocracy for you
Schimmel also means mould
Riesenross = a very stupid person (meant inoffensively)
Stahlross = lit. steel horse. Means bike
Pudel (m) = Poodle
des Pudels Kern = the heart of the matter
wie ein begossener Pudel abziehen = lit. “to walk away like a drenched poodle” Means to depart dejectedly.
sich pudelwohl fühlen = to feel very well
Pudelmütze = long tasselled woolly hat or Hoxton bonnet
Polyp (m) = polyp and Bulle (m)= bull
Both colloquial terms are used for policeman (make sure you don’t say it to his face though!).
Sau (f) = Sow / Schwein (n) = Pig / Ferkel (n) = piglet
a sow = is an extremely dirty person and used as a very offensive term as in “Du dumme Sau”.
die Sau rauslassen = to let one’s hair down
wie eine gesenkte Sau fahren = to drive like a madman
zur Sau machen = to tear a strip off somebody
unter aller Sau = bloody awful or the pits
saumässig as in saumässige Arbeit/Hitze = a hell of a job/temperature
es ist saukalt/ sauheib = damn cold/hot
saumässiges Glück haben = to be extremely lucky
Sauarbeit = bloody awful job
keine Sau = not a bloody soul
Schwein is the generic term for pig and also used as an offensive term like sow to describe a dirty person
Schwein haben = means to be lucky
you can eat Schweinsöhrchen = which is a type of pastry
Sparschwein and Glücksschwein = are used the same as in English meaning piggy bank and lucky pig (charm)
du Ferkel = you mucky puppy or dirty pig
Schlange (f) = Snake
Brillenschlange = describes an unpleasant girl with glasses
Schlange stehen= to queue
jemanden zur Schnecke machen = to cut a person down to size
Schnecken can also be a type of pastry or hairstyle
Schneckentempo ; im Schneckentempo fahren is similar as in English = at a snail’s pace
Taube (f) = Pigeon
Hier geht es zu wie im Taubenschlag = it’s like Piccadilly Circus here
taub sein = means to be deaf
der/die Taube = also describes a deaf person – not to confuse with the bird!
Vogel (m) = Bird
Einen Vogel haben as in “Du hast ja einen Vogel!” = to have bats in the belfry or bees in the bonnet
Bei dir piepts wohl nicht richtig! = similar meaning to above. Piepen is the sound that birds make.
jemandem einen Vogel zeigen = pointing at one’s forehead at somebody to indicate that you think that he or she is stupid.
den Vogel abschieben = to take the biscuit with something
vögeln (v) = to screw
Wurm (m) = Worm
sowas wurmt einen schon = that sort of thing rankles
da sitzt der Wurm drin = there’s something wrong in there
armes Würmchen = poor little thing
jemandem die Würmer aus der Nase ziehen = lit. “to pull worms out of someone’s nose”. Means to get somebody to spill the beans.
Uups – I didn’t mean to write such a long post with so many examples. I hope you found these examples interesting and I hope that you might even use them in conversation next time you are in Germany.
Let me know which of these you liked or found amusing.
Thanks for reading.
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