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German animal idioms aren't far and few between. As you progress in your language-learning journey, you may find yourself itching to use more idioms and expressions, in order to elevate your German from simple and straight-forward, to rich and eloquent. Here are some animal-related expressions, you won't soon forget!

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Note

This post is about German expressions & idioms involving animals. If you're looking for a big list of German animal names, you might want to check out our list of German animal words instead 😊.

1. Einen Vogel haben 🐥

Let’s get right into it, with a light insult! The German idiom "einen Vogel haben" means to be a little crazy. It's like the English expression "to be nuts": Well, in German, you have a bird.

So, for example, if you tried to convince your eighty year old tandem partner with creaky joints to take part in the Berlin marathon, she may laugh at you and say

Einen Marathon runlaufen? Ich? Du ~ are you mad?hast doch einen Vogel!


Running a marathon? Me? Are you nuts?

She may also tap her finger on her forehead whilst staring at you like you’re a complete idiot, to show you where exactly that bird is. If you ever see someone do that to you at the Edeka checkout, or on the street, you now know that person thinks you’re a bit mad.

You can say this to friends in a sort-of loving way, but you can also use it in a more serious manner. Let's say you get very angry at your partner for not washing up the dishes. You might say:

Wenn du glaubst, dass ich diese Woche zum dritten Mal für dich abwaschen werde, dann hast du wirklich einen Vogel!


If you think I'm going to do the dishes for you for the third time this week, then you're crazy!

To remember the idiom, you may find it helpful to envision a bird looking for a suitable place to nest, and deciding on the vast, empty crater of space inside a metaphorically and literally brainless person's head.

2. Schwein haben 🐷

When you have had a stroke of luck - perhaps you won the raffle prize, or you managed to grab the very last batch of warm rolls from the baker on a Sunday morning, then you have “Schwein gehabt”.

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How to remember

To remember the expression, you could keep in mind one of the theories of its origin: how the German people suffered from famine during the Middle Ages, and to have been in the possession of a pig was considered, at the time, invaluable and a blessing.

Let's have a look at how to use this expression:

Ich hatte totallyvöllig vergessen, für den Mathe-Test zu lernen! Aber im Unterricht found outerfuhr ich dann, dass er auf nächsten Monat verschoben wurde. Puh! Lucky!Schwein gehabt!


I was lucky at school today, because I had completely forgotten to study for a maths test, but found out in class that it's been postponed until next month. Phew!

You can, however, also use it much more generally:

Marianne hat so Schwein gehabt mit ihrem Professor! Er ist so freundlich und patientgeduldig, während meiner wirklich veryziemlich unfreundlich ist.


Marianne got so lucky with her professor. He's so friendly and patient, while mine is really quite unfriendly.

3. sich zum Affen machen 🐵

You may use this expression whenever you feel as though somebody has made a fool out of you or somebody else.

The English translation can also be recognised as an expression with the same meaning: to make a monkey of someone.

Wollt ihr wirklich, dass ich dieses uglyhässliche Kleid trage? Nein! Ich lass' mich von euch doch nicht zum Affen machen!


Do you really want me to wear this ugly dress? No! I'm not gonna let you make a fool out of me!

It can be used in any context in which someone is made to feel stupid or ridiculous.

For example, in the children's folktale "The Emperor's New Clothes", the Emperor is given precious “invisible clothing”, by sneaky swindlers posing as weavers.

As the Emperor presents the clothes to the public, in reality standing before them naked, one could say that the swinders "haben den Kaiser sich zum Affen gemacht".

You can also use "sich zum Affen machen" when you want to express how embarrassing something is. Here is an example:

Er war so wütend, dass er sein Glas quer durch den Raum warf und aus Leibeskräften schrie. Er hat sich wirklich zum Affen gemacht.


He was so angry that he threw his glass across the room and screamed at the top of his lungs. He really made a fool of himself.

4. Unter aller Sau 🐖

When the reality of a situation falls short of one’s expectations, or when the standards of something falls short of any benchmark, then you may use the expression “unter aller Sau”.

Ich habe das Gefühl, dass ich das besser hätte machen können. Meine Präsentation war unter aller Sau!


I feel that I could have done my job better. My presentation was really terrible.

Apparently the word “Sau” doesn’t refer to the German word for pig, but comes from the Yiddish word for benchmark - “seo”, making the expression easy to digest, if one remembers this little nugget of information.

In any case, you may find it just as helpful to think of the metaphorical benchmark sinking rapidly from the level of expectation, down down down to the ground and then further still, till it reaches below the belly of the heaviest pig chilling in the mud.

5. Ich glaub' ich spinne 🕷

This is another figure of speech for those out there, eager to describe their unstable mental states with colorful idiomatic expressions. “Ich glaub' ich spinne” literally means “I believe I am spinning”.

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Doesn’t "Spinne" not also mean spider?

The noun spiderdie Spinne also translates as spider in German. However the expression "Ich glaub ich spinne" refers not to the spinning of a spider’s web, but to the spinning of yarn - a common trade learnt by peasant women during the Middle Ages, who were also, around that time, often targeted as mad witches.

You would use this expression whenever something so dramatic or unexpected has happened, you simply can’t believe it and must be going mad.

Direkt vor mir sitzt der größte Prominente Deutschlands. Ich glaub' ich spinne! Das ist unfassbar!


The biggest celebrity in Germany is sitting right in front of me. I think I'm going crazy! That's unbelievable!

Even though the expression has nothing to do with spiders, you may find it helpful to use that as a mnemonic: Imagine the act of weaving a gigantic spider’s web and being driven mad by the repetitive, dizzying task.

6. Da steppt der Bär 🐻

The expression “Da steppt der Bär” refers to a place or event deemed particularly exciting.

Germans sometimes use this idiom, when they want to express where the party's at or where there is a lot of action going on and where everyone is in a very good mood.

Du solltest dieses Jahr unbedingt den christmas marketWeihnachtsmarkt besuchen, bevor er closesschließt. Da steppt der Bär!


You should definitely visit the Christmas market this year before it closes. It's the place to be.

The word "steppen" is an older word for dancing, or more precisely tapping. The German word for tap dance is, in fact, "Stepptanz.".

So this idiom has to do with dancing bears. Can you guess where it comes from?

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A little History

The middle ages was not a particularly jovial time for the average German. However, the little time allotted for fun was popularly spent at annual carnivals or travelling circuses - rare sources of unrestrained glee, where audiences were entertained by jugglers, jesters and curious wonders such as ... dancing bears!

Dancing bears were commonplace in Germany (as well as the rest of Europe and Asia) from the middle ages onwards, and performed tricks and little jigs for excited audiences - which is where this idiom comes from.

It’s easy to imagine that these performances were likely the talk of the town, whenever they popped up.

7. Einen Kater haben 🐈‍⬛

Yet another expression that falsely suggests the involvement of an animal friend.

“Einen Kater haben” refers not to a male cat, but instead to the medical German word “Katarrh”, which loosely translates to “the common cold” in English.

The expression is used whenever someone is experiencing a hangover, and since the symptoms of a common cold are comparable to the achy feeling of a hangover, one can understand why it’s referred to in such a context.

Immer wenn mein Mann einen Kater hat, benimmt er sich, als hätte er sich mit der Pest infiziert.


Whenever my husband has a hangover, he acts as if he's been infected with the plague.

However, to remember this expression, I like to imagine waking up after a night of heavy drinking to a rotund cat sitting atop my head, sinking its claws into my temples, causing my hangover/cat-induced headache.

Sei heute Abend vorsichtig! Letzte Woche hat es eine ganze Weile gedauert, bis du dich von deinem Kater erholt hast!


Be careful how much you drink tonight. It took you a while to recover from your hangover last week!

Next time you wake up feeling groggy after a night out, remember this!

8. Mit jdn. Pferde stehlen können 🐴

Before cars were around, horses were extremely valuable assets - used for transport, travel and farming. For thieves, that meant that they were especially difficult to steal.

If looking for a partner in crime, a thief looking to steal a horse would need to find someone he could completely rely on; someone he could trust, even in such a high risk situation.

​​Sara ist seit über einem decadeJahrzehnt meine beste Freundin. Mit ihr kann man Pferde stehlen.


Sara has been my best friend for over a decade. You can count on her.

So, the expression “mit jdn. Pferde stehlen können” is used to describe someone you trust so wholeheartedly, that you’d even trust that person to steal horses with you and not let you down.

Ich glaube, dass ich ein loyaler, honestehrlicher Mann bin, mit dem man Pferde stehlen kann.


I believe that I am a loyal, honest man, who you can trust.

9. Da liegt der Hund begraben 🐶

Apparently, treasure chests used to be decorated with illustrations of frightening, growling dogs, to deter thieves. If a thief were to come across such a chest, then they would know that they’ve found something very valuable.

With this in mind, “da liegt der Hund begraben”, refers literally to finding a valuable chest, and is used when the (valuable) cause of an uncomfortable issue finally comes to light.

For example, if your vampire child has been avoiding drinking the blood of the grandma in your fridge all week, and you finally figure out that it’s because he’s trying out veganism, then there you go! There lies the reason! Da liegt der Hund begraben!

Jo hat mir erzählt, dass er letzte Woche keine Zeit hatte, für seine examPrüfung zu lernen. Dann habe ich bemerkt, dass er seine ganze leisure timeFreizeit damit to spend (time)verbringt, sein neues Computerspiel zu spielen. Da liegt also der Hund begraben!


Jo told me that he didn't have time to study for his exam last week. Then I noticed that he's been spending all his extra time playing his new video game. That's where the problem lies!

10. Wo sich Fuchs und Hase Gute Nacht sagen 🦊🐰

The expression “Wo sich Fuchs und Hase Gute Nacht sagen”, can be used to reference the countryside, wilderness and remote, sleepy villages, far away from civilization, where there’s a real chance for wild animals (such as foxes and hares) to cross paths.

Seit wir aufs Land have movedgezogen sind, ist mir langweilig. Hier sagen sich Fuchs und Hase Gute Nacht.


I've been bored since we moved to the country. We're in the middle of nowhere

So, basically, definitely not big cities, where toeless pigeons and wheezing rats waddle around. This idiom, however, is used to frame said remote places as boring, and away from exciting civilization, and the toeless pigeons that inhabit it.

Das Dorf ist wunderschön und idyllisch, aber at the end of the dayletzten Endes bin ich der opinionMeinung, dass sich Fuchs und Hase hier Gute Nacht sagen.


The village is beautiful, idyllic and very peaceful, but at the end of the day I do believe that we're in the middle of nowhere'.

For example, if your mum were to tell you that this year’s summer holiday would be spent at your grandparents’ place, who live in a village only heard of for “famously” (according to your grandpa) having grown the world’s (4th) largest kohlrabi, then you may raise your arms in protest and scream “Aber dort sagen sich Fuchs und Hase doch Gute Nacht!”.

11. Gänsewein 🪶

After a long day’s worth of hard work, do you sometimes treat yourself to a delicious glass of wine? Or perhaps a cosy hot chocolate? Maybe a tall glass of ... Gänsewein?

Gänsewein is a tongue-in-cheek slang word for good old, plain drinking water, used to sarcastically “dress up” the less-than-electrifying drink with a sexy name.

Ich denke, ich werde meine köstliche Platte mit Gourmet-Käse und Crackern mit einem Glas Gänsewein kombinieren.


I think I'll combine my delicious platter of gourmet cheese and crackers with a with a glass of water.

Supposedly, the word may have been used in the past, when wine was a fine drink enjoyed by the wealthy. Back then, the only form of “wine” affordable to the poor was no different to the finest drink to be had by the farm animals (such as geese) that they cared for: water.

Möchtest du etwas Gänsewein zu deinem Mittagessen, Papa?


Would you like some water with your lunch, Dad?

To remember what Gänsewein refers to, you may find it helpful to imagine a goose holding a tea party, serving - naturally - the spring water readily available at his webbed feet.

12. Hundemüde sein 🐶

Whilst dogs can be energetic creatures, bounding across the field to fetch the stick or scare the life out of a squirrel, they usually sleep for more than half the day on average.

Our family dog, for example, would doze off all the time. Sometimes, when she was especially tired, you could actually lift her up so that she dangled like a wet fish from your hands, without waking her!

Don’t worry; we didn’t do this often.

Ich glaube, ich schaffe es heute Abend nicht ins Kino, Leute. Ich habe meinem Freund den ganzen Tag geholfen, seine Sachen in seine neue Wohnung zu tragen, und ich bin hundemüde.


I don't think I can make it to the cinema tonight, guys. I spent the day helping my friend move his stuff into his new apartment, and I'm exhausted.

Perhaps this association of dogs with sleepiness is where the term exhaustedhundemüde came from.

In any case, the expression means: to be very tired.

Ich habe einen Blick auf Omar geworfen, als er heute nach einer langen Schicht aus dem Krankenhaus kam, und er sah hundemüde aus.


I took a look at Omar when he came out of hospital today after a long shift, and he looked dog-tired.

So, for example, whilst dangling your snoozing dogs in your arms, you may say that your dog is hundemüde, meaning: your dog is absolutely exhausted.

Another example for you: after a day of hiking through the mountains, you can expect to be hundemüde.

13. Affengeil 🙈

When something is absolutely fantastic! Utterly amazing! Totally awesome! Then it is: affengeil.

Ich liebe dein Outfit! Es ist affengeil!


I love your outfit! It's awesome!

“Geil” is a word that is commonly used, especially amongst young people, to mean “amazing”. By placing the “affen” in front of it, the word simply becomes intensified.

The word “geil” can also mean “horny”, by the way… so make sure you use the word correctly to avoid saying something you really don’t mean to.

Callum ist ein professioneller Gamer. Sein Leben ist so affengeil! Er muss seinen ganzen Tag damit verbringen, Spiele zu spielen!


Callum is a professional gamer. His life is so awesome! He must spend his whole day playing games! And when he's not playing, he's probably getting his hands massaged so he can get back to playing as soon as possible.

For example: “Ich bin geil” = “I am horny”, and not “I am amazing”.

If you wanted to say that, you could say “Ich bin ein geiler Typ”.

But well, ... please don't say that.

14. Eselsbrücke 🐴

A mnemonic device is a learning technique that helps one to remember a piece of information in a light and easy way.

For example, to help remember all the planets in our solar system - Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, you could learn the phrase “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas”, and use the first letter of each word to help with memorization.

Ich muss mir eine Eselsbrücke bauen, um mir alle Namen der Planeten in unserem Sonnensystem zu merken.


I have to create a mnemonic to remember all the names of the planets in our solar system.

In German, a mnemonic device is called an “Eselsbrücke”.

To make sense of the term, it’s helpful to imagine a donkey that needs to walk from one place to another.

Apparently donkeys aren’t too keen on walking into water, so imagine it coming to a river and stopping.

Ich weiß, dass du die Antwort auf diese Frage kennst, Amy! Komm schon, denk an die Eselsbrücke!


I know you know the answer to that question, Amy! Come on, remember the mnemonic!

By building a bridge for the donkey to walk swiftly over, you help it to complete its task efficiently and simply. In the same way, creating an “Eselsbrücke” can also help to succeed in memorizing information in a simple yet effective way.