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!
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
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:
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”.
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:
You can, however, also use it much more generally:
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.
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:
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”.
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”.
The noun die 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Perhaps this association of dogs with sleepiness is where the term hundemüde came from.
In any case, the expression means: to be very 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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.