It’s time for another German Idioms post, after having collected quite a few good ones over the past few months. I’ve filtered down to some of the best ones, and will perhaps use the rest for another post some time.
Enjoy these fun German idioms!
etwas in petto haben
Literally: “to have something in petto”
Translation: “to have something up one’s sleeves”
After having looked this phrase up online, I have learnt that ‘in petto’ is actually a word in English, too, meaning something along the lines of ‘secret’. It comes from the Italian word ‘petto’ meaning chest, so I guess if you have something secret, it’s ‘in your chest’ because you don’t tell anybody about that. Anyway, there was a nice little etymology story for you! Moving swiftly on…
auf jemanden abgesehen
Literally: “to aim at someone”
Translation: “to have it in for someone”
I can’t quite remember the context in which I heard this phrase, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t about me. I think. But still a nice little phrase for those of you out there who might have it in for someone. You can also replace the “jemanden” (someone) and put an object in its place, meaning you’re after something.
aus einer Mücke einen Elefanten machen
Literally: “to make an elephant out of a mosquito”
Translation: “to make a mountain out of a molehill”
(literally in German: “aus einem Maulwurfshügel einen Berg machen”)
What a wonderful phrase! In English we make mountains out of molehills, but the Germans get a bit more biological and go for making elephants out of mosquitos. I think it’s quite clear that elephants are bigger than mosquitos, so I managed to understand this phrase straight away. Clever German!
auf Wolke sieben sein
Literally: “to be on cloud seven”
Translation: “to be on cloud nine”
This is a nice little example of how difficult learning a language really can be. In German, you’re on cloud seven if you’re really happy. In English, you’re on cloud nine. Why? I’m not sure – just learn it! (Though if anybody does know, do let me know in the comments!)
eins und eins zusammenzählen
Literally: “to count one and one together”
Translation: “to put two and two together”
You can tell I’m a bit of a number geek. Here’s another example of number-changing through translation. In English, when we work something out or something clicks in our mind, we put two and two together. In German, they count together one and one to get the solution.
Hätte, hätte, Fahrradkette.
Literally: “Would have, would have, bike chain.” (Ha!)
Translation: “Shoulda, coulda, woulda.”
(Just for fun – literally in German: “Hätte sollen, hätte können, hätte.”)
Though I did get what the person meant when they said this to me (the two “hätte” gave it away), I was still shocked and quite amused of the use of “bike chain” at the end. I’m not sure on the etymology of the phrase, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was literally purely due to the fact that it rhymes and flows easily off the tongue. A very cool phrase indeed!
4 thoughts on ““To make an elephant out of a mosquito”: German Idioms Part V”
You asked yourself about the number change in the translation of German idiom. I have some suggestions.
“Auf Wolke sieben sein”-“Be on cloud nine”
I’m Dutch and we say it a little differently: “In de zevende hemel zijn”-“Being in the seventh heaven” That’s the key to the number in the German expression. The ‘seventh heaven’ goes back to the ancient Greek view on the construction of the universe as you can find in Plato’s works. That view was in short: the universe was perfect, so there was just one and it’s shape was like a perfect ball and it moved circular around its own axis. As the Sun and Moon moved differently with the universe as did the stars and each of the planets, the universe consisted of seven layers, or seven balls, called the Seven Spheres, fitting perfectly within or around the other layers and each being perfectly see through made of clear crystal and carrying one of the separately moving objects, or all of the stars that moved together. The ‘Harmony of the Spheres’ is the perfect music that comes with the movement of the spheres over each other, the seven together creating perfect intervals. Of course the ancient Greek only had seen four planets: Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, so there was no need for more Spheres. The Spheres are also called Heavens and people believed a soul going to Heaven could end up in each of them, with the last, the seventh, being the best. So that’s the origin of the Dutch ‘Being in the seventh heaven.’
Probably not all of the ancient Greek theory on the construction of the universe was known by the general public in Germany and Britain, but a child could tell you the clouds were in the sky, and the sky also is the heaven and the universe out there, so ‘cloud seven’ seemed to be a good substitute for ‘seventh heaven’, and not being familiar with the Greek Spheres the British could easily up-scale that to ‘cloud nine’, or maybe the one inventing the saying in English was familiar with the Greek theory, but lived in the time after the discovery of Mercury and Uranus, but before anyone had recognized Neptune as a planet. (That’s between March 13, 1781 and September 23, 1846)
The number change in “eins und eins zusammenzählen”-“putting two and two together” doesn’t require that much explanation. Apparently the Germans, being ‘gründlich’-‘punctual’, on principal took the easiest yet most fundamental of all additions to refer to something very obvious, while the English thought that was too obvious so they selected an addition where at least most four year olds still will have to use their fingers to do it.
Also concerning this saying we, the Dutch, agree with the number used by the Germans. (“Één en één bij elkaar optellen”)
Wow, thanks for the explanations. That’s really interesting about the “seventh heaven”, and does make sense.
And as for “eins und eins zusammenzählen” – I guess the Germans are well known for being gründlich and punctual, so I can definitely understand that 😉
Thanks again for the comments and also for reading!
I haven’t checked the sources, but this points to the possible origins of “cloud nine” and “Wolke sieben” (aka “im siebten Himmel”): http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-clo1.htm
Wikipedia at least corroborates the religious origins of seven heavens: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Heavens