Mixed-up Idioms
On the Wrong Track

Den Teufel an die Wand werfen (lit. to throw the devil against the wall). Photo (detail): © Florian Steffens

German sayings and idioms can be pretty confusing. Sometimes a slip of the tongue may sound similar, but as our illustrated primer shows, small changes can lead to large misunderstandings.

Florian Steffens and Sarah Klein

  • The poor horse! Animal lovers take heart; no one has any plans to fold up a noble steed to save on space. However, attempting to roll up a pony from any angle is a good example of <B>das Pferd von hinten aufzäumen (lit. to bridle the horse from the rear, fig. to put the cart before the horse)</b> – or doing something the wrong way round. Illustration: © Florian Steffens
    The poor horse! Animal lovers take heart; no one has any plans to fold up a noble steed to save on space. However, attempting to roll up a pony from any angle is a good example of das Pferd von hinten aufzäumen (lit. to bridle the horse from the rear, fig. to put the cart before the horse) – or doing something the wrong way round.
  • <b>Eine Sau durch’s Dorf tragen (lit. to carry a sow through the village)</b><br>What lazy swine wouldn’t enjoy a nice piggyback ride through town? Unfortunately, the pig fares much less well in the original saying. <B>Eine Sau durch’s Dorf treiben (lit. to drive a pig through the village, fig. to make a mountain out of a molehil)</B> refers to a lot of unnecessary anger about something ultimately unimportant. After all, the next sow is sure to come dashing through the village with an angry person hot on her corkscrew tail. Illustration: © Florian Steffens
    Eine Sau durch’s Dorf tragen (lit. to carry a sow through the village)
    What lazy swine wouldn’t enjoy a nice piggyback ride through town? Unfortunately, the pig fares much less well in the original saying. Eine Sau durch’s Dorf treiben (lit. to drive a pig through the village, fig. to make a mountain out of a molehil) refers to a lot of unnecessary anger about something ultimately unimportant. After all, the next sow is sure to come dashing through the village with an angry person hot on her corkscrew tail.
  • <b>Den Teufel an die Wand werfen (lit. to throw the devil against the wall)</b><br>When someone expects the worst, they might be tempted to fling the evildoer – here the devil – against the wall with all their might in an attempt to stop them. The proper approach, according to the actual idiom, is to grab a brush and a pot of paint. Making dire predictions without any real need is a case of <B>den Teufel an die Wand malen (lit. to paint the devil on the wall, fig. to cry wolf)</B>. Illustration: © Florian Steffens
    Den Teufel an die Wand werfen (lit. to throw the devil against the wall)
    When someone expects the worst, they might be tempted to fling the evildoer – here the devil – against the wall with all their might in an attempt to stop them. The proper approach, according to the actual idiom, is to grab a brush and a pot of paint. Making dire predictions without any real need is a case of den Teufel an die Wand malen (lit. to paint the devil on the wall, fig. to cry wolf).
  • <b>Der Wurf mit dem Zaunpfahl (lit. the toss of the fence post)</b><br>Yikes, this variation could almost be seen as the follow-up to the original. After all, <B>der Wink mit dem Zaunpfahl (lit. the wave with the fencepost, meaning to give someone a broad hint)</B> is a person’s way of drawing attention to something – in the hope that a hint the size of a fencepost will be too large to miss. Tossing the post might be an act of sheer desperation after the first hint is overseen. Illustration: © Florian Steffens
    Der Wurf mit dem Zaunpfahl (lit. the toss of the fence post)
    Yikes, this variation could almost be seen as the follow-up to the original. After all, der Wink mit dem Zaunpfahl (lit. the wave with the fencepost, meaning to give someone a broad hint) is a person’s way of drawing attention to something – in the hope that a hint the size of a fencepost will be too large to miss. Tossing the post might be an act of sheer desperation after the first hint is overseen.
  • <b>Mit Spatzen auf Kanonen schießen (lit. to shoot sparrows at cannons)</b><br>Shooting sparrows at a cannon might be an admirable expression of pacifism, but the chances of success are extremely low. The original is a bit more militant – <B>mit Kanonen auf Spatzen schießen (lit. to shoot sparrows with a cannon, fig. to crack a nut with a sledgehammer)</B> refers to an overreaction to a mere trifle, and the sparrows’ chances of survival are not great. Illustration: © Florian Steffens
    Mit Spatzen auf Kanonen schießen (lit. to shoot sparrows at cannons)
    Shooting sparrows at a cannon might be an admirable expression of pacifism, but the chances of success are extremely low. The original is a bit more militant – mit Kanonen auf Spatzen schießen (lit. to shoot sparrows with a cannon, fig. to crack a nut with a sledgehammer) refers to an overreaction to a mere trifle, and the sparrows’ chances of survival are not great.
  • <b>Da streiten sich die Geister (lit. something the spirits fight about)</b><br>While two people who simply cannot come to an agreement and refuse to budge an inch from their standpoints may be engaged in a spirited argument, the correct expression is <B>da scheiden sich die Geister (lit. something the spirits differ on, meaning opinions differ)</B>. Illustration: © Florian Steffens
    Da streiten sich die Geister (lit. something the spirits fight about)
    While two people who simply cannot come to an agreement and refuse to budge an inch from their standpoints may be engaged in a spirited argument, the correct expression is da scheiden sich die Geister (lit. something the spirits differ on, meaning opinions differ).
  • <b>Jemanden unter zwei Augen sprechen (lit. to talk to someone among two eyes)</b><br>If you want to speak privately with someone, you’d like to talk one-on-one – that is, with four eyes present. The saying is <B>unter vier Augen sprechen (lit. to talk to someone among four eyes, meaning confidentially or privately)</B>. Just two eyes would be more of a soliloquy, or an indication of poor math skills. Illustration: © Florian Steffens
    Jemanden unter zwei Augen sprechen (lit. to talk to someone among two eyes)
    If you want to speak privately with someone, you’d like to talk one-on-one – that is, with four eyes present. The saying is unter vier Augen sprechen (lit. to talk to someone among four eyes, meaning confidentially or privately). Just two eyes would be more of a soliloquy, or an indication of poor math skills.

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