Hilarious German Proverbs: Part I

“A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.” — Image Credit: LaVladina (https://www.flickr.com/photos/danielavladimirova/) — Subject to CC 2.0 License.

I love German people. They’re such a serious lot — so goal-oriented and industrious — they’re never really satisfied. They never stop planning, improving or pushing forward with everything they do. They’re like little termites: Even if you stomp the everloving shit out of their mound every single day, they’ll just keep right on building that mother. (Of course they’ll whine and complain the entire time: For such an accomplished country, they sure spend a lot of time bitching about it. Holy Christ.)

There’s just something inherently deadpan about the German mindset. Not a whole lot of feeling or emotion involved. And instead, where Americans like me might place hope or optimism, Germans tend to make more room for things like chagrin and outright despair. That’s why you’ll find such a wealth of darkness and cynicism throughout their language — especially in their age-old kernels of wisdom — many of which aren’t really insightful at all, but just straight-up depressing.

What follows is a list of my favorite German proverbs, which I have translated literally — exactly the way they sound to my American ears — followed by the original German expression:

“The best swimmers drown.”

German: “Die besten Schwimmer ertrinken.”
English equivalent: “Take heed if you find what you do not seek.”
My interpretation: “Work smarter, not harder, you moron.”

“Doctor, help yourself!”

German: “Arzt, hilf dir selber!”
English equivalent: “Physician, heal thyself!” (Or, “Do not condemn someone for that which you yourself are guilty.”
My interpretation: “Don’t be an asshole.”

“The fish stinks from the head.”

German: “Der Fisch stinkt vom Kopf her.”
English equivalent: “Corruption begins at the top.”
My interpretation: “It wasn’t me! …It was my boss.”

“Stupid hearts do not woo beautiful women.”

German: “Blödes Herz buhlt keine schöne Frau.”
English equivalent: “Faint heart never won fair lady.”
My interpretation: “Don’t be a pussy.”

“The horse often dies while the grass is growing.”

German: “Das Pferd stirbt oft, ehe das Gras wächst.”
English equivalent: “While the grass grows, the steed starves.”
My Interpretation: “Your lack of foresight may cost us some lives.”

“It’s hard to press oil out of a stone.”

German: “Aus einem Stein ist schwer Öl pressen.”
English equivalent: “You can’t milk a bull.”
My interpretation: “I’m fairly certain you’re retarded.”

“Wash your laundry in your own home.”

German: “Deine Wäsche wasche zu Hause.”
English equivalent: “Don’t air your dirty laundry in public.”
My interpretation: “Fuck off, shit talker.”

“A woman is a man’s greatest fortune… or his greatest disaster.”

German: “Das Weib ist des Mannes größtes Glück oder Unglück.”
English equivalent: “A man’s best fortune — or his worst — is a wife.”
My interpretation: “Choose wisely, Indiana Jones.”

“The drug is often worse than the disease.”

German: “Die Arznei ist oft ärger als das Übel.”
English equivalent: “The remedy is often worse than that which ails you.”
My Interpretation: “Jesus, drama queen — overreact why don’t you…”

“The drowning man reaches for the drinking straw.”

German: “Der Ertrinkende greift nach einem Strohhalm.”
English equivalent: “A drowning man clutches at straws.”
My interpretation: “Oh sure, now you want to be friends. I think I’d rather watch you drown.” *Places boot on forehead and shoves head underwater.*

Do you know of an old German proverb which might compliment this list? Let ‘er rip in the comments section below!

27 thoughts

  1. Well, the ones I get are all in translation from my mother-in-law. One, in fact, even wondered why I’d want to remarry and take on a family (hers) in the first place. She thought I was “already living better than the king in France.” (We now look at many of our meals and make that “eating better than,” probably true considering the improvements in modern diets.) Another looks at something (usually one of the kid’s activities) and observes, “This is going to have a bad ending.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. laugh out loud! I so want to share this but my german friend also lack a sense of humor…esp. about things concerning themselves!! :)


      1. Doubtless we are not world champignons, but Germans have learned the art of laughing about themselves long before you and I were born. But we are not infantile or even moronic funny.
        According to Erich Kästner: “Was immer geschieht: Nie dürft ihr so tief sinken, von dem Kakao, durch den man euch zieht, auch noch zu trinken.” (Yet another proverb) ;-)

        Liked by 2 people

  3. “Einem geschenkten Gaul schaut man nicht ins Maul.” Don’t look into your horse’s mouth as it was a present. Meaning: shut up, the fucking thing you complain about came for free!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Einem geschenkten Gaul,
      schaut man nicht in’s Maul,
      Einem geschenkten Barsch (=bass)
      (nicht … hinter die Kiemen.”

      For the rhyme in the last sentence one has to exchange “hinter die Kiemen” (=behind the gills) with “in den Arsch” (=in the arse).


  4. “Man hat schon Pferde vor der Apotheke kotzen sehen.” “I’ve seen horses vomiting in front of a pharmacy.” Another marvel for the apocalyptic outlook of Germans, it means “Oh you think everything is perfect and your life is complete? Tomorrow you can be diagnosed with terminal cancer so don’t take anything for granted, ever!”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Now for some other “table talks” attributed to Martin Luther, becoming German proverbs:
    “Warum rülpset und furzet ihr nicht? Hat es euch nicht geschmacket?”
    “Warum wichset Ihr nicht unter den Tisch, findet Ihr keinen Gefallen an meinen Töchtern?”


    1. Oh boy, the first one is really well-known, but I’ve never heard about the second one before! :D Oh dear…

      I actually feel a bit bad for being German but never having heard of like 80% of the proverbs in the post, so thanks for sharing! I sometimes wonder whether there’s a difference in popular proverbs between the north and the south. As I live in southern Germany and you live in Hannover, that might be an explanation…


  6. Not very dark, but highly amusing IMO: “Keinen Arsch in der Hose, aber La Paloma pfeifen!” – a more poetic version of “Großes Maul und nichts dahinter”, complaining about someone who is all talk.
    Another one I like: “den Hund zur Jagd tragen müssen” = being forced to carry the dog to the hunt, or having to prompt, prod and push someone into doing what is actually their job.


    1. I forgot to translate! “Kein Arsch in der Hose, aber La Paloma pfeifen” = “[He has] no ass in his pants, but is whistling La Paloma” (meaning someone is a coward / doesn’t have the capacity to actually DO anything, but loves to talk big).


  7. “Of course they’ll whine and complain the entire time: For such an accomplished country, they sure spend a lot of time bitching about it. Holy Christ.”

    This line made me laugh out loud. I cannot tell you how glad I am to know that it’s not just MY German husband who complains all the time. He’s a happy dude. Really. He smiles and is cheerful and silly, but give that man a few jobs and boy howdy you’ll wish you’d done them yourself after listening to him moan for a few minutes! Just the other day I said to him, “Hey, I get that you have a lot of work to do, but would it be possible for you to maybe NOT complain the for the ENTIRE TIME you’re doing it? That would be so great.”


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