I was very surprised when one of my students told me that he thought that watching TV and movies in German was far more difficult than watching the German news. I had previously thought that because the type of language used in the news was more formal, it would actually be more difficult to understand. However, for him, the opposite was the case. Thus, I learned that the language of German movies or (in other words) the language of our everyday life can be quite different from the language taught in books. The textbook standard is, of course, the correct one and the one that we will hear at school or on the news. So, don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong with learning it. However, a student’s understanding of the language does not end there. So, let’s discover some typical expressions in the spoken German language.
Our first word has become very popular recently, but it is also used in the standard language. This word is Krass, which can be used to mean extreme, extremely good/nice, terrible or cool.
- Das ist ja echt/total krass! That sucks. / That’s (really) incredible.
So, when would we use such an expression? Let’s imagine for a moment that a pregnant woman is telling her friends about her strange cravings. She describes a meal that she recently ate that consisted of olives, corn flakes and cherry jam on toast. Naturally, one of her friends then exclaims:
- Das ist ja echt krass!
As you can see from the translation above, this expression can be used in many different situations. For instance, you can use it when you hear about something that is not very nice. In other cases, you can use it with a more positive meaning, such as in:
- Wow, die Musik ist ja (echt) krass. Wow, the music is really cool.
Typically, in standard German, krass refers to something that is “extreme.”
- Die Unterschiede zwischen …. sind sehr krass. The differences between … are very extreme.
Another word that is used is echt, which is a modal particle similar to ja and total. Each of these words serve to provide emphasis to a statement, making it stronger and more convincing. However, in everyday spoken language, echt often means “really.”
Person A: Stephens Firma hat ihn gefeuert. Stephen’s company has fired him.
Person B: Echt? Really?
Person A: Mhm.
Person B: Krass!
Another meaning of echt is “genuine,” as opposed to fake (nachgemacht). Similarly, the phrase in echt means “in the flesh” or “in person.” For example:
- Bisher habe ich ihn nur im Film gesehen, noch nie in echt. So far, I have only seen him in the movies, but never in person.
In addition to these two, a third popular expression is:
- Ich glaub’, es hackt / mich hackt’s! You can’t be serious.
This is typically used when you are shocked about something you don’t agree with it. It has now become so common that there is even a webpage with it in the title: ich-glaube-es-hackt.de (it’s actually a pun of hacken/hacker).
While it is not clear where this expression came from, one explanation could be that hacken originally meant to pester somebody. Nowadays, hacken is also used to refer to “chopping wood,” “birds pecking at one another” and to describe what hackers do to computers and data.
It is from this second definition (chickens pecking at one another) that we get the following expression: auf jemandem herumhacken (to nag somebody).
- Warum hackst du die ganze Zeit auf mir herum? Why are you nagging me all the time?
Next, if you want to express how boring a place is, you might say:
- Da ist nix los! There’s nothing going on.
You should note that nix is the spoken language version of nichts. It has the same meaning, but it usually refers to a party.
Similarly, you can also use this expression:
- Tote Hose! Dead boring! (Literally: dead trousers).
As an interesting side note, there is a German punk band named Die Toten Hosen.
There is also another idiom with a very similar meaning that can be used for talking about a (small) town or village:
- Da werden abends die Bürgersteige/Gehsteige hochgeklappt. They roll up the sidewalks at night.
Personally, I really like this idiom, because it very accurately describes what is (or what is not) going on in small towns. This is also true for many German city centers at night. After the shops have been closed, the CBD often looks like a ghost town, being that the best places to go out are elsewhere in the city. Please note that Bürgersteige is considered Hochdeutsch, while the word Gehsteige is used in Austria and in the southern part of Germany.
The next expression is one of my favourite ones just because of the sound. If you want to tell somebody to hurry up, you can say:
- Mach’ ma’ hinne! Hurry up!
I am not sure if all Germans understand this expression though. I heard it for the first time in the northern part of Germany, but it actually comes from Hesse, which is in the south.
The following expression also has the same meaning. You should note that zumachen does not mean “to close” or “to shut” here (because it would need an object), but instead “to hurry up.”
- Mach zu! Hurry up!
As for the next one, I don’t particularly like it very much because it is pretty vulgar. However, it is quite common in daily speech: die Arschkarte ziehen (to draw the short straw).
- Da hast du die Arschkarte gezogen! You have been really unlucky!
You should note that the English translation above doesn’t truly express the rudeness of this phrase. In German, it is really impolite to say it to somebody who has had a bit of bad luck. However, the etymology is interesting. It comes from 1970, when red and yellow cards were first introduced at the football World Cup in Mexico. At that point in time, many people didn’t have colour TVs, so in order to help the audience distinguish between the two cards, the referee put the red card in his back pocket and the yellow one in his front pocket.
The next expressions refer to losing one’s mind. There are actually a lot of ways to say this, and they are all pretty common. Here are just a few:
- Hast du sie nicht mehr alle?: You can’t be all there!
- doch/wohl nicht ganz richtig ticken: to not be right in the head.
- anders ticken: to have a different mentality.
The last two in particular use the word ticken. ticken refers to the ticking of your (inner) clock. However, it doesn’t always have to have a negative connotation, as seen in the third expression listed above.
- Der tickt ganz anders. He has a completely different mentality.
Now, before we go on to the next expression, I want to pose you a question. Do you, as a native speaker, know where certain popular sayings and idioms come from? Probably not. In fact, native speakers often don’t even wonder where these expressions originate from. However, if you are a language learner, you may find it easier to understand and to use idioms if you know the origins and can picture what it means in your mind.
Case in point, Klatsche once referred to an instrument that was used to make a useless noise. However, over time, this meaning changed and it now refers to the rambling chitchat that might be spoken by a person who is a bit crazy. For example:
- Du hast doch einen an der Klatsche! You are nuts!
OK, we’re almost done! Now let’s look at an expression that can be used in place of a more standard one. The phrase ich habe (keine) Lust … zu … is standard German for “I would like to ….” However, a somewhat stronger version is (keinen) Bock haben auf.
- Ich habe (keinen) Bock darauf Musik zu hören. I am (not) eager to listen to music.
- Ich habe Bock auf ein Eis. I am up for an ice cream.
- Da habe ich echt keinen Bock drauf! I can’t be bothered.
This now brings us to our final expression. Just keep in mind that this one has nothing to do with baking bread or a cake, but instead it means to be unable to get something done. It is etw. nicht gebacken kriegen.
- Er müsste sich eigentlich um einen neuen Job kümmern. Aber er kriegt es nicht gebacken. He should try to find a new job. However, he doesn’t seem able to do so.
Congratulations!! You just worked through a lot of expressions. You can now choose to try to learn them all at once, or you can take your time. You can also start trying to identify them in normal German conversation. And once you’re ready, pick a few and try using them yourself. Good luck!