European languages often share idiomatic expressions because of their common history. Even German and Hungarian (which is not an Indo-European language) share quite a few idiomatic expressions, a result of Hungary being a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for a long time.


In particular, virtually all languages have numerous idiomatic expressions that involve animals. Personally, I like these expressions because it’s easy to come up with a mnemonic device or image to help remember them. Just think of the famous English expression “it’s raining cats and dogs” and you’ll see my point. Just so you know though, the German equivalents to that expression don’t involve animals at all. They are es regnet in Strömen and es regnet Bindfäden.


However, German does in fact have a lot of idiomatic expressions that involve animals. Therefore, in this article, I would like to introduce ten that are commonly used in informal settings. Please note that none of these are rude or impolite. Nevertheless, intonation can make a difference.


Expression #1: Schwein haben (literally: to have a pig)


This expression means that you were lucky because you managed to escape from a difficult or even dangerous situation. Incidentally, the pig is generally used as a good luck symbol in German speaking countries.




  • “Gestern bin ich zu spät von zu Hause losgegangen und war mir sicher, ich würde den Bus verpassen und  zu spät zu einem Termin mit einem wichtigen Kunden kommen. Zum Glück hatte der Bus auch Verspätung und ich habe es gerade noch rechtzeitig ins Büro geschafft.” “Da hast du aber Schwein gehabt.”
  • “Meine Freundin hat gestern so richtig Schwein gehabt. Sie stand im Supermarkt an der Kasse und gemerkt, dass ihr Portemonnaie weg war. Da kam ein Mann und sagte der Kassiererin, er habe ein Portemonnaie auf dem Boden gefunden.”


Expression #2: jemanden zur Schnecke machen (literally: to make a snail out of someone)


This expression indicates that someone is criticizing you with harsh words. It is often done in a way that is fairly insulting and may be done in front of others. The person who is doing the criticizing frequently feels superior to you or occupies a position of power in a professional setting. The image that is conjured up from this idiom is that the person who is being verbally attacked wants to hide, like in a snail shell.




  • “Unsere Sekretärin hat vergessen, die Flüge für den Chef zu buchen. Der war so wütend, dass er sie derart zur Schnecke gemacht hat, dass sie anfing zu weinen.”
  • “Michaels Frau ist wirklich unsympathisch. Sobald er mal 5 Minuten zu spät kommt oder etwas vergisst, macht sie ihn zur Schnecke.”


Expression #3: bekannt sein wie ein bunter Hund (literally: to be as well-known as a coloured dog)


Imagine a coloured dog running around in the streets. It’s not something that you would forget it, would you? The same thing happens when a person wears ununsual clothes or behaves in a manner different from others, perhaps even in a manner that is quite bizarre. I remember a man in the city where I went to university who always walked and cycled around naked. It was a bit of a shock for new students and tourists, but all the local residents knew him. As a result, he was bekannt wie ein bunter Hund.


Sometimes people don’t have to do or wear anything extraordinarily, they can just know a lot of people and be very talkative, which can also make them bekannt wie ein bunter Hund. By the way, this expression is normally used for males.




  • “Schau mal da, der Typ mit dem Elvis-Anzug. Der hat wohl vergessen, dass Karneval schon vorbei ist.”
  • “Ach, der läuft immer so herum, der ist hier bekannt wie ein bunter Hund.”
  • “Ich habe keine Lust, mit Thomas durch die Stadt zu laufen. Der ist ja bekannt wie ein bunter Hund. Alle zehn Minuten trifft er jemanden, den er kennt.”


Expression #4: mit den Hühnern ins Bett gehen (literally: to go to bed with the chickens)


This idiomatic expression is used to say that you go to bed very early, just like the chickens do (they become inactive at sunset). Such people usually get up very early as well, so you can also say mit den Hühnern aufstehen.




  • “Miriam fängt jeden Morgen um 6 Uhr an zu arbeiten und geht immer schon mit den Hühnern ins Bett.”
  • “Gestern war ich so müde, dass ich mit den Hühnern ins Bett gegangen bin.”


Expression #5: jemandem einen Floh ins Ohr setzen (literally: to put a flea in someone’s ear)


This expression refers to when someone tells you to do something, and afterwards you just can’t stop thinking about it. It normally involves something that you feel that you should do, but at first glance seems impossible or crazy. You may even find that if you mention it to other people, they are likely to tell you that you should just forget about it.


While the word Floh usually refers to something annoying that you want to get rid of, it can also mean something positive too. Also, it doesn’t always have to be someone else who setzt dir einen Floh ins Ohr; it’s possible to do it to yourself as well.




  • “Du willst nach Australien auswandern? Wer hat dir denn den Floh ins Ohr gesetzt?”
  • “Andreas hatte einen guten Job und verdiente genug Geld, aber plötzlich setzte er sich den Floh ins Ohr, Medizin studieren zu wollen.”


Expression #6: aufs falsche Pferd setzen (literally: to back the wrong horse)


This expression refers to making an incorrect decision (often in business), which results in a loss, frequently a financial one. This idiom derives from the world of horse racing, where you can win or lose money depending on which horse you bet on and whether or not it’s the winner.




  • “Mit seinem Online-Shop hat Andreas wohl aufs falsche Pferd gesetzt. Niemand kauft die Produkte.”
  • “Wenn man bei Aktien nicht gut informiert ist, setzt man schnell aufs falsche Pferd und verliert eine Menge Geld.”


Expression #7: wissen, wie der Hase läuft (literally: to know how the hare runs)


This expression is used to refer to a person who has profound expertise in a certain subject, and therefore is someone you wouldn’t be able to deceive. This idiom originates from the fact that hares don’t run away from you in a straight line, but erratically turn left and right. This makes them difficult to catch. However, if you could predict their turns, getting them would be easy.




  • “Maria arbeitet schon seit 10 Jahren hier, hat aber keine Ahnung, wie der Hase läuft.”
  • “Wenn du mehr über das Leben in Deutschland wissen möchtest, dann rede mal mit Anne, sie weiß genau, wie der Hase läuft.”


Expression #8: die Katze im Sack kaufen (literally: to buy the cat in the sack)


This expression was already known in the Middle Ages and refers to buying something without knowing much about the product or without having seen it. It comes from a 16th century text that mentions a man who sold a cat in a sack to a buyer who believed that there was a fat rabbit inside.




  • “50 Euro für ein Überraschungspaket? Damit kaufst du dann aber die Katze im Sack. Meinst du, das lohnt sich?”
  • “Sie wollen nicht die Katze im Sack kaufen? Kein Problem. Bei uns haben Sie 30 Tage Zeit, sich das Produkt in Ruhe anzuschauen und zu testen, bevor Sie es bezahlen.”


Expression #9: zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagen (literally: to beat two flies with one swatter)


This expression refers to achieving two or more goals by only completing a single action.




  • “Lass uns auf dem Weg zu Susanne schnell im Supermarkt und bei der Post vorbeifahren, dann brauchen wir später nicht noch einmal los und schlagen zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe.”


Expression #10: glatt sein wie ein Aal (literally: to be as slippery as an eel)


Even as far back as Ancient Greece, the image of an eel that was impossible hold because it was so slippery was used to describe people with negative character traits. This generally refers to a person who has an excuse for everything, is sly and who puts his/her own interests first. Politicians are often described as glatt wie ein Aal.




  • “Egal, was du sagst, der neue Minister hat für alles eine Erklärung, der ist glatt wie ein Aal.”


I hope you enjoyed this excursion into the linguistic animal kingdom. Next time we will learn how animals are used to describe people with certain characteristics.


Image Sources


Hero Image by Danielle Elder (CC BY 2.0)