Talking with Your Mouth Full: German food idioms

Every man is a poet. At least he would be, if you were to judge him by his knowledge of idioms. Our languages are riddled with examples of metaphors and similes, word combinations that take on a meaning beyond the sum of their parts. Interestingly, however, the origins of these phrases are often mysterious or disputed. Inspired by this short post series over on the World Text blog, I thought I’d take a look at a handful of German idioms relating to food.

«Es zieht wie Hechtsuppe»

Example:

Das nasskalte Wetter ist bestimmt nicht geeignet, die Stimmung in höchste Höhen schnellen zu lassen. Zumal es auf dem Markt an vielen Ecken zieht wie Hechtsuppe.

Aachener Nachrichten

Terrible draughts in Germany are apparently comparable to pike soup. Why that should be the case isn’t quite clear, but there are a few theories. The favourite has it that Hechtsuppe is actually a corrupted form of the Yiddish phrase hech soppa / supha, meaning ‘like a (strong) storm’.

An alternative theory is that it’s actually a play on the verb ziehen. To get the full flavour out of the fish, especially pike, the soup is left for a long time to simmer and the flavours to effuse. 1Sprichwörter & Redewendungen – Es zieht wie Hechtsuppe.

«Dreikäsehoch»

Example:

Mit Wintersport hatte Ronny Häring schon als Dreikäsehoch begonnen, als er jahrelang Junioren-Eishockey spielte.

SPEEDWEEK

Nipper, squirt, tiny tot, sprog, tyke—I’m sure there’s a hundred odd slang words in English, though I’m not sure any refer to cheese. Quite how high three cheeses are probably provokes some regional arguments, but this phrase, appearing in the 18th century to denote a cheeky little youngster, quite literally refers to the height of three cheese wheels stacked on top of one another. Or quite possibly it’s a French phrase perverted to suit the German ear, that originally referred to caisses (cases/crates) not Käse. 2ARD – Wissen macht Ah!

«Tomaten auf den Augen»

Example:

Kokain im Blut aber Tomaten auf den Augen: Ein Porschefahrer bemerkt zu spät, dass der Passat vor ihm wegen eines Rettuungswagens bremsen muss und kracht ins Heck.

Abendzeitung München

If you miss the blindingly obvious, it might be because you have tomatoes on your eyes. The origins of this phrase are fairly unclear, though a common interpretation is that it’s a comparison to the bloody-eyed look of someone who has been up all night. 3Planet Wissen. Another suggestion is that it comes from times when traffic lights were accompanied by traffic police, and the remark refers to drivers not setting off when the light turned green. 4Redensarten-Index. Though surely they’d be more likely to flag down drivers who have limes on their eyes.

«Die beleidigte Leberwurst»

Example:

Schweinsteiger hat es überhaupt nicht nötig, die beleidigte Leberwurst zu spielen.

Abendzeitung München

When you pout, go off in a huff or sulk, you might just be playing the insulted liver sausage. This rather older saying relates to the belief that ascribed organs in the body various roles, and in which the liver became the origin of your temperament and the centre of feelings such as anger, love and sorrow. Other phrases such as “die Laus, die einem über die Leber läuft” or “die Galle überlaufen/hochkommen” refer to the same idea. Hurt my feelings and you insult my liver.

Later, as the belief in the liver as the centre of a person’s feelings began to wane, the phrase was adapted to beleidigte Leberwurst. A popular apocryphal etymology explains the story of the various sausages cooking in a pot, in which all of the other sausages are taken out, and the Leberwurst, insulted at being last, bursts with anger. 5Duden – Leberwurst.

«Alles in Butter»

Example:

Gemessen an dem Kriterium der durchschnittlichen Dauer von Stromausfällen in Deutschland ist hier nach wie vor alles in Butter: Mit 15 Minuten bleibt dieser Wert sogar noch unter dem des Ausgangsjahres 2008.

Hamburger Abendblatt

Everything’s hunky-dory, everything’s in butter. In comparison to the majority on this list, this phrase has very practical origins. In the Middle Ages, when expensive glass was transported over the Alps to Germany from places like Venice, there was a very real risk of the expensive goods being broken by being rattled around or falling off the coach over the long and difficult journey. A simple solution was found, in which the brittle goods were placed in barrels and the latter then filled with hot butter, whereby the glass was secured against most of the knocks and bumps they might get on the voyage. With everything in butter, it was secure, and the phrase has stayed with us today. 6Sprichwörter & Redewendungen – Alles in Butter.

«Honig ums Maul schmieren»

Example:

Im Grunde unterstützte Şükür die vorherrschende Meinung, die Regierung sei drauf und dran, die Türkei in einen Abgrund zu stürzen, in dem sie die türkische Bevölkerung völlig übergehe, um den ethnischen Minderheiten weiterhin Honig ums Maul zu schmieren.

Turkishpress

If you want to ingratiate yourself with someone, smearing honey around their mouth (or beard) is a useful tactic. The most common explanation for the origins of this saying root in the training of bears, where honey smeared around the mouth was used as a form of reward, just as fish might be used for seals and dolphins. 7GEOlino.de – Jemandem Honig ums Maul schmieren.

Another possible source for this phrase goes back to a Chinese tradition. The Kitchen God, sent by Yu Huang, the Emperor of Heaven, to watch over each household, reports back on their doings during the Chinese New Year celebrations. As a way of placating the Gods, an effigy of the god in paper or statue form is fed sticky rice or honey, and is either unable to report on the family, having his mouth too full to speak, or else is persuaded to only say ‘sweet’ things to the Emperor. 8About.com – The Kitchen God.

«Nicht mein Bier»

Example:

«Schrebergarten ist nicht mein Bier … So lange es einen nicht quält und die Leute einen lassen, sollte man das ruhig noch machen. Es macht mir noch Spaß.»

Jaecki Schwarz, Mitteldeutsche Zeitung

Only to be expected in the land of the Reinheitsgebot, if something isn’t your beer, it isn’t your problem/has nothing to do with you. Except curiously, the phrase seems to have its origins in a rather more innocuous phrase, with the word Bier actually being a perversion of the regional pronunciation of the word Birne. Depending on the region, this might be pronounced Bürne (Bremen), d’Bian (Bavaria) or perhaps ‘n Beär (Cologne), which is often used in place of the word Sache in such phrases as „Das ist nicht meine Sache“ i.e. “That’s none of my business”. 9Duden; Wiktionary.

«Senf dazugeben»

Example:

Die Vorschläge kommen aus dem Publikum und jeder darf seinen Senf dazugeben.

Badische Zeitung

Not quite as neutral as adding your tuppence to a conversation, adding mustard is usually reserved for butting in with an unsolicited opinion. Most sources seem to agree that this saying has its origins in the 17th century. At that time, mustard was somehow seen as a condiment that might improve the flavour of any dish, leading to its liberal use in taverns and inns with nearly every meal, requested or not. This little addition, as unwelcome as it was untoward, was later applied to those (normally unwanted) comments from a third party to a conversation. 10Redewendung: Seinen Senf dazugeben.

Also, gebt gerne hierunter euren Senf dazu!

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Random Quote

A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful than a life spent in doing nothing.

— George Bernard Shaw

3 Comments

  1. 12th March 2013

    Wow, great! And also a much more “professional” post than mine.
    Very interesting; of course I know all of the idioms, but not their origins!!
    You know a lot!

    About “…nicht mein Bier”: “nicht meine Sache” is rarely used, “nicht mein Ding” is much more common, though it’s also more informal than “Sache”.

    [2] “Wissen macht Ah!” – Very nice!! I always watched that when I was younger!

    • 13th March 2013

      Thanks for the comment! Had to do my research, didn’t know the origins either until I started looking into it, but I find it interesting how these phrases develop and often get used in a completely different way. I think my favourite example in English is “It’s a dog’s life”, which originally meant a terrible life, and now usually means the exact opposite.

      Incidentally, isn’t your time at worldtext soon coming to an end? What’s next for you? You’ll have to keep in touch, send me an e-mail or something!

      • worldtext
        15th March 2013

        You’ll become more expert in German than native speakers! 😉
        Oh, I didn’t know that either. If someone had asked me, I’d have said it means “a great life”. My father sometimes says that, “In my next life, I want to be a dog”, haha.

        You’re right. Next week will be my last, time has passed so fast *rhymes* 😀
        I want to do a second apprenticeship, in a hotel. 🙂
        I don’t know when the next World Text intern will come and if/how much (s)he’ll post. We’ll see.
        Yes, we have to keep in touch, you’ve been a great commenter 🙂

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