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Funny German Proverbs and Their Origins (Part Two, Quick Read)

Main image of the blog post about funny German proverbs and their origins.

Here we go: blog entry number two of my latest funny but educational blog-post series! This article will be the last blog entry of 2019 and, again, we find ourselves surrounded by funny German proverbs and their origins.

From the old Swedes to being a donkey – our German friends’ fantasy knows no limits. So, why wait any longer? Let’s start with our five new funny German proverbs!

#1 To Get Fox-Devils-Wild

German: Fuchsteufelswild werden.

English counterpart: To get hopping mad.

Two foxes fighting symbolizing one of the funny German proverbs.

So, why and when do Germans use this phrase? What is a fox devil? Or does it mean diabolically mad?

This idiom is used when you get so angry that you are on the brink of losing your temper or after you have already lost it. You are hopping mad or, in German, fox-devils-wild. We are, thus, talking about an unpleasant feeling as we are not only angry but royally pissed!

Now, where does this German saying come from? Like so often in the first blog article of this series, the animal world bears the secret. Legend has it that the trapped fox used to become remarkably angry and crazy. The same happened when it was infected with rabies. Both events scared the people so profoundly that they started to incorporate the devil for describing the madness they had to witness! And this is why you become fox-devils-wild when you reach a state of intense fury!

#2 Old Swede

German: Alter Schwede.

English counterpart: Gosh.

It was, again, cumbersome to find a same-in-sense counterpart in English. I highly doubt that there is a similar English idiom. Why? Because the origin of it can be detected in the special relationship between the Swedes and the Germans!

This saying has several meanings. For once, it can show that you admire someone. Often, you admire a “real man.” You have seen or heard something heroic, manly, something worth admiring. So, you tell him, “Old Swede!” Then again, you also use it in moments of surprise. You are taken off guard, or you experience something remarkable, or both. So, you just gasp: “Old Swede!” Why?!

Once more, let’s take a ride back in time. We find ourselves in the years 1618-1648, the time of the Thirty Years’ War in the Holy Roman Empire. This period was devastating for the Protestant population and Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm. That’s why, after the war, the king hired a number of experienced Swedish soldiers, who often became petty officers. The “Germans” admired the foreign soldiers’ skills to such a degree that they gave them the nickname “Old Swede” out of respect. And this is why 500 years later we still say “Old Swede!”

#3 The A and O

German: (Das ist) das A und O.

English counterpart: The be-all and end-all.

Many letters shown on cubes.

Even Germans have mostly no clue where these two letters come from. The alphabet? Then, it should be the a and z. Anyway, what does this saying even mean?

This sentence leaves German mouths when they speak about an essential, better, the crucial factor in regard to something. Something is the A and O and all other factors depend on it and its success. For example, you could say: “Especially concerning allergies, cleanliness at home is the A and O!” Or: “If you want to win a game in basketball, teamwork is the A and O!”

Now, where do these two letters come from? From an alphabet! Wait. Didn’t I say that … Yes, but it does not come from the commonly used alphabet but the Greek alphabet! In the latter, the letters Alpha and Omega form the beginning and the end. The Greek language used to prevail in the writing and transmission of biblical texts, which explains the arrival of this idiom to Western Europe.

Already in those days, the beginning and the end were seen as determining for everything lying in between. With this, we have revealed the explanation of number three of our funny German proverbs!

#4 There, the Mouse Does not Bite Off a Thread

German: Da beißt die Maus keinen Faden ab.

English counterpart: It’s Lombard Street to a China orange.

Now, what the heck is this even supposed to mean?! Don’t mice usually eat cheese or food for rodents? Has German imagination gone too far?

A mouse is shown to llustrate one of the funny German proverbs.

The mouse is not biting off a thread when a situation or an outcome is immutable, inevitable, and when there is no way around it. We must accept and endure the consequences, as inconvenient as they might be. An example would be: “If we want to visit our cousin in China, we must take a 14-hour flight. There, the mouse does not bite off a thread.”

With the knowledge of what it means, let’s look at the roots of this odd saying! Again, several origins have been handed down, but we will look at the most prominent one.

Especially in the Alpine region, the inhabitants made use of the farmer’s almanac – a peasant’s calendar. The 17th of March marked the day of St. Gertrude the Great, who was the patron saint against the plague of rats and mice. This very day signaled the end of the winter period and the beginning of spring – time to get out and work in the fields. A typical winter activity was spinning or yarning, which was a lot more comfortable than the laborious work outside.

Legend has it that a mouse kept on disturbing our yarning saint by biting off the thread to make Gertrude assume her pending duty in the fields. Thus, if St. Gertrude the Great would have taken on her unpleasant responsibilities outside by herself, the mouse would not have bitten off a thread! Et voila!

#5 The Donkey Always Names Itself First

German: Der Essel nennt sich immer zuerst.

English counterpart: It’s rude to put yourself first.

In fifth grade, I got an essay back from my German teacher, and I saw that he had underlined one of my sentences and written next to it: “The donkey always names itself first.” What had I done wrong and was I the donkey? Why?

A funny donkey on a street can be seen.

German speakers say this funny German proverb when another person talks about a shared activity among several people, naming him- or herself first. For instance: “I and Peter went to the movie theater.” In German culture, doing so is considered rude or arrogant. For that reason, such a person is an egocentric donkey.

But why a donkey and not another animal? Let’s say, a stubborn cat!

Several explanations coexist. For once, the German donkey shouts “Iii, aaah,” which is how Bavarian dialects pronounce “Ich auch” (= me too). Another transmission says that the donkey is seen as a symbol of foolishness, ignorance, or blockheadedness. Complementarily, Germans also say “stupid like a donkey.” Hence, the one who names him- or herself first might rightly be considered a silly donkey.

Anyway, I am still grateful that my teacher made me never mention myself first again!

Funny German Proverbs and Their Origins (Part Two, Quick Read) – The Coming of a Knowledgable Language Blog

In this blog, you will discover a bunch of proven tips on how to crack the language-learning game! I hope the second part of this blog series will be at least as popular as the first part. Finally, I am sure you got a good laugh out of it and also learned something in the process.

There will be a loooooot more articles coming! 

At the moment, I am actively posting content on PinterestInstagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Have a look if you just can’t get enough of “Veni. Vidi. Linguas didici!” I typically publish new articles on Mondays!

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  • 2composes


    February 17, 2022 at 16:38
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