Colloquial language and idioms

One thing I’ve been thinking about for a while now is why so many people can understand conversations one on one but get lost when they over hear a conversation and miss jokes or the point of small talk. I have a friend who can have one on one conversations in french but for the life of him can’t understand radio or even news. My brother can understand Spanish news completely fine but was lost watching the lion king (a children’s cartoon movie).I wouldn’t be surprised if almost half of the stuff we say, especially “hanging with friends” is loaded with slang, I know I do it with my friends. I heard there is something like 300,000 Colloquialisms or so in German, definitely a daunting task knowing them. Anyways, I was curious to know if LingQ has many of them in the library, just wondering.

300,000 colloquialisms strikes me as a very high number. Even as a native speaker of German, I don’t think I know them all. As for daily conversations, I’m pretty sure you can get by with a much smaller general vocabulary, let alone number of colloquialisms. It certainly is necessary to know the most common of them to understand native speakers talking to each other but when talking to foreigners I tend to use fewer colloquialisms unless I’m confident my interlocutor has no problem understanding me when I use them (or wishes to learn some of these colloquialisms).

Some of them also evolve over time or are part of a certain urban culture, I am sure there is a lot of slang used these days by the kids at school that I wouldn’t understand. Some expressions I think are created spontaneously by some media events or programs and can take on a life of their own. I don’t think though they are that important for effective communication. As a little test here are some slang expressions we use where I am from (the western part of Germany), let’s see if our Austrian friend is familiar with them:

If a situation seems hopeless without a way out we might say: “Dann ist Hängen im Schacht.”, or “Dann ist Holland in Not.”
If a problem has been solved we might say: “Dann ist der Drops gelutscht.”

An example for an expression that just sprang up a couple of years ago and ended up being used as a set phrase, usually expressing some sarcasm is: “Dumm gelaufen!” Again, languages are living organic things, constantly changing and evolving.

A little post scriptum here. I just googled “deutsche Sprichwörter” and found this website I looked up under “F” and did not know any of these sayings, I hope no German learner will use these lists!

What’s considered a colloquialism here?

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read that this or that language has a high (even “the highest”) number of colloquialisms/idioms/particle verbs/[insert random grammatical feature] as if that would make the language more difficult to learn.

I believe any language has a fair share of obvious and not-so obvious expressions.

ad Friedemann: “Dann ist Holland in Not” - I have heard that a couple of times, but would never use it myself. I’m sure though that this specific expression has an interesting historical background. I need to check that out :wink:

“Dann ist Hängen im Schacht” - it took me quite some time to understand that and I’m still not sure if I understood it correctly. First I thought of “hanging” as in “to hang a criminal”. But then I reread the phrase and I guess “hängen” here means “to get stuck”.

“Dann ist der Drops gelutscht” - never heard that before and I most likely would not have understood it unless I had been given lots of explanatory context :wink: Is that similar to “der Groschen ist gefallen”?

“Dumm gelaufen!” - that’s one I use quite often, even though where I live we mostly say “Blöd gelaufen!”.

There is one expression used in Germany which I still find kind of strange: “Das ist Jacke wie Hose” in the sense of “it is all the same”. I find that kind of weird because a “Jacke” (jacket) is quite different from a “Hose” (pants or trousers in BE). In Austria we normally say “das ist gehüpft wie gesprungen” or in dialect “des is ghupft wie ghatscht”, whereby “hüpfen” stands for “hop” and “springen” for “to jump, to leap”.

When it comes to colloquialisms regional differences seem to be quite big. Thanks to Friedemann for teaching me some new expressions in German. Man lernt eben nie aus :slight_smile: Live and learn.


I looked at those lists…und ich hab nur Bahnhof verstanden…! :slight_smile:

I am from the Ruhrgebiet which was the centre of the coal mining industry in Germany and I guess “Hängen im Schacht” refers to a situation in a mineshaft, maybe to the capsule being lowered down the shaft and getting stuck somewhere.

The thing with “Dumm gelaufen” is a really subtle one I think, because the phrase had been used a lot on TV, I think especially in a sports context when trainers or athletes would comment on a lost game. Most of them are not really that eloquent and then it started to be used in other contexts as well but took on a slightly sarcastic connotation because originally it had been used mostly by unsophisticated people (the football players etc.) and also in less grave circumstances (that is in sports). Anyway, this is just my theory.

I have thought a bit more about the “Drops”, which by the way means “candy”. I think the expression refers to two possible directions a development might take and then one scenario materializes. In that situation there is no possibility anymore to affect the outcome because it has already been decided. In English a rough approximation would be: “Regarding this issue the train has already left the station a long time ago.”

don’t fret, as I said above I did not know most of them either. I think many dictionaries are full of phrases that are actually never used by natives. That happened to me when I learned Norwegian, I ended up trashing the dictionary because it was so bad.

Not to tear up any wounds but are you following the Euro 2012?

Regarding “Jacke wie Hose”, we have in fact many variations on that one like: “Gehüpft wie gesprungen”, “Linke Tasche, rechte Tasche”, the latter referring to a total amount of money that you have and that is doesn’t really make any difference which pocket you put it in, the total is always the same, I guess a bit like “zero sum game” in English.

@Friedemann: “…are you following the Euro 2012?”

I’m not really a huge fan of football; to be quite honest, I didn’t even see England’s last game. But I understand from newspapers that this English national team is the weakest one that there has been for the last 30 years - so it’s probably amazing that they even got so far as the quarter finals!

(I believe there’s going to be more football at the London Olympics, but this time featuring a combined UK team with players from England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Maybe we will win that…!?)

This is actually quite refreshing, as I look in the German dictionary it can see very intimidating. I’m actually glad these well educated Germans don’t even know them either! It gives me hope. I just need to find some book that has lets you know which are essential and which are rarely used. I’ve seen these so called books in English and half of them, I’ve never heard before so I guess some of them can be taken with a grain of salt. (meaning to not be taken seriously, for those not knowing a grain of salt slang ;p) I think one of the best ways to learn real slang and the way people talk would be to listen or watch sitcoms and the radio with transcripts to follow along.

(…) I think one of the best ways to learn real slang and the way people talk would be to listen or watch sitcoms and the radio with transcripts to follow along. (…)

This is definitely a much better and more productive approach than learning idiomatic expressions by heart from a list. Besides, it is also much more fun. I learnt most of the English colloquialisms I know by reading books and/or watching sitcoms. And let’s not forget conversations with native speakers. Nothing can beat the real thing :wink:

@Friedemann [-further to my last reply-]

Wie gesagt, I’m not a huge follower of football. However, it so happens that I DID see the Halbfinale Deutschland v. Italien.

You guys seemed lucky to lose by only 2-1 - it could easily have been 3-0 if the Italians had been a little more professional in the second half!

Viva Balotelli! Forza Italia! :smiley:


I didn’t watch the match because it was late at night here in China but your right, Italy fully deserved it to make it to the final. It is always funny to see the German nation during these tournaments descend into a state of self aggrandization and delusion about the team’s real strengths, it’s strange to see what football does to people…