Original illustrations of our favorite German proverbs

Culture

Jeder sollte vor seiner eigenen Tür kehren

"Clean your own doorstep" shares its message with another proverb in this series, "Those who sit in a glass house shouldn't throw stones." Before you criticize, in other words, get yourself in order. It’s a sign that Germans, who sometimes treat complaining as something of a national sport, have equipped themselves proverbially to backhand such critiques right back 'atcha. Snap!

Culture

Wer rastet, der rostet

"Whoever rests, rusts." You can almost imagine this actually happening to a weary medieval knight. In German, though, the proverb only first appeared in writing in the 1830s, in the age of industrialization. It's one of the rare cases where our stone-aged English equivalent, "Moss doesn't grow on a rolling stone," may predate the German. They're both ways of saying "keep moving."

Culture

Wenn zwei sich streiten, freut sich der Dritte

"When two fight, the third wins." This proverb pairs well with a fable. It involves a dog and a wolf playing tug-of-war with a hunk of meat. Finally, exhausted, they collapse - as an eagle swoops in to take the prize. The point? If you're involved in conflict, ask who's profiting. Fittingly, the proverb appeared in German literature just as the country became a nation-state in 1871.

Culture

Wer ernten will, muss säen

Used positively, "You reap what you sow" inspires hard work in the name of future gains. Negatively, it can be a warning to an aggressive kid that he'll get smacked on the nose himself one day. For modern types, a more accessible proverb might be "You make the bed you lie in." But today, ever more city-dwellers really are learning to sow (and hopefully reap) in their small, organic gardening pots.

Culture

Jeder Topf findet seinen Deckel

We used to say, "Every Jack will find his Jill." Yet this is another case where the original German proverb is more illustrative. It reads, "Every pot finds its top," and conjures up an image of a pot paired with dozens of potential tops… until one suddenly fits. Today, this proverb ends up in online lists entitled "Things single people don't want to hear." Use it sparingly.

Culture

Liebe geht durch den Magen

Does love develop in your heart, dear reader? Because for Germans, it doesn't. For them, "Love goes through the stomach." This has nothing to do with a "gut feeling" about finally finding "the one." What it means is that you can win over a crush by cooking well for them. Food was delicious? The love grows. Meal was so-so? Time to move on. Germany, it seems, puts the "heart" back in hearty.

Culture

Wo Rauch ist, ist auch Feuer

"Where there's smoke, there's fire." Meaning if enough rumors or speculation are swirling around a certain person or thing, they just might be true. This proverb can be thrown at a politician or at a film star caught with a new "friend." A more direct interpretation is about cause and effect: Your washer makes noises then turns off? Well, where there’s smoke, there's fire.

Culture

Pünktlichkeit ist die Höflichkeit der Könige

"Punctuality is the politeness of the kings" is a proverb so German you could carve it into a cuckoo clock. Except that it's French. Its roots trace back to King Louis XVIII. What he said, however, was that "precision" was the politeness of the kings. Yet by the time this proverb had migrated to Germany, the trait had evolved into "punctuality," both prized and embodied by German high society.

Culture

Das Auge isst mit

Any Instagrammer knows beautiful food pics get more likes. Restaurateurs are also aware that a dish's presentation can strongly affect reviews. Scientists have looked into it: Increase food coloring and perceived sweetness can rise by up to 10 percent. We really do eat with our eyes, as this German proverb insists: "The eye eats, too." So would food taste worse at a "dine-in-the-dark" restaurant?

Culture

Die Welt ist ein Dorf

This German proverb, "The world is a village," is also found in English. Even those people we might consider "foreign" have far more in common with us than we first imagine. We all laugh, we all cry, and we all want more or less the same things out of life. Lest we forget, Disneyland is there to remind us that "it's a small world after all."

Culture

Das letzte Hemd hat keine Taschen

"The last shirt has no pockets," says this tangible proverb. Pockets are for holding material things - which we no longer need when we die. This saying echoes the Gospel of Matthew: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal." According to that logic, it would be useless to wear pocketed garments at one's own burial service.

Culture

Dummheit und Stolz wachsen auf einem Holz

"Stupidity and pride grow on one wood," according to this proverb, which asserts a common origin of the two negative qualities. Those who are proud, it implies, are often not particularly intelligent and their pride is misplaced. The phrase might be lobbed, for example, at the boasting coach of a failing football team.

Culture

Wer schön sein will, muss leiden

Even proverb experts have trouble tracing the origins of this one, but its message is clear: Being beautiful requires sacrifice. Indeed, models, fitness gurus and tattoo addicts are likely to agree. Whether that sacrifice involves physical or financial discomfort, one English equivalent could be "No pain, no gain."

Culture

Der Ton macht die Musik

Whether you're talking to your employees or your spouse, it's not always what you say but how you say it that counts. The German version of that rather bumbling English expression has more to offer the senses: "Der Ton macht die Musik" literally means "the sound makes the music." Can you hear the discordant musical notes already?

Culture

Was Hänschen nicht lernt, lernt Hans nimmermehr

What the little boy Hänschen doesn't learn, won't be understood by grown-up Hans, according to this German proverb. Indeed, what we don't learn in our childhood is unlearnable and cannot be acquired later in life. A comparable English proverb is "You can't teach an old dog new tricks," or the lesser-known "A tree must be bent while it's young." Let all three be warnings to parents everywhere.

Culture

Die Ratten verlassen das sinkende Schiff

During the age of discovery, rats inside large ships occasionally scrambled upward if an undetected leak in the hull posed a threat. This led to the belief that the rodents could predict a vessel's impending doom. Today, self-focused people who abandon a company, team or group at the very moment the latter begins to struggle are "rats." Poor form, especially if the leak could be plugged.

Culture

Ist die Katze aus dem Haus, tanzen die Mäuse auf dem Tisch

Take a teacher, parent or any other authority figure out of the room, and the kids will kind of go crazy. This behavior is not limited to children, though, and is so universal that the proverb exists (in various forms) in numerous languages. English-speakers might even use it more than Germans, since they’ve handily shortened it - "When the cat’s away, the mice shall play."

Culture

Der Fisch stinkt vom Kopf her

A fish's head rots quickly after it dies, so it's that part of its body that stinks first. The proverb "The fish stinks from the head" is used when an organization's leadership runs a business or political party astray. It achieved renewed notoriety in Germany in 2000 when then German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder lobbed the insult at a state premier from another party.

Culture

Man sägt nicht den Ast ab, auf dem man sitzt

Oh, we humans. We shoot ourselves in the feet, bite the hand that feeds us, bore holes in our own ships, paint ourselves into a corner and even burn our own crops. So why not "cut the branch we're sitting on" while we're at it? In short, there are plenty of ways to do damage to your own interests, but this proverb advises against it.

Culture

Kleinvieh macht auch Mist

Even small bits can have an impact when they come together, says this German proverb, which means, "Small livestock also produce manure." Tiny piles of animal poop are a small nuisance, but large mounds can fertilize a whole field. Similarly, you might not think your old car emits much CO2, but if lots of people were to drive inefficient vehicles, that could have an impact on the environment.

Culture

Reden ist Silber, Schweigen ist Gold

Speaking is silver, but silence is gold, according to this German proverb. Silver speech turns up in the Bible (Psalm 12:6). As for the golden silence? A13th-century Sunni scholar, Ibn Kathir, attributed it to a wise man of the Quran, Luqman: "If words are silver, silence is golden." The legend stuck. Many today recognize part of this proverb thanks to a 1967 song by English band The Tremeloes.

Culture

Mit Speck fängt man Mäuse

If you want someone to do something for you, offer the right incentive. Here, a mouse is lured by a piece of bacon… and, ultimately, into a trap. But it doesn't have to be a trap. More often, this proverb is used in a business setting. A manager trying to boost productivity might wonder aloud which kind of "bacon" to offer her "mice."

Culture

Eine Hand wäscht die andere

When does help end and corruption begin? "One hand washes the other" slips through this gray area. Cynically, it implies that criminals assist each other (e.g. a corrupt politician and a deep-pocketed supporter). Used positively, it promises mutual benefit. Goethe meant the latter when he chastised a stingy man with "buttoned-up pockets" in his short poem, "Wie du mir, so ich dir."

Culture

Lieber den Spatz in der Hand, als die Taube auf dem Dach

Humans have eaten pigeons for millennia. But in a pinch, a sparrow would do. With that in mind, this German proverb warns of the risks inherent in seeking ever more. It comes from the Latin, "A bird caught is better than a thousand in the grass." Today, English speakers would say, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."

Culture

Unkraut vergeht nicht

The German proverb "Weeds don't vanish" is spoken when someone, despite challenges or setbacks, always perseveres. Since the proverb came into being in the 1200s, the word "weed" is meant positively: At that time, just about every plant or weed was useful, whether on the dinner plate or in cups of tea or for their "healing" properties. And in spite of inclement weather, they never, ever vanished.

Culture

Wer den Pfennig nicht ehrt, ist des Talers nicht wert

The "Taler" (father of the dollar) was reserved only for those who could first learn the value of "Pfennig," or pennies, according to this German proverb. Protestant reformer Martin Luther is said to have written a similar phrase in chalk on his own oven in the early 16th century - referencing gold guilders instead of silver Talers, though.

Culture

In der Not frisst der Teufel Fliegen

Would you eat flies as a last resort? So would the devil, according to this 19th-century German proverb. The deeper meaning is even more disturbing, though. One of the devil's names, Beelzebub, translates to "Lord of the flies." The implication, then, is that the devil wouldn't just eat flies in an emergency - he'd eat his own subjects, too.

Culture

Pech im Spiel, Glück in der Liebe

Cold comfort for gamblers, "Unlucky at cards, lucky in love" is tailor-made for the age of online poker. Many assume wrongly, though, that it's an either/or proposition: cards or love. It isn't. Some German scholars trace the disputed proverb to a similar one in Spain, roughly, "Those seeking happiness in games will be unlucky at home." So you can have both. But first, start with a happy home.

Culture

Ein gutes Gewissen ist ein sanftes Ruhekissen

"A quiet conscience is a soft pillow" is right up there as one of the most charming German proverbs around. Do no evil, it murmurs, and you'll sleep the better for it. Wise words indeed. And very cold comfort for true insomniacs.

Culture

Wer im Glashaus sitzt, soll nicht mit Steinen werfen

"Those who sit in a glass house shouldn't throw stones." This proverb has its origins in Germany, but little more is known. It recalls the Biblical injunction that only "he who is without sin" cast the first stone. Just as none are without sin, implicit in the German proverb is that each of us lives in a glass house of some kind.

Culture

Viele Köche verderben den Brei

"Too many cooks spoil the broth." This German proverb was translated into English, swapping Brei (mash) with broth. Though it's origin is not known, the sentiment is. Projects unravel with too much input, and group tasks fail without clear leadership. The proverb almost demands a bit of reassuring hierarchy - which is not uncommon in German workplaces.

Culture

Kleider machen Leute

A proverb changed from the Latin Vestis virus reddit, "The clothes make the man" is still the stuff of billboards and perfumed magazines. Still, can a century-old proverb be improved? Well, a gender swap might be in order. The proverb's best modification to date, arguably, is attributed to American writer Mark Twain. "Naked people", he added, "have little to no influence in society."

Culture

Scherben bringen Glück

Many are familiar with the Jewish tradition of intentionally breaking glass at a wedding, symbolizing the destruction of the temple and good luck for the couple. In Germany, pottery rather than glass follows the proverb, "Shards bring luck." Ahead of weddings in Germany, plates, mugs and the occasional porcelain toilet are thrown. Not so lucky is that the couple usually has to sweep up the shards.

Culture

Einem geschenkten Gaul schaut man nicht ins Maul

One proverb that's showing its age is "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth." Back when horses were appropriate as gifts, it was considered highly uncouth to play dentist in the presence of the horse-gifter. Doing so would reveal the horse's age and condition (and thus its value). Rude. A modern version of this proverb might read, "Don't google the price in front of the gift-giver."

Culture

Lügen haben kurze Beine

"Lies have short legs" is a well-known proverb in German and other languages. But it might read mysteriously to English speakers. Are shorter people more prone to lying? Not at all. Lies have short life spans; they travel fast, but never far. An African variant of the proverb says, "You can eat once with a lie, but not twice." In Aramaic, truth stands, while a lie doesn't.

Culture

Auch ein blindes Huhn findet mal ein Korn

"Even a blind hen sometimes finds a grain of corn." Today it's more common to talk of a "blind squirrel finding a nut." But centuries ago, farmers would have been as familiar with blind chickens (without the Stevie Wonder glasses, though). Still, is a blind hen's success due to luck or pluck? The proverb can also be understood to mean that those facing handicaps can achieve success.

Culture

Jeder ist sein Glückes Schmied

"Every man is the forger of his luck" is a bit optimistic for the gloomy Teutons. But this proverb isn't Germanic; it was first recorded by Latin consul Appius Claudius Caecus in roughly 300 BC. In English, by comparison, luck is not forged, it is formed - and artistically so: "Every man is the artisan of his own fortune."

Culture

Aller guten Dinge sind drei

When it comes to life and slot machines, "All good things come in threes." This proverb invokes the sensation that luck seems to shun us for years before visiting three times in a row. For slot machine maker Charles Fey, luck came in the form of a vision - namely, that he should replace poker-based machines with far simpler, symbol-based ones. Liberty bells still give the highest payout.

Culture

Gelegenheit macht Diebe

Give a macaque the chance, and he'll empty your backpack. Otherwise he'd go about his business. This conundrum is best expressed in the proverb "Opportunity makes the thief." It's used frequently in both English (e.g. Francis Bacon) and in German (e.g. Goethe). Antiquated, perhaps? No, we wouldn't dare stream movies or download music illegally…

Culture

Der Apfel fällt nicht weit vom Stamm

The "apple doesn't fall far from the tree" exists in many languages, so here's a twist. An unconfirmed German source claims that if twins were born during a new moon and one later died in a clan feud, the survivor, "Der Abfell" (close to "Apfel") was granted a year of debauched living. At year's end he had to kill himself, though. Thus he "fell" close to his filial "tree." Sure sounds Grimm.

Culture

Wie man in den Wald hineinruft, so schallt es heraus

"As you call into a forest, thus resounds the reply." This rather stilted-sounding German proverb has a fair English equivalent in "What goes around, comes around." But where the English is nearly Biblical in its scope, the German proverb deals directly with cause and effect - more an echo than a boomerang. Above, a belligerent wanderer elicits a warning cry from a Eurasian jay.

Culture

Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund

"Dawn has gold in its mouth" is as familiar to Germans as it was to ancient Romans. Erasmus, a classical scholar, later modified the Latin to his own liking: Aurora musis amica, or dawn is the friend of creativity. English speakers use their own proverb to convey a message similar, "The early bird gets the worm." In a reversal of tradition, this proverb has since migrated into German.

Did you know that devils eat flies and weeds never wilt? Test your knowledge of famous German proverbs with DW's original collection of illustrations, updated each week.

How well do you know German proverbs? In these exclusive illustrations by Antje Herzog, DW presents a collection of wise old sayings that you'll still hear regularly in Germany today.

Watch Antje Herzog at work in this time-lapse video of one of the illustrations in the series, which is updated weekly with a new proverb.

Do you know which proverb she's drawing in the video? If not, you'll find it in the gallery above.



In this second video, you can meet up with illustrator Antje Herzog, go behind the scenes of DW's proverbs series, and learn more about the history of proverbs in the German language.

Culture | 15.01.2015



Did you know that there are about 250,000 proverbs in the German language, and that each proverb averages seven words?

Renowned expert Wolfgang Mieder spoke with DW's Kate Müser about what differentiates a proverb from a slogan and why his very favorite English expression would never work in German. Here's the interview.

Click on the audio links below this article to listen to the pronunciation of eaach proverb, as spoken by voice artist Stephan Kaiser.

We asked you to share your favorite German proverbs as well, and here's what you sent.

Audios and videos on the topic

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Culture

Es ist nicht alles Gold, was glänzt

No, not everything that glitters is gold. That even applies to shiny yellow garden gnomes which may have been subjected to embarrassingly cheap production methods. While this specimen seems to be saying, "Screw clichés," traditional proverbs, on the other hand, hold timeless wisdom. And no matter how wise this particular gnome (sculpture by Ottmar Hörl) happens to be, he's still not made of gold.

Culture

Lieber den Spatz in der Hand als die Taube auf dem Dach

Indeed, it's better to have a sparrow in your hand than a dove on the roof, according to this German proverb. In other words, be happy with what you've got, even if it's not that spectacular. Like many proverbs, this one contains a vague reference to the Bible, which states in the book of Luke: "You are worth more than many sparrows."

Culture

Fünf Minuten vor der Zeit, ist des Deutschen Pünktlichkeit

Germans are known for being punctual. But this proverb takes that trait a step further: "Five minutes ahead of schedule is a German's punctuality." It's true: Many in Germany do tend to overdo it. If you go into a shop five minutes before closing time, you might not get served.

Culture

Übung macht den Meister

In English, practice makes perfect. In German, it makes you a master. Which would you prefer to be? If you're running a marathon, it doesn't matter, as long as you take first place.

Culture

Wer anderen eine Grube gräbt, fällt selbst hinein

"Whoever digs a pit for others will fall into it themselves," according to this classic proverb. Here's another Bible-based saying (Proverbs 26:7) that reminds us to treat others the way we would like to be treated. If not, you may not find anyone who's willing to heave you out of the pit - or scrape you off the floor.

Culture

Perlen vor die Säue werfen

Though the proverb "Don't throw pearls to the pigs" became widespread in German with Martin Luther's translation of the Bible in the 16th century, the saying may date back to Antiquity. In the Byzantine Modern Greek churches, pearls were considered a synonym for the holy communion bread. In any case, the bottom line is: Don't waste the good stuff on those who don't appreciate it. Oink!