Sweet talk and laughter — German sayings involving forests and trees

Don't be alone in the woods: German forest idioms

Germans and the forest

The Germans' relationship to the forest is a long-standing love affair. Not only are the woods a dominant theme in German art and literature — appearing in the works of Goethe and Caspar David Friedrich alike — the forest also holds a special place in the hearts of many Germans. That adoration for the woods has filtered into the language: "Wald," pops up in numerous German phrases.

Don't be alone in the woods: German forest idioms

Holz in den Wald tragen

There are a number of German idioms and proverbs that make use of the word forest. "Holz in den Wald tragen" — literally, to carry wood into the forest, is to do something pointless. You could compare it with the English phrases to "carry coals to Newcastle" or "bring owls to Athens," which also mean to undertake a task that is redundant.

Don't be alone in the woods: German forest idioms

Den Wald vor lauter Bäumen nicht sehen

The German equivalent of the idiom "can't see the forest for the trees" portrays the idea that someone is so concerned with the details of something that they fail to grasp the situation as a whole. Sometimes being too preoccupied with the smaller things can mean missing the bigger picture. The expression first became popular in German thanks to the works of poet Christoph Martin Wieland.

Don't be alone in the woods: German forest idioms

Pfeifen im Walde

Translated word for word, "pfeifen im Walde" means whistling in the forest. The English phrase "whistling in the dark" is not so different. Both mean to try and stay brave or convince yourself that everything is alright in a bad situation. The forest is often presented as mysterious, concealing something sinister, for example, in fairytales like "Hansel and Gretel" recorded by the Brothers Grimm.

Don't be alone in the woods: German forest idioms

Ich glaub', ich steh' im Wald

In English you might have once said something along the lines of "Well, I never!" or "Blow me down!" The same idea lies behind this German exclamation. The direct translation of "Ich glaub', ich steh' im Wald" is "I think I'm standing in the woods." It is a colloquial form of expressing astonishment. Why not try it out next time you're feeling surprised?

Don't be alone in the woods: German forest idioms

Wie man in den Wald hineinruft, so schallt es heraus

This saying reflects the idea that "what goes around, comes around." It literally translates as: The way you shout into the forest, the way it echoes back out. If you treat someone badly, you'll eventually be treated badly yourself. Many German proverbs stem from a time when everyday life involved hunting in the woods. Folk wisdom was passed on using relatable experiences like an echo in a forest.

Don't be alone in the woods: German forest idioms

Sich wie die Axt im Walde benehmen

In German if someone is acting like an axe in a forest, they are behaving like a bull in a China shop. Both expressions describe rough, boorish or destructive behavior. The German colloquialism conjures an image of an axe being wielded in a forest destroying surrounding trees, whereas "to behave like a bull in a China shop" evokes pictures similar to the one above — but the sentiment is the same.

Don't be alone in the woods: German forest idioms

Es herrscht Schweigen im Walde

Directly translated as "there is silence in the forest," the colloquial German term describes a situation in which no one dares to say anything out of embarrassment or fear. The best idiomatic English equivalent is perhaps the informal phrase "the cat's got their tongue."

Germans are known for their love of forests, and celebrate Arbor Day annually. They also have a host of wonderful sayings and phrases revolving around forests and trees, with one that involves shouting into the woods.

Evergreens are part and parcel of German forests — and their language. Wald, the German term for forest, or Baum (tree), are words that crop up in many everyday German sayings and phrases.

Some expressions are self-explanatory, like not seeing the forest for the trees. Others, like "einen Ast lachen" (literally, laugh a branch), which means to be convulsed with laughter, and "Süssholz raspeln" (literally, grating licorice root), which means sweet-talking someone, may sound a bit odd to non-native ears.

Click on the above picture gallery for more German phrases that utilize the terminology — and imagery — of the forest.

And when you're done, check out more articles in the Meet The Germans series to  find more about German culture, language and lifestyle. 

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