A German's Guide to American Lingo

TransferWise content team
3 minute read

Americans and Germans share a lot in common, such as a love of spectator sports, a hard work ethic, and lots of strange words and expressions -- at least to foreign ears.

We’ve compiled a partial list of American English words and expressions that German expats in the U.S. said they were often at a loss to understand.

The word ‘like’


For many younger Americans, this word is, like, their favorite interjection.

In some cases it’s similar to the German “halt”, used to mean “just” as an interjection: "It was, like, a huge surprise.” But it’s often a replacement for ‘said’.

“He was like, 'I should have posted this on Facebook,’ and she was like, ‘No way, dude.’”

The Lack of Adverbs

In addition to “literally”, many Americans tend to chop the “ly” off of their adverbs.

“He’s real nice,” is a phrase you’re likely to hear, especially if situated in the south or midwest. But even official slogans (e.g. Apple’s “Think different.”) will neglect it. After a while you’ll start to accept people not speaking properly.

My neck of the woods


You might be surprised when your city friends invite you to visit them in their “neck of the woods.”

Most likely they don’t dwell in a remote cabin, but are simply inviting you to their Gegend (or Ecke [area] being perhaps the closest German equivalent.) And asking “How are things in your neck of the woods?” is about as colloquial as saying “Wie läuft's bei dir so?” (“What’s new with you?”)

Let’s Take a Rain Check

This is a quintessentially American phrase.
It originated when a baseball game was rained out, and spectators were given a ticket to catch the event another time.

Now Americans will drop it whenever they can’t show up and want to suggest another ambiguous meeting time in the future.

Workplace Slang


When a project at work doesn't pan out, you might hear your colleagues proclaim that they are going back to "the drawing board” or “square one” (the very beginning.)

When the lunch break is about to end, people might humorously bemoan that it’s time to get back to the “salt mines,” or their work. And you will know you have finally succeeded at something when you “get your ducks in a row,” or get everything in order.

Go Cold Turkey

This one sounds like it could be used by Americans as they begrudgingly bite into to last of their Thanksgiving leftovers.

But this popular phrase actually means suddenly giving up something addictive, rather than doing so gradually. Just as perplexingly, Germans will also say they'll “shove the monkey” (“den Affen schieben.”)

Monday Morning 'Quarterbacking'

What would the American language be without an expression related to football?

This one refers to criticizing something in hindsight -- the same way Americans will heatedly discuss a quarterback’s performance on Monday morning following the big game.

It’s All Greek to Me


Apparently Americans have as hard of a time understanding Greek as Germans do Spanish.

When Americans are baffled at something they will reply “It’s all Greek to me,” similarly to how Germans say, “It’s Spanish to me.” (“Es kommt mir spanisch vor.”)

Similar expressions


Several common German expressions are quite similar to what you would find in German, with a twist:

“That is yesterday’s news” is like the German “That is snow from yesterday” (Das ist Schnee von Gestern). “It costs peanuts” (or, nothing) is expressed in German as “It only costs an apple and an egg” (Es kostet nur ein Apfel und ein Ei).

And when your friend encourages you to feel brave in a difficult situation by saying “Chin up!” it’s similiar to the German “Hold up the ears!” (Halt die Ohren Steif)

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