My Dad is staying with us at the moment and this morning we got talking about strange things Germans say. The phrase which set it off was “tote Hose” which literally means dead trousers. There is a fairly famous German rock group called “Die toten Hosen” but the expression actually means that something is very quiet or “dead”. For example if someone asked “were there lots of people in the bar last night?” you might answer, “Nein, tote Hose.” It is a very common expression and until I translated it into English this morning it always seemed entirely innocent to me. Only when I explained that it meant dead trousers did I wonder whether it was really referring to the virility of the wearer of said trousers. I’ll leave that to the readers’ imagination.
One of the expressions I always liked was “es hat Hand und Fuß” – it’s got a hand and a foot, which is used to say that an idea is good or is well thought out. My Dad pointed out that in English you might say “that idea has got legs”. Well in Germany they like to go one better and give the ideas hands as well. Talking of going one better, in the English theatre it is common to say “break a leg” before someone goes on stage. Here they obviously don’t think that is enough so they say “Hals und Beinbruch” – break your neck and a leg.
Although there are some charming idioms, there are also some less attractive conventions in Germany. Whereas in Britain (and especially in business circles) the acronym has taken over (remember when people were gay and not LGBT?) in Germany they contract longer words or phrases by taking the the first letters of some syllables. So, for example, ein Transformer becomes a “Trafo”. Or Kriminal Polizei becomes “Kripo”. We have all heard of the infamous “Gestapo” but not many people know that it is a contraction of the Geheime Staatspolizei (literally, the secret state police). There are hundreds of these contracted words and it took me a few years to know what people were talking about. My favourite of all time, though, is used to describle the mullet hairstyle which was so popular amongst German footballers in the 80s and 90s. Here it is called the “Vokuhila” – a contraction of vorne kurz, hinten lang. This means, with admirable German clarity, “front short, back long”.