Business Jargon

Whistling Pigs, Pressed Thumbs and the Devil that Eats Flies

A scientist of howlers and clangers. Source: Max Lautenschlaeger

There’s a long and splendidly amusing history of Germans abusing the English language. Or, to put it more delicately, Germans have caused both laughter and consternation by directly translating their language into English, all the while thinking they are saying something particularly clever or cunningly colloquial.

Possibly one of the most commemorated practitioners of the ancient art of “Denglisch” was Heinrich Lübke, president of West Germany between 1959 and 1969. During a visit by the British monarch in 1965, Mr. Lübke and Queen Elizabeth II were waiting for some music to be played. In German, an appropriate way to announce that the orchestra would soon strike up would be, “Gleich geht es los.” And the correct translation in English would be: “It will start very soon.” But Mr. Lübke translated directly: “Equal goes it loose,” he told the British monarch, who being British and a monarch, probably didn’t say anything impolite.

Of course, it’s not just politicians. Denglisch-speaking managers have also been known to cause trouble. And the creeping use of English in business has upset some locals, who see it as a sign of the end of German culture. At one stage the Verein Deutsche Sprache, which advocates for strict protection of the German language and keeps an online record of the evil Anglicisms they discover, tried to get everyone to use the word “Klapprechner” instead of laptop; the word literally means “folding computer.” They were not successful – possibly because it sounds silly, but most likely because many Germans see English in the workplace as a mark of internationalism and a way to attract high-quality colleagues from other countries.

German journalist and graduate of the London School of Economics Peter Littger has been making note of such incidents of linguistic confusion for years, compiling them for the second edition of his book, “The Devil Lies in the Detail,” published this month. The first edition was a bestseller in 2015.

Handelsblatt spoke to Mr. Littger about how Denglisch can be problematic for managers, which German companies should use Anglicisms and whether a German with a heavy Bavarian accent can ever be promoted.

How did you end up writing this book?

It’s a nerdy hobby of mine. I’ve been doing it for years because I often work in English-speaking countries. As a non-native speaker of English I know the problem only too well. I make note of my own bloopers and, even more, of other people’s. In fact my 10-year-old son has already started doing this. He recently described five croissants on a table as a “croisemble.” I thought that was very apt.

Some Germans have said books like yours make them afraid to even try and speak English. Do you think Germans really need this kind of advice?

Pseudo-Anglicisms can lead to misunderstandings, if we go too far with them. And it gets even more complicated when Latin comes into and you get “Latinglish.”


The kind of talk that’s really popular in management and consultancy jargon. Terms like “incentivieren,” “innovieren,” “disruption” in German: they all belong to that group. Managers talk seriously about “exekution.” They mean getting something done. In English, that can mean killing somebody.

Have you heard of examples where things have gone badly wrong?

I know of a manager at DHL, whose mother tongue is English, who asked his German assistant, “Could you see to it?” The assistant thought the manager was asking whether she was looking forward to it. Luckily the misunderstanding was resolved and the event the assistant was supposed to organize did eventually take place.

So does a German have to speak perfect English to get ahead in this globalized world?

A strong German accent is not a problem. As long as one can be understood, there are hardly ever misunderstandings. Fred Langhammer, the chairman of global affairs at Estee Lauder, is a Bavarian with very strong German accent. But he made it to the top all the same. It only gets tricky when German words are translated too literally into English.

A lot of German politicians have made very public linguistic mistakes in the past. Are German managers equally liable to fall into this trap?

I’ve heard things like “let the church in the village” or “we have the nose in front” said at Deutsche Bahn. [Editor’s note: for full explanations of those idioms please see below] Sometimes though, the problems are not just linguistic but also cultural. For example, when a company holds a press conference in English but they do it in a German style. Long sentences, lecture-style presentations, abstract content with no personality. The two don’t go together.

German companies’ websites are increasingly full of Anglicisms like “smart cities” and “clean technologies.” Is that kind of phrasing really necessary?

I don’t really like it and it is often incomprehensible. The question is, who are they targeting? The companies don’t often reach out to an international audience. And they are polarizing the German audience. Businesses should stick to comprehensible English or comprehensible German.


Germany’s Best Idioms: Not for Direct Translation

German //  direct translation // equivalent in English

Die Kirche im Dorf lassen // To leave the church in the village // Do not get carried away, relax

Die Nase vorne haben  // To have the nose in front  // To be in the lead

Sich in den Arsch beißen // To bite oneself in the arse // To kick oneself

Sich auf die Socken machen // To get onto the socks // To make tracks

Sie spielt die beleidigte Leberwurst // She’s playing the insulted sausage // She’s in a huff

Arschgeige // Arse violin // Arsehole

Um den heißen Brei herumreden // To talk around the hot soup // To beat around the bush

Man soll den Ast nicht absägen, auf dem man sitzt // One shouldn’t saw off the branch one is sitting on // Don’t cut your nose off to spite your face

Jemanden Honig um den Mund schmieren // To smear honey around someone’s mouth // To butter someone up

Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof // I can only understand ‘train station’ // It’s all Greek to me

Hier spielt die Musik // This is where the music is playing // This is where the action is

Daumen drücken! // To press your thumbs // To cross your fingers

Schwein haben // To have a pig // To have a stroke of luck

In der Not frisst der Teufel Fliegen // In adversity, the devil eats flies // Beggars can’t be choosers

Ins Gras beißen // To bite into the grass // To kick the bucket

Ich glaub mein Schwein pfeift // I think my pig whistles // Blow me down, that’s amazing

Mein Englisch ist unter aller Sau // My English is under all sow // My English is really bad

Da kannst du Gift drauf nehmen // You can take poison on that //You can bet your life on that

Jemand ein Arschrunzeln kosten // It will cost somebody a wrinkle on the ass // It won’t take any effort


Interview conducted by Mona Fromm. This story was adapted for Handelsblatt Global by Cathrin Schaer. Original list of idioms courtesy of Australian author Liv Hambrett. To contact the authors:

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