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On reddit, under the title "German gift card makers have a precarious grasp of the English language":

The comments on reddit are instructive:

These are actually (reasonably) common German phrases translated literally ie word-for-word into English while still using (to a certain extent) German grammar.

The 'precarious grasp of English' is quite deliberate and quite funny.

'Nur die Harten kommen in den Garten'

'Niemand kann mir das Wasser reichen'

'Butter bei die Fische'

'Hör auf mit der Rumeierei'

Which means that they expect their (German) customers' grasp of English to be so good that they actually understand the joke and find the "bad English" funny. That's the opposite of "precarious grasp".

Here are back translations into German with English explanations:

'Nur die Harten kommen in den Garten'

This is pushing someone to do better; Only the strong go further/ no pain, no gain

'Niemand kann mir das Wasser reichen'

Cannot be equalled; can't hold a candle to me.

'Butter bei die Fische'

This is a silly north German phrase which has no English translation (even the German is wrong). Roughly it means; get to the point, speak clearly.

'Hör auf mit der Rumeierei'

This also isn't particularly common, but can be used to say 'Stop messing about, make a decision'

And here are the German originals rendered more directly into English:

'Nur die Harten kommen in den Garten'

Only the strong will have success

'Niemand kann mir das Wasser reichen'

No one can reach me.

'Butter bei die Fische'

Come on, start allready. Get going.

'Hör auf mit der Rumeierei'

Get it straight.

Another set of English translations:

'Nur die Harten kommen in den Garten'

Only the strong survive.

'Niemand kann mir das Wasser reichen'

No one can beat me (at this particular thing)

'Butter bei die Fische'

Do it right away. (Heard it was used as a way to say: either you pay it right away or I'm not selling you this)

'Hör auf mit der Rumeierei'

Quit fucking around

Some of the reddit commenters point out that "bei" in the third saying is ungrammatical and should be "zum", while others tell us "bei" sounds better as it "rolls off the tongue", and anyway that's just the way they say it in North German dialect.

[h.t. Tim Leonard]


  1. William Berry said,

    August 2, 2016 @ 9:47 pm


    That's an awesome triple portmanteau, with nearly all of "mangle" right in the middle; very much to the point in this particular case.

  2. Jenny Chu said,

    August 2, 2016 @ 9:47 pm

    So, assuming Denglisch is the ordinary (often mistaken) mixing of English and German, and Germanglish is the deliberate mangling of English for humorous effect, where does this leave Devin?

  3. Felix Wintgen said,

    August 2, 2016 @ 10:05 pm

    As far as I know this kind of humor became mainstream in 1987 with a book called "English for Runaways" published in 1987 (see a listing at a German antique books site: )
    At this time Germans were very conscious of the horrible English of their chancellor Helmut Kohl. And as I remember it, bad English jokes became very much en vogue.

  4. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    August 2, 2016 @ 10:52 pm

    > anyway that's just the way they say it in North German dialect.

    I wonder if it's because, as it appears, this phrase might be translated from Dutch?

  5. Jenny Chu said,

    August 2, 2016 @ 10:53 pm

    And is there such a thing as Germlish / Germlisch?

  6. Laura Morland said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 1:07 am

    I love how these cards assume (require) the buyer to have a sophisticated grasp of a second language. How many countries besides Germany (and the Netherlands) could pull it off?

    Anyway, your post made me immediately recall a delightful book that TWO of my French friends have given me over time: "Sky! Mortimer! / Ciel ! Blake!" It's a "recto-verso" volume: one half is French expressions translated directly into English (with the appropriate translation in small print), and the other half is the reverse, all illustrated with images from a classic French bande-dessinée.

    Highly recommended!

  7. Frans said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 1:48 am

    @Ambarish Low German dialects really aren't that different… could just as easily be the reverse or simply very old.

  8. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 2:03 am

    @ Felix Wintgen:

    As far as I know this kind of humor became mainstream in 1987 with a book called "English for Runaways" published in 1987

    A famous predecessor: During the 1960s, "Lübke English" was very popular in Germany. It's named after Heinrich Lübke, the 2nd President of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1959 to 1969. "Lübke English" (or, in German, Lübke-Englisch) refers to nonsensical English created by word-for-word translation of German phrases, disregarding differences between the languages in syntax and meaning. [Wiki]

    Lübke's limited English made him a target of German humorists. His best-known sentence: Lübke allegedly said to Queen Elizabeth II while they were waiting for a horse race to start:

    "Equal goes it loose." for the German
    "Gleich geht es los"., meaning "It'll start very soon."

    The Süddeutsche Zeitung (Munich) also featured similarly fractured Filserbriefe.e

  9. AlexB said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 2:31 am

    And there is of course Sky, My Husband (a very French expression, that), with lots of other French phrases literally translated in English

  10. Modi said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 2:48 am

    "No one can reach me the water" was made popular by "Westerwave-No one can reach me the water", a satire directed at the late German Foreign secretary Guido Westerwelle, who was well-known both for his excessive self-appreciation and for his terrific English (hence the nickname "Westerwave", < Wester-Welle). There were several parodic social media accounts for Westerwelle based on the concept of Germanglish. The "Westerwave – No one can reach me the water" facebook page still has more than 70,000 followers, two and a half years after W's departure from politics and several months after his death.

  11. David Marjanović said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 3:45 am

    Some of the reddit commenters point out that "bei" in the third saying is ungrammatical and should be "zum"

    Zu. Zum is zu dem, dative singular, while die Fische is plural and already contains an article.

  12. gnaddrig said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 3:58 am

    This is a silly north German phrase which has no English translation (even the German is wrong). Roughly it means; get to the point, speak clearly.

    "Butter bei die Fische tun" – if read as Standard German it would be grammatically wrong, but as far as I know the expression is of Low German origin which has different grammar, and occasionally people in the North of Germany use Standard German vocabulary with Low German syntax and grammar (this variety of German is called Missingsch), and sometimes it solidifies in idiomatic expressions like the Butter-bei-die-Fische one.

    The meaning is basically the same as "Nägel mit Köpfen machen", something like "get your act together", "get going", "stop faffing about, get serious" "do the job properly".

  13. ajay said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 4:15 am

    I love how these cards assume (require) the buyer to have a sophisticated grasp of a second language. How many countries besides Germany (and the Netherlands) could pull it off?

    Maybe Miles Kington's Franglais? Though the amount of French you need to parler Franglais successfullement n'est pas terribly grand.

  14. ajay said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 4:17 am

    And British soldiers in India used to joke by translating English phrases into Hindi as literally as they could: "you would, would you?" becoming "tum lakri, lakri tum?" where "tum" is "you" and "lakri" is "wood".

  15. ajay said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 4:19 am

    And (sorry for the triple post) Eddie Izzard has done entire routines in French for English-speaking audiences.

  16. Ralph Hickok said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 6:02 am

    When I was a kid, my parents had sets of cocktail napkins called "Fractured French," which bore cartoons with the foreign phrase above and the mistranslation below. A few of those I remember are:

    Jean d'Arc – The light is out in the bathroom
    Piece de Resistance – Timid girl (the illustration showed a guy chasing a bikini-clad young woman)
    Entrechat – Let the cat in
    Dans le Printemps – Typesetters' ball
    Chateaubriand – Your hat is on fire

  17. cliff arroyo said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 7:52 am

    A few times I've heard Polish people who know English well enough amuse themselves by translating idioms literally.

    Z góry dziękuję – Thanks from the mountain (Thanks in advance)

    There were also internet jokes purporting to be Polish politicians speaking English doing the same thing. (Though here the idea was that the politicians didn't know English well and were producing fractured English by translating literally and incorrectly choosing synonyms in translation)

    An example might start:

    Tall Room! (Wysoka Izbo! – High chamber (vocative) an expression used at the beginning of speeches in the Polish parliament)

    Welcome in the name of all penises of Selfdefence. (Witam w imieniu
    wszystkich czlonków Samoobrony – I greet you in the name of all members of Self Defense [a political party])

    Now it's railway for me. (Teraz kolej namnie – It's now my turn [to speak])

    It's not fugitive of circumstances. (To nie jest zbieg okoliczności – It's no coincidence) etc etc etc

  18. Aristotle Pagaltzis said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 10:05 am

    “Butter bei die Fische” is a general prompt to produce results, or to get to the part of the interaction that involves real stakes. “Enough with the faffing around” might be a reasonable translation.

    It does not mean “speak clearly”, at least not specifically – although “stop digressing” is obviously one of the senses in which it might be deployed.

    It is also not the same as “Nägel mit Köpfen machen” as mentioned in another comment, despite overlap. That saying means to do something properly and/or effectively (rather than ineptly and/or ineffectually). The sayings differ in the same way as “stop wasting time” vs “stop wasting effort” – and they overlap in the same way too.

  19. Abbas said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 10:45 am

    Some books in the same vein, funny mingling English and Spanish: "Shit yourself little parrot" and "From lost to the river"

  20. ella said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 11:05 am

    I have one of these (in postcard form) stuck on my fridge. It says 'Enjoy your life in full trains' (Geneisse du leiben in vollen Zuben). Which means 'enjoy life to the fullest'.

  21. Heidi said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 12:22 pm

    My Mother used to say "last uns Butter bei die Fische machen",
    meaning lets get this right now, after some previous attempts
    where not successful.
    Naegel mit Koepfen was used by my Father as in "das ist ein
    famoser Mann, der weiss Naegel mit Knoepfen zu machen", or
    "dazu benoetigt man einen Mann der Naegel mit Knoepfen machen

  22. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 12:46 pm

    @ ella:

    I have one of these (in postcard form) stuck on my fridge. It says 'Enjoy your life in full trains' (Geneisse du leiben in vollen Zuben). Which means 'enjoy life to the fullest'.

    Oy vey! Correct German:
    Genieße dein Leben in vollen Zügen.?

  23. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 1:10 pm

    BTW: I did not type the question mark after Zügen.
    Every time I post a message, something is adding a random letter or punctuation mark at the end. I wonder what it will be this time.

  24. Doug K said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 1:58 pm

    I had not thought of Fractured French in decades.. but it was on the bookshelf at home, lacking for comics I re-read it too many times. The instant Ralph mentioned it the pictures came to mind. Some may be seen here,

    An interview at the New Yorker,
    "Interview with F. S. Pearson 11, originator of the bilingual puns that with Richard Taylor illustrations constitute the best-seller "Fractured French." He got interested in puns involving French 12 years ago when he swapped examples with Harry Bull, of Town & Country, which was running them under the title "Free French" at that time. Friend have made a point of telling them to Pearson ever since. He got the idea for the book from Lowell Pratt, of A.S.Barnes & Co., 51,000 copies have been sold to date, and subsidiary rights taken over by manufacturers of ashtrays, coasters, glasses, napkins, each illustrated with a pun from the book. "

  25. gnaddrig said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 2:35 pm

    @ Aristotle Pagaltzis: Your translation of Butter bei die Fische tun hits the nail on the head (if I may use another German saying).

    And you are right, Nägel mit Köpfen machen and Butter bei die Fische tun don't have the same meaning but overlap.

    Or rather, Nägel mit Köpfen machen has two meanings: The one you gave – do the job properly, professionally, and the one that is very close to Butter bei die Fische tun – get to the end with a job, finish the project, don't stop halfway through.
    An example: If a planning meeting turns into one of those endless discussions where lots of points are made and everyone keeps getting sidetracked by minor details, someone might say "Jetzt müssen wir mal Nägel mit Köpfen machen", meaning: "We need to get on with this, we need to produce results, we need to tie this up." And this is a pretty common use of this saying.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 3:02 pm

    I asked an Austrian friend what "Rumeierei" (the parallel of "aroundeggery" in the Germanglish), and she said, "In Austrian German it means sth like 'whining' or 'nagging', whereas the Germans use it when sb takes ages to make a decision."

    Now I really want to know what "aroundeggery" means! My intuition is that it conveys somewhat the sense of "beat around the bush", but more literally the image of circling around an egg. Also, in the back of my mind, I can't help but think of the semi-crude references to eggs in colloquial Chinese that we've talked about on Language Log before. On the other hand, there may well be some peculiarly German reference to eggs that has been Englished here. I really don't know, but I agree with my Austrian friend that "aroundeggery" is a quaint term that is worthy of borrowing into English — if only I knew for sure what it means!

  27. raempftl said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 5:34 pm

    "Rumeierei" is a noun formed from the verb "eiern" which means "to wobble" and is especially used in connection with wheels or vehicules fitted with wheels where something is out of whack. Think of a rolling egg.

    If a verb is prefixed with rum-, this means that the action descibed by the verb is done in an aimless manner. I. e. "rumeiern", to wobble aimlessly like an egg (in one's decision making).

    The suffix -erei/-ei can be used to create mass nouns out of verbs with very disapproving overtones. (

    Rum-eier-ei: aimless egglike wobbling of which I disapprove

  28. Chris Waigl said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 6:36 pm

    I can testify to having tried several times to explain to native English speaking French (with no or very little German) the meaning of "Equal goes it loose", and have had 100% failure to convey why it is funny.

    Eiern (verb) is informal for wobble – imagine putting an egg into a bowl and giving it a little twist: it won't run in nice circles like a ball or marble would, but will wobble around. It also won't go straight to the center. So the image behind "herumeiern" is something that travels in wobbly quasi-circles.

  29. Chris Waigl said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 6:37 pm

    *friends, not French

  30. Paolo said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 6:57 pm

    We have similar jokes also in Italian; they make fun of very literal translations known as inglese maccheronico. Here is James Taylor (!) singing "Second me" (secondo me – according to me), with subtitles and Italian text.

  31. Vic said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 8:51 pm

    I worked with someone in the late 60's who had served in the US Army in Germany a few years before. He knew enough German to translate some of his favorite expressions. He said that "Bist du sheissen mir?" got the best confused reaction.

  32. Andreas Johansson said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 11:57 pm

    We've got similar jokes in Swedish, like "hot on the porridge" (=overeager) and "that's not much to hang in the Christmas tree" (=that's worthless or disappointing). Also, "I can English" (=I know English), supposedly what people who overestimate their grasp of the language say.

  33. Joyce Melton said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 12:43 am

    In English, we usually butter the parsnips rather than the fish.

  34. Jongseong Park said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 7:02 am

    I've seen similar jokes in Korean, with intentionally bad literal translations of Korean idioms into English. A classic example is about a Korean driver who is caught speeding in the U.S. He says to the police offer, "Look at me once"—a rendering of the Korean expression 한 번만 봐주세요 Han beon-man bwajuseyo ("Please let this go just this once"). 봐주다 is a contracted form of 보아주다 boajuda, which combines the -아/어 -a/eo form of 보다 boda ("to see/to look/to watch") with 주다 juda ("to give"), a construction that indicates that the action is done as a favour. So 봐주다 can be used for "look at something for you". But it also has the idiomatic sense of "to forgive, to let something go".

    The punchline is that the police officer replies, "No soup today." This is a literal translation of 오늘은 국물도 없다 Oneul-eun gungmul-do eopta. 국물도 없다 gungmul-do eopta is an expression meaning "there isn't anything to gain", where 국물 gungmul ("soup, broth") is used metaphorically to mean whatever small gain one might have milked from something. So roughly, the police officer's reply means "No favours today" in fluent faux-Konglish.

  35. cs said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 8:28 am

    I think if I saw English idioms translated word-for-word to Spanish or French would get the joke, and my Spanish and French is far from fluent.

  36. PS said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 6:54 pm

    Laura Morland:

    I love how these cards assume (require) the buyer to have a sophisticated grasp of a second language. How many countries besides Germany (and the Netherlands) could pull it off?

    A stock comic character in Indian movies/television series is the person who translates, word-by-word, common Hindi (or Punjabi, or Tamil) idioms into English.

  37. PS said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 6:59 pm

    A slightly different example is this classic scene. The characters go through three different registers of Hindi amongst themselves before one of them is asked about his English speaking skills.

  38. Graeme said,

    August 5, 2016 @ 5:07 am

    Are German gardens hostile/hard to till? In English one would associate gardening with a gentler pastime popular with oldies,

  39. cliff arroyo said,

    August 5, 2016 @ 7:15 am

    Now that this thread has mostly run its course, I'll add that "Only the hard come in the garden" sounds like something that Rocky Flintstone might come up with


  40. gnaddrig said,

    August 5, 2016 @ 7:17 am

    @ Graeme: "Nur die Harten kommen in den Garten" is not about gardening but about getting a reward. The garden isn't open to everyone. You have to fight, you have to be really tough ("hart") to be admitted into the garden. In other words: "Ohne Fleiß kein Preis" – no pain, no gain…

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