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LEARNING GERMAN

German phrase of the day: Einen Strich durch die Rechnung

Even the best laid plans aren’t safe from this curious German expression.

German phrase of the day: Einen Strich durch die Rechnung
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Whether it’s a long-awaited holiday or a birthday party, the pandemic has shown time and time again: even the best-laid plans don’t always work out. 

“Jemanden einen Strich durch die Rechnung machen” is a phrase German people use when something out of their control has completely ruined their plans. 

“Die Rechnung” can be translated in two way, which is probably why there are two origin stories for this phrase. One meaning is “the bill”, the other is “calculation”. “Strich” can mean “line” or “strikethrough”. 

So, altogether, the phrase roughly translates to “having your calculation/bill crossed out”. 

But that doesn’t necessarily sound like a bad thing, so how did it come to gain such a negative meaning? 

The first origin story touches upon a pretty relatable feeling, at least for a humanities student like me: the universal fear of maths. 

A receipt from a restaurant in Dresden in summer 2020. Photo: DPA

Once upon a time, in the old days of questionable approaches to teaching, students were tested on their maths skills very publicly. A name would be called at random, and this unfortunate student was then beckoned to the front of the classroom to solve a maths problem on the board. 

Once they had a solution, it was judgement time. 

If the calculation was wrong, the teacher would shake their head (I imagine this as a slow, dramatic head-rolling, with ominous bells clanging in the background) and slowly run their chalk through the entire sum – creating “einen Strich durch die Rechnung”. 

The student would have to start from scratch, and this process repeated again, and again, and again – until they got it right. 

It’s easy to see how this generational maths trauma might have worked its way into the German language. 

However, there is an alternative origin story – and this one rings more German.  

Bierstuben (pubs) used to keep track of how many beers their regulars were drinking by marking it out in chalk lines on a big blackboard. This was a way to “keep a tab”, as pubs often wouldn’t charge their customers until the end of the week. 

When payday came around, the pub owner would count up each person’s line and demand their payment. Once the debt was settled, the lines would be struck through to mark the payment, or in German: 

“Es wurde einen Strich durch die Rechnung gemacht.”

So far, so dandy. However, sadly, some dishonest frequenters would cross out their own lines so that it looked like they had already paid, thereby cheating the owners out of money. This is perhaps how the phrase developed its modern, negative meaning.

Which one is the true source of “einen Strich durch die Rechnung”? The existence of two of them certainly put a Strich through my Rechnung while I was writing this article. 

Examples: 

Ich wollte heute Fahrrad fahren, aber das Wetter hat mir einen Strich durch die Rechnung gemacht. 

I wanted to go bicycling today, but the weather has ruined my plans. 

Ich wäre damit davongekommen, wenn eure lästige Jugendbande mir keinen Strich durch die Rechnung gemacht hättet.

I would’ve gotten away with it, if it weren’t for you pesky kids. 

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GERMAN WORD OF THE DAY

German phrase of the day: Lügen haben kurze Beine

This phrase tells you why you should try not to lie.

German phrase of the day: Lügen haben kurze Beine

Why do I need to know Lügen haben kurze Beine?

From the serpent in the Bible to the spectacular fall of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson (see the Spiegel cover below with the title ‘one lie too many’), lying has always been morally and socially unacceptable.

Yet everyone lies. Anyone who says otherwise is probably telling fibs. Past research has suggested people lie once or twice per day on average. So, the Germans have found a unique way of tackling lies with this proverb.

What does it mean?

Lügen haben kurze Beine (which sounds like this) literally translates to ‘lies have short legs’. In English you might say: ‘the truth will out’ or ‘lies won’t get you far’.

This proverb was reportedly first found in a German dictionary as early as 1663. As you might expect, this saying is based on the idea that someone with shorter legs can’t run super fast – the metaphor being that a lie won’t escape, it will be found out.

The moral of the story is that honesty is the best policy because nothing can run away from the truth. This symbolic proverb is taught to many German children by their parents. 

But what about white lies? In German, they are pleasingly called Notlüge (emergency lies) and we all know that sometimes not telling the whole truth is appropriate or needed in certain social situations. We’ll look at this in more detail in a future word of the day. 

Use it like this:

Irgendwann wird er mein Geheimnis entdecken, denn Lügen haben kurze Beine.

At some point he will discover my secret, because the truth will out. 

Lügen haben kurze Beine, vor allem im Internet.

Lies can’t get far, especially on the internet.

Ich rate Ihnen, heute die Wahrheit zu sagen. Lügen haben kurze Beine.

I advise you to tell the truth today. Lies won’t travel far. 

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