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German phrase of the day: Öl ins Feuer gießen

Imogen Goodman
Imogen Goodman - [email protected]
German phrase of the day: Öl ins Feuer gießen
Photo credit: Francesco Ungaro / Unsplash + Nicolas Raymond / flickr

When there's a tense or volatile situation, some things you do will only make it worse. That's where this popular German saying could come in handy.

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Why do I need to know Öl ins Feuer gießen? 

Because this commonly heard phrase is great to have in your repertoire for both casual conversations and more serious discussions about current affairs - and it's only a matter of time before you hear it being used. 

What does it mean?

Öl ins Feuer gießen literally translates as "pouring oil on the fire". As the image suggests, this is a phrase you use when someone appears to be exacerbating a difficult, tense or potentially explosive situation. 

You might hear some people use it to reject the idea of sending weapons to Ukraine - claiming that supporting the war-torn country will only "pour oil on the fire" of the conflict. Or you might hear people accuse far-right politicians of "pouring oil on the fire" of anti-migrant sentiment in Germany. 

In this sense, it's very similar to an English phrase we use when someone seems to be making a bad situation worse. In these instances, we may accuse someone of "fanning the flames" - which, as any good builder of bonfires knows, will generally encourage the fire to spread. 

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Anything else I should know? 

German grammar aficionados out there will notice that the accusative "ins" is used in this phrase instead of the dative "im". That's because the gesture here involves movement - pouring the oil into the flames - rather than a static location. 

If some foolhardy type had already poured oil in the flames, and you wanted to tell somebody else that it was there, you would switch to dative and say: "Es gibt Öl im Feuer" ("There's oil in the fire"). 

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By the same principle, someone going into a cinema would say, "Ich gehe ins Kino" but someone who's already there would say, "Ich bin im Kino". 

When using the "in" preposition, this is usually the best way to work out whether the dative or accusative case applies.

Use it like this: 

Ich will kein Öl ins Feuer gießen, aber...

I don't want to pour any oil on the fire, but... 

Es war echt dumm von Ihm, wieder mal Öl ins Feuer zu gießen!

It was really stupid of him to pour oil on the fire yet again! 

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