Advent Calendar 15 – “Idioms with Ass”

Hey hey,

welcome to day 15 of our German Advent Calendar and today is all about ass.
And if you’re now like  “Emanuel, an Advent Calendar really isn’t the place for such profanities.”
Tell that to your mind for it was there that the profanity arose. I am talking about the ass also called equus africanus asinus. Most commonly known as … donkey.
I am not making that up actually. Ass really is another word for donkey.
Now, this probably won’t fly as an excuse for calling your boss and  “ass” at the Christmas party. But it will help us remember the German word for donkey which is

der Esel


And like almost all common animals, also the Esel is part of a few nice and common idiomatic expressions, so let’s take a look.

First up, we have das Eselsohr.  Literally, it is the donkey’s ear but it’s also a way to remember something. And no it’s NOT a mnemonic :). It’s much more simple and hands on. Eselsohr is the German name for a folder over a corner of the page. And the name was chosen because the striking resemblance of … erm…

…erm… yeah… not really the best name maybe. Anyway, it is commonly accepted and everyone understands it.

Cool, next up we have a saying about the habits of a donkey.

Der Esel nennt sich immer zuerst.
The donkey always mentions itself first.


Not hard to guess that donkey here refers to a person, not an actual donkey. But what is it about?
Well, let’s just look at an example dialogue where the expression is used.

Did you get it :)? It’s considered a bad habit to mention yourself before other people in sentences like the ones above; probably because it is a bit egoistic.
I don’t know if there’s a similar expression in English. I don’t even know if there’s a need for it. Because, in English it actually sounds pretty weird to do that.

  • “I and Maria…”

But in German it sounds okay from a perspective of language, and people do say that. Like… might be even 50/50. So if you want to annoy your friends and co-workers a bit and teach them manners, you can use the Esel-sentence.
Last but not least, we have what’s probably the most famous one of them all:

die Eselsbrücke

Literally, it’s a “donkey’s bridge” and what it really is a make shift memory help for a certain fact, a mnmnmnemonic. Like a little rhyme or something.
Like this one for instance:

Or this profound insight:

Yeah, with these four words you’ll never ever forget the growing direction of drip stones – stalactites grow from top to bottom, stalagmites from bottom to top. Useful, I know :).
Anyways, now I bet you’re wondering how the Germans came up with that word. Well, they didn’t. They just translated the Latin term pons asinorum. It’s the Romans who had the idea, and the inspiration was actual a literal bridge for donkeys. The thing is, donkeys, coming from the desert, really don’t like walking through water. And they can be QUITE stubborn about. So often it would be easier and quicker to build a make shift bridge over a little creek than trying to force the donkey through it. Our minds can be very stubborn about NOT remembering something seemingly simple, and then we build it an … an ass bridge.

And that’s it for today. Let me know your thoughts and questions in the comments.
Hope you enjoyed it and I’ll see you tomorrow.