1

I came across this expression:

Mir standen die Haare zu Berge.

which my dictionary translates as My hair stood on end.

But the German expression that I heard was used in the context of extreme anger, not terror, which tempts me to think that a better translation might be something like "I was spitting nails" or "I was fit to be tied."

Or can this expression be used for any extreme emotion? Can someone describe a situation in which this expression would be used?

3

I don't think I would use this expression to express anger, but it doesn't have to be terror or dread: excitement, astonishment or surprise would do just as well.

This is a very old expression, by the way. It's found in Latin texts as well as the Bible (Job 4:15 "the hair of my flesh stood up"), and used similarly in both English and German, from what I can tell.

4

This idiom is usually used to express horror (Entsetzen) or heavy disapproval (starke Ablehnung / Missbilligung).

Examples:

Das sind wieder einmal politische Entscheidungen, dass einem die Haare zu Berge stehen.

Und dieser Film hat 3 Oscars bekommen? Mir stehen die Haare zu Berge!

Schön wärs, das Gegenteil ist der Fall: Die heutigen Schüler bringen Leistungen, dass dir die Haare zu Berge stehen.

  • 1
    It's the awful cousin of Gänsehaut haben. – Janka May 15 '18 at 8:37
  • Now that I think of it, the original comment did express disapproval more than anger. This makes sense now, thank you. – Dan Leifker May 15 '18 at 12:23
2

Ingmars answer is correct, I just wanted to add something:

Ingmar mentioned it already: You can find this expression in the bible, in the book "Hiob/Iob/Job/Ijob" (there are several writings of this name in different translations) which was written 2500 years ago in Hebrew language:

  • in German
    • Lutherbibel 2017, Hiob 4,15

      Und ein Hauch fährt an mir vorüber; es stehen mir die Haare zu Berge an meinem Leibe.

    • Einheitsübersetzung 2016, Iob 4,15

      Ein Geist schwebt an meinem Gesicht vorüber, die Haare meines Leibes sträuben sich.

  • in English

    • English Standard Version, Hiob 4,15

      A spirit glided past my face; the hair of my flesh stood up.

    • King James, Job 4,15

      Then a spirit passed before my face; the hair of my flesh stood up:

  • Hebrew:

    ורוח על־פני יחלף תסמר שערת בשרי׃

    A text analysis of the Hebrew original text can be found here: http://biblehub.com/text/job/4-15.htm

As you can see, in this text the bible is talking about the hair on your "flesh", which obviously is your body (i.e. arms, legs, etc.). The bible is not talking about the hair on your head.

So the origin of this expression is goose bumps (also: "goose pimples") (in German: »Gänsehaut« = goose skin). Millions of tiny muscles in the skin, each of them attached to one hair, contract and rise up this hair.

This is a reflex from the times when our ancestors had fur. Raising up all hairs on the body had two effects:

  1. There is more air in the fur, so it isolates better against cold temperatures. This is why we still get goose bumps when we feel cold.
  2. The fur (and so the hole body) becomes more voluminous. You look bigger and stronger. This might impress smilodons and other carnivore that had appetite on you. This is why we get goose bumps when we are in panic.

conclusion

The original meaning of "my hair stand on end" = "Mir stehen die Haare zu Berge" is:

I have goose bumps because I'm in panic.

  • Very interesting. The things you learn here... – Dan Leifker May 15 '18 at 12:25

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