The proverb's meaning is that just as fish prefer muddy waters and avoid clear streams, people generally do not associate with those who are too ideal in terms of ethics, manners, and habits. In other words, being strictly honest and always making the right choice from the standpoint of society-imposed values will result in you being isolated and having no friends.

I will now elaborate to better explain the idea. The idea is that there are some good reasons to keep very upright people at arm's length:

  1. If someone is too strict towards himself or herself, he or she is likely to judge others by his or her high standards, which may lead him or her to make big deals out of minor matters, criticize others, report them, and refuse to forgive even small accidental wrongdoings. In contrast, those who are not ideal have no difficulties accepting that others are not, too.

  2. Very upright people are hard to cooperate with on matters where ethical flexibility is required. The ability to cooperate on such matters is important because problems sometimes arise whose only practical solution is to bend rules.

  3. Brutally honest people tend to create awkward and problematic situations by being too direct and honest. Friedrich Nietzsche said about it, "If you want to offend somebody, just tell him the truth."

  4. Strict people often lack common sense and human understanding on the emotional level and, as a result, tend to take decisions based on abstract logical considerations. This can sometimes lead to awful practical outcomes because of a failure to take the feelings of others into account and see all circumstances and nuances of a situation.

  5. Since there is no reason to be honest and upright just for the sake of being honest and upright, those who are always blindly honest and upright are likely to be close-minded, dogmatic people in the broad sense.

Intuitively led by the above reasons, many avoid associating with people who are too ideal from the standpoint of society-imposed values, and this is what the proverb is about.

I am curious how this idea is commonly or idiomatically expressed in German. In particular, a German acquaintance of mine told me he had found a banknote on a street in Germany and had brought it to local police, and I am curious how I can idiomatically tell him in his own language that what he did is not something to brag about.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – user9551
    Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 13:44

4 Answers 4


There are at least two common sayings expressing the idea of not being too strict in following the rules:

[wir wollen] nicht päpstlicher als der Papst sein source
(we don't want to be more pope than the pope himself)

fünf gerade sein lassen source
(let five be even)

So for your acquaintance concerning the banknote a possible comment would be:

Mensch, bist du genau! Sei doch nicht päpstlicher als der Papst!
(Damn, how upright you are! Don't be more papal than the pope!)

  • 2
    And there's the Erbsenzähler also.
    – Janka
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 8:04
  • 1
    @Janka: And the »Prinzipienreiter«.
    – Pollitzer
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 8:21
  • 2
    And, more colloquially and much more pejoratively, the “Korinthenkacker/-scheißer” or “Krümelkacker”.
    – dessert
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 20:08

If Nietzsche already came up as inspiration, that well holds even more water:

Und hüte dich vor dem Guten und dem Gerechten! Sie lieben es, diejenigen zu kreuzigen, die ihre eigene Tugend für sich selbst erfinden.
(Also sprach Zarathustra)

And beware of the good and the righteous! They love to crucify those who invent their own virtue for themselves.

For commenting on the incident described (delivering a found banknote):

Es gibt mehr reiche als arme Sünder. – There are more rich than poor sinners.

Der Ehrliche ist immer der Dumme. – The honest man is always the fool.

  • Notice the pun on arme Sünder though. All Sünder are arm by definition, but some are even rich in that.
    – Janka
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 11:31
  • @Janka True, for one reading. Another would be that there are lots of actual sins possible (despite the default one; we're all sinners, born in sin…), but being rich is one, becoming or getting rich often or always: are sinful deeds in themselves or involve a lot of sinning, depending on definitions. It's really quite punny. Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 11:45

It's always hard or impossible to translate idoms or proverbs. Or to find fitting alternatives.

Funny enough I can only think of an proverb expressing quite the opposite (more or less :) )

Bescheidenheit ist eine Zier, doch besser lebt man ohne ihr.

also known as

Bescheidenheit ist eine Zier, doch weiter kommt man ohne ihr.

meaning (roughly)

Modesty suits one very well, but you will be better off without it.

Of course there are proverbs like

Ist der Ruf erst ruiniert, lebt es sich ganz ungeniert.

Once you've lost your reputation, you have nothing left to lose.

but, well, as @TorstenLink said in the comments: "There is no german proverb with that [exact] meaning" you are looking for. At least I can't think of any right now. Sorry.

  • 3
    As a side note, the phrasing "ohne ihr" is grammatically wrong on purpose, for the benefit of the rhyme. Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 21:47
  • Maybe you intended to express just that by "expressing quite the opposite", but to make sure, it should be emphasized these proverbs are distinctly critical and most people would not want to be described by them. Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 4:20

I'm with @Janka: the best tasting fish needs crystal clear water.

But reading your elaboration some german sayings come to my mind. Not exactly in the meaning of keeping very upright people at arm's length (I'm sure you misunderstand Nietzsche here) but in terms of not being too pedantic.

leben und leben lassen (to live and let live) 1

That comes close because it implies to let go judging other peoples ways of handling things and living their lifes. It also implies NOT to mock somebody who tries to be a honest person by telling him bringing money he found to the police is not something to brag about. (that seems to me kind of closed-minded)

beten scheef hett Gott leev (low german for: God likes it a little crooked - Gott mag es ein bisschen schief)

(craftsmen say: always put the crappy side against the wall)

Neither a perfect fit but it comes close in the sense of practical solutions and it supports the idea, that nothing will ever be done if you're too perfectionist.

  • 1
    I really like your answer, but I think you should add that the second phase is written in low-German (Plattdeutsch) and also add a transcription in high-German/ standard German, even if it won't rhyme anymore. This will enable readers to look up the words etc.
    – Arsak
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 5:01
  • Thanks @Arsak . I edited my answer according to your suggestion.
    – Olafant
    Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 9:00

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