This post is one of a series on ‘Germanisms in American English’ and should be read in conjunction with the introductory post here.
My eyes are yellow!
Meine Augen sind schon ganz gelb!
In both American English (AmE) and German, if you desperately need to urinate, you might joke that your eyes have gone yellow. It’s the kind of surreal image I associate with Tom and Jerry cartoons. I had never heard the phrase in either English or German until I asked on Twitter whether any of my followers knew a German equivalent of the British English (BrE) idiom ‘I’m busting for a slash!’
Here is my original question followed by the key reply:
Translation of my tweet: How do you say I’m busting for a slash in German? (I desperately need to pee doesn’t count – too boring.) Suggestions in dialect welcome!
Translation of reply: I have to go so badly, my eyes are already quite yellow.
Later in the same thread, after explaining the original BrE expression to someone based in the USA, I asked that person if he knew any equivalent expressions in AmE, to which he replied the following:
To verify that the ‘…eyes are yellow’ phrase really is a thing people say, I googled the group of words ‘so bad my eyes are yellow’, thus allowing for the use of various possible verbs: pee, piss, go etc. The search yielded eight results on Google (search date: 12/11/2016). All but one of these results showed clear evidence that the originator was based in the US and/or using AmE. The same search on Twitter (same date) returned 13 tweets. Of those 13 tweets, nine were from accounts which explicitly mentioned a US location in their user profile, three were from accounts which showed evidence of being US-based, while the only one which did not appear to be from a US-based account was this one:
It’s interesting that this user mentions Minnesota, as that state was an area of heavy German settlement in the late 19th century. It’s only speculation, but this might explain how the phrase came about in AmE in the first place: as a literal translation of the German phrase by immigrants to the US.
A Google search to verify the use of the German phrase revealed this extract from the 2009 novel Mängelexemplar by German TV presenter and author, Sarah Kuttner (my translation):
» Ich hab schon ganz gelbe Augen, so voll ist meine Blase inzwischen. «
Translation: My bladder’s so full at this point, my eyes are already quite yellow.
I also found an entry for ‘gelbe Augen bekommen’ (to get yellow eyes) on the Mundmische website specialising in slang and idioms, where the accompanying definition clearly confirms the meaning we’ve been looking at here.