Let’s pretend your coworker surprised you with your favorite Starbucks drink during work. How do you feel about her? Most likely, he or she is now on your good side. Germans might even say you now have a Stein im Brett with him/her (literally translated: a “stone in the board”).
In German, if someone has a Stein im Brett with you, it means that person now has your sympathy. In other words, that person did something to win you over. But to understand where this phrase came from, we will have to take a close look at the origins of this strange German saying.
The phrase has its roots in the 16th century, when a board game called Tric-Trac was popular (in English, this game was often called “tables”, and later evolved into Backgammon). Tric-Trac, as the Germans and French call it, is one of the oldest games in the world, and first appeared in Europe during the 9th century. In the board game, players strategically block their opponents from advancing by creating a blockage with two stones (or, more recently, with cubes). During the Middle Ages, German Tric-Trac players began calling this situation a “stone in the board.”
Over time, this phrase made its way into the German language in different contexts. If, for example, someone was traveling by a horse-drawn carriage and left the carriage on its own for a while, then a friend who guards the carriage had a Stein im Brett with the traveler. Literally, the friend served as a type of blockage to ill-intentioned people who might otherwise try to steal the carriage. Like the stones in the board game, the friend blocked opponents from making a move.
But the phrase continued to evolve, and is now used to describe any situation in which someone gains someone else’s favor. So by giving someone preferential treatment, helping them with a project or paying them a compliment, it could very well be that you will have a Stein im Brett with them.
By Nicole Glass, German Embassy