Both my parents were born in Germany. They moved to Canada and then had me, so I’m about as German as a Canadian can be – which probably explains my weakness for sauerkraut, oom-pa-pa, and marzipan.
I also have a love for the German language. Some people make fun of it, but I grew up listening to my family speak it; so it reminds me of holidays, house parties, and home. Growing up, I was accustomed to my parents switching back and forth between English and German (particularly when they were excited).
Here are some of my favorite (and not-so-favorite) German words… feel free to add your own in the comments section below!
Pronunciations provided thanks to the nice people at Forvo.com.
I’ve confined myself to words readily available in German dictionaries. I’ve tried to avoid slang words or words unique to one of the many regional dialects. While researching words for this list, I was also shocked to learn that my Oma (Grandmother) had probably made some of my favorite words up.
For example, I was unable to include ‘Muesterchen (Muesterkens)*’ because I couldn’t prove that this word exists outside my immediate family. Muesterchen/Muesterkens (translation: little patterns) are the marks fabrics leave on your face while you are asleep. There should be a word for this in every language (nappers of the world, unite!). It shouldn’t take eleven words to describe this thing that happens to my face at least once a day, it’s just not efficient. It’s almost a haiku, for heaven’s sake. *Spelling variations added as a result of comments (see below).
I’ve also left out German words that just describe my favorite things (“beer” is German, for example). Instead, I’ve included words that I find particularly interesting or unique.
This list also does not include phrases (sayings, idioms). There is definitely room for a Top 10 German Phrases list, because there are some real German gems. For example the German equivalent of “to paint the town red” is “die Sau rauslassen” (“Let the pig out!”).
Fussel, Flusen , Faser, Mull- -all of these words are synonymous with the English word “lint”. When I look up lint in an English thesaurus, only fuzz and fluff fit (perhaps pill works as well…) – yet all of these words all have other meanings as well. Fahnemuse (literal: fahne = flag, muse = ???) This is the word my family uses for the lint that shows up between a baby’s fingers and toes and (regrettably) adult male bellybuttons. Extremely specific and one of my favorite words of all time…
translation: the dirtying up of the world (pollution)
How can someone argue that umweltverschmutzung is acceptable when it’s called what it is? This is an example of where a precise and unflattering word is effective (doesn’t quite make up for the ‘fleisch’ and the ‘speck’, however).
74 percent of Germans rate protecting the environment as very important, according to the Deutsche Welle. Further, proof: Germany’s Green Dot system, which has been “one of the most successful recycling initiatives” and “has literally put packaging on a diet. The crux is that manufacturers and retailers have to pay for a ‘Green Dot’ on products: the more packaging there is, the higher the fee” (Howtogermany.com).
translation: brust (breast) warze (warts)
According to increasemyvocabulary.com, the English word “nipple” originates from the Old English word “neb,” which means “bill, beak, [or]snout, hence, lit[erally]…a small projection.” I admit that the English word for nipple is disappointing for a body part that gets so much attention (if only because of it’s location), but at least it’s not disgusting. Breast warts? Sexy. Remember the controversy over Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction? Imagine if the following article at Prefixmag.com was in German, here’s the headline: “Janet Jackson’s Breast Wart Still Causing Problems” and the first sentence, “Janet Jackson’s breast wart just won’t go away.” Yuck (Janet Jackson’s Nipple Still Causing Problems, by Nick Neyland).
7. Tie: Weltschmerz and Lebensmüde
translations: welt (world) schmerz (pain) and lebens (living) müde (tired)
Germans are sure good at making melancholy and moodiness seem romantic: I guess that’s why the Wave-Gotik-Treffen (Wave-Gothic-Meeting) festival in Leipzig, Germany is so popular every year. That’s when 25,000 people catch the 200 performances of ‘dark music’ (death rock, dark electro, EBM, metal, industrial). In between shows, I imagine that attendees compare their black fashions, sigh heavily a lot, and throw words like ‘weltschmerz’ around… The word weltschmerz translates literally to “world pain” and, according to Merriam-Webster online, means “mental depression or apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state.” Germans also have another word similar to “weltschmerz”: “lebensmüde.” According to reverso.net, lebensmüde is a way to describe someone who is “weary” or “tired of life”. Literally “leben” means “to live” and “mude” means “tired”. The closest English synonym is “suicidal”, but it is really only a very superficial translation. If you ask someone if they are “lebensmüde”, you are asking, “Are you nuts?!” (“Are you trying to get yourself killed?!”) The English language has the phrase “world weary” but it means more that you are tired with the world, which isn’t quite the same thing. Sometimes “world weary” is also defined as “bored with the world” which makes the person seem more snobby and high maintenance than someone who feels “lebensmüde.” A person who is tired of life is much more sympathetic – sort of like all of the little things are grinding them down.
translation: schaden (harm) freude (joy)
Schadenfreude is when you take pleasure in someone else’s pain. Schadenfreude is not to be confused with the word “sadism”, which is about inflicting pain. Bravo to the Germans for being honest enough to admit that we humans experience this feeling once in a while. In English, it takes a lot of words (and probably a whole lot of excuses) to admit to the same thing. When the rain at the very first Lollapalooza outed all of the posers who had dyed their hair temporarily for the one day, I distinctly remember feeling schadenfreude (and relief I hadn’t done the same thing!). Now, I’m not trying to justify my snotty teenage behavior here – it’s the only example I could think of. It’s also essential advice if you are going to try to blend in at the next Wave-Gotik-Treffen: bring an umbrella!
translation: fleisch (flesh)
Germans are known for their practical and logical nature, but I don’t always appreciate it. For example, we English-speakers like to use words for food that are easier to swallow. Fleisch sounds a little bit too much like flesh, for my taste. Oh, and it actually means flesh, just in case you were hoping it meant something else. According to lookwayup.com, this word is used to identify both human flesh and “the flesh of animals used as food”. Cannibals and zombies aside, I wonder how many English-speaking people who move to Germany become vegetarians in response to the common terms used for pork (pig flesh), beef (cow flesh), and particularly veal (calf flesh). Ewwwww. (Image: Greatwigs.co.uk)
translation: speck (fat)
Just when I’ve forced the ‘flesh-eating’ images out of my head, I remember that Germans call bacon “speck” which translates to “fat”. What a huge under-sell! I’m all for the famous German efficiency – but I think that this time they have really over-generalized!
According to the German-English dictionary at dict.tu-chemnitz.de, the phrase “Speck ansetzen” means “to put it on.” I’m glad I don’t have to say “I’m really putting on the bacon” whenever I worry about my weight! If you’re going to reduce bacon to the term “fat”, you might as well start calling chocolate “cellulite”.
Just in case any of you are going to argue that bacon isn’t a German food and therefore doesn’t have it’s own word, I want to point out that the word speck replaced the word “bachen,” which comes from the same word origin as “bacon”. This is according to Vikipedia, so it must be true.
I love bacon (obviously, since I am in the midst of a bacon-focussed rant). Contrast the German’s unforgivable disregard for bacon with the celebration of International Bacon Day (September 5) and the popularity of websites like the royalbaconsociety.com and baconfreak.com. The Bacon page on Facebook has over 470 ,000 fans. The Speck page? Less than 5,000. So, literally, Germans give bacon a bad name.
Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name?” but his buddy Francis Bacon would probably have replied, “It could be worse – the Italian word for it is lardo.”
Here’s where the Germans make up for their tragic abuse of bacon… They are famous for all sorts of food: sauerkraut, schnitzel, wieners… but did you know “noodle” was a German word? According to daube.ch, “pasta of all sorts is the domain of Italians. Nevertheless the German word noodle came [in]to use before the big impact of the Italian kitchen to the northern regions.”
translation: schwangerschaft (pregnancy) verhütung (averting/prevention) mittel (remedy for/means).
In other words, a contraceptive. This is such a long word that by the time you ask someone to use one, it might be too late!
translation: Rind (cattle) Fleisch (meat) Etikettierung(s) (labelling) Überwachung (supervision) Aufgaben (duties) Übertragun (assignment) Gesetz (law)
Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (“Beef labelling supervision duty assignment law”) is the longest German word I could find. Basically it is an outrageously long compound word, and the German language is very comfortable with compound words, if not downright in love with them. Don’t let them intimidate you: most of the longer German words are made up of several words put together, which makes them easy to understand (if you understand German). According to participants in a forum at astrowars.com, the longest German word that is not a compound word is “Unkameradschaftlichkeit” (Unkameradschaftlichkeit is a kind of “unsporting behavior” among soldiers).
In contrast, the longest word in the English dictionary is Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (Wikipedia). Looks like the English language wins for longest word, although one might argue that a medical term is actually Latin and universal…
Another long word, “Verbesserungsvorschlagsversammlung”, literally meaning a gathering of suggestions for improvement. As in, if you don’t agree with this list, feel free to “Mach mal einen Verbesserungsvorschlag” (make a suggestion for improvement sometime).