Top 10 Favorite German Words

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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.

Guidelines

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!”).

10. Flusen

translation: flusen (bits of fluff)

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…

9. Umweltverschmutzung

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).

8. Brustwarze

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.

6. Schadenfreude

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!

5. Fleisch

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)

4. Speck

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.”

3. Nudel

translation: noodle

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.”

 

2. Schwangerschaftverhütungsmittel

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!

1. Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgaben-

übertragungsgesetz

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…

My favorite long German word, which I found in a discussion at bbc.co.uk, is “Schwarzwälderkirschtortenlieferantenhut” (the hat of the black forest cake delivery person).

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).


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177 Comments

  1. The greatest german word is: Hottentottenstottertrottelmutterlattengitterkotterbeutelrattenattentater

      • Viennese style on

        “Hottentottenstottertrottelmutterlattengitterkotterbeutelrattenattentater” doesn’t make any sense, it’s just a bunch of words that have “tt” in them stacked together (Hottentotten, Stotter, Trottel, Mutter, Latte, Gitter, Beutelratte, Attentäter.)

        Another aspect of the German language that has not been mentioned yet is the importance of upper and lower case:

        Die Spinnen (The spiders)
        Die spinnen (They are mad)

        Warum sind füllige Frauen gut zu Vögeln? (Why do corpulent women treat birds good?)
        Warum sind füllige Frauen gut zu vögeln? (Why are corpulent women a good lay?)

        Er hat liebe Genossen. (He has dear comrades)
        Er hat Liebe genossen. (He had enjoyed love)

        Wäre er doch nur Dichter! (If only he was a poet)
        Wäre er doch nur dichter! (If only he was more sane)

        Sich brüsten und anderem zuwenden. (To gloat over sth. and turn towards something else)
        Sich Brüsten und anderem zuwenden. (To turn towards breasts and other things)

        Sie konnte geschickt Blasen und Glieder behandeln. (She was skilled in treating blisters and limbs)
        Sie konnte geschickt blasen und Glieder behandeln. (She was skilled in giving blow jobs and treating limbs. Glieder can also be translated to members which would refer to penis)

        Der gefangene Floh. (The catched flea)
        Der Gefangene floh. (The prisoner fled)

        Helft den armen Vögeln. (Help poor birds)
        Helft den Armen vögeln. (Help poor people getting laid)

        Granted, you don’t often come across sentences like these, but they still show using upper or lower case can change the meaning dramatically 🙂

  2. Did you know that in one case, the English language has a compund noun where German doesn’t? Fenster – window. The German Fenster is from latin fenestra. The English window is actually a wind-eye. Because ow = eye in the etymologic roots of the word. I like wind-eye better than Fenster.

    Other than that I totally adore all the German compound nound mage with “Zeug” = stuff/equipment.
    Zeughaus (equipment house), Fahrzeug (vehicle/ stuff that rolls), Flugzeug (airplane/ stuff that flies), Feuerzeug (a lighter/ fire equipment), Werkzeug (tools / work stuff) .

    I also have a question. Is there any english word to accurately translate the German verb “fahren” or the noun “Fahrt”.
    Because “fahren” is used as “to drive” (Auto fahren) , “to ride a train” (Zug fahren), “to ride a hot air-balloon” (Ballon fahren), “to travel on a ship” (Schiff fahren) or “to go on vacation” (In den Urlaub fahren).
    And “Fahrt” is used to describe any journey “Wallfahrt” for example is a pilgrimage, and “Kaperfahrt” (= hijack journey) is the venture of a pirate crew looking for loot.

    However my all-time favorite German word is “Wasserstoff” (water-material) for hydrogen.

    • Yet the English word for being thrown out of a window is ‘defenestration’ – interesting…

      Regarding your question about “fahren” – the English word navigate works in all of your examples except the last one – where “embark” might be a good English equivalent.

  3. Here in England, we use the word “schadenfreude” (I thought it was schadenfreunde [shadow friend] at first and thought that it sounded quite sweet for what it meant). My favourite German word is still “Naturwissenschaften” [science] because it was the first ‘long’ German word I learnt at school. I also like the word “Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän” which I learnt at school.

    • Sorry, but that was not correct translated.

      Schadenfreude(gloating, mischievousness) should be damage happiness / harm delight.

      Shadow friend would be Schattenfreund, a guy who hates the pure sun or loves the shady spots – you’re not a vampire, are you?!

      I found a nice joke and it fits perfect to the reply of Viennese:
      Wenn ich von Gleichgeschlechtlicher Liebe rede, wissen sicher alle was ich meine, denn wer von uns kann es schon abwarten, und so ist Liebe eigentlich immer gleich geschlechtlich… .
      Talking about same sex love – all of you kown what i mean. Who can wait for it and so the love is always sex immediately….

  4. Talking german all day, I usually don’t really think about what a beautiful language it really is. 🙂
    Two of my favourite words are probably “Sommersprossen” and “Tohuwabohu”.
    I like speaking english too. Some of my favourite words are “gorgeous” and “shiver”.
    I think it is amazing how much work you put into finding out all those translations and learning more about the language. I really like this site!

  5. Actually I never heard the word ‘Weltschmerz’ before. But I think even children know what Schadenfreude is. There is even a proverb for that: Wer den Schaden hat braucht für den Spott nicht zu sorgen. dict.cc translates this as ‘The laugh is always with the loser’ and I think that’s quit near at the meaning. I just think that it’s sad that so many people think that Schadenfreude and sadism is the same… I mean there’s a huge difference between those words.
    I had to laugh at the long words. I don’t think that people who speak german really use them. Usually you just hear them when you’re playing hangman and then it’s quit fun to make up really really long words.
    I also had to think about your rant about ‘Speck’. As a native speaker I can tell you that you don’t really think about that stuff. Sure we call the fat (Speck) on our body and our food the same but you don’t realize it at all. And Fleisch is just Fleisch. Where’s the difference between the Fleisch on my body and the Fleisch I eat? It’s just from different animals (or humans xD) but after all it’s still the same. But maybe that’s just how we germans think ^^
    But if you ask me there are a lot of times where I like english more than german. There are some things in our language that sound much better in english (especially sexual stuff… you complained about our words for nipple. There are things that are worse. The penis is also called penis in german but there are other english words like ‘dick’ and in german there’s the word ‘Schwanz’. It literally means tail…

  6. Have you ever heard of (excuse my spelling, I’ve never seen it spelled out just heard it) poutchen soup? My mom taught me how to add these home made noodles to beef and veg soup. They are made with the soup broth an egg salt n pepper and flour. You roll them out n cut into 1″ squares then add to boiling soup? It it German? Thanks

  7. tinadazzle741 on

    Sir, I have found a nice tool namely favoritewords.com to find favorite words. Its a free tool, lacks some features since it’s still in beta. I’m sure anyone using this tool will love it and find it extremely useful.

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