Because of its ancient traditions, Karneval has preserved a vocabulary that would otherwise have fallen victim to the German language’s natural selection. Some phrases are old dialect versions of medieval greetings, to be screamed across swarms of costumed drunkards, others are archaic names for specific things. Here is a cross-section, with The Local’s explanations.
Alaaf! – A Karneval greeting in the Cologne dialect. Like all Karneval greetings, it originates from trying to say something else while inhibited with drink. In this case, it is an alcoholic derivative of “alles ab” or “everything gone,” but can be used to mean “Cologne above all else” in Kölle alaaf! Context provides meaning.
Büttenrede – A rhyming speech mainly given during the variety shows known as Karnevalssitzungen. The Bütte is the lectern from which they are delivered. The tradition, like everything else Karneval-related, is old Christian, harking back to a time when the Büttenrede was used to utter blasphemies punishable by maiming any other time of year. Germans often like to mark festive occasions with rhyming couplets. But not raps.
Gürzenich – A beautiful late medieval hall in Cologne annually ransacked by Karneval-goers, like latter-day Vikings on a raid. One of Cologne’s Karneval societies hosts a huge Karnevalssitzungen here that is televised nationally.
Helau! – Düsseldorf’s Karneval greeting, used in many places including Mainz, and either derived from “Hallelujah” or “Hello.”
Lecker Mädche – Hot chick/fit bird, in the Cologne dialect. Not strictly a Karneval-related term, but one that is often used at this resolutely old-fashioned and over-sexualised event. Simone de Beauvoir would have felt mostly out of place.
Morgestraich – A nocturnal parade held in Basel, Switzerland, one of the few Karneval towns with a Protestant history.
Narrenrufe – The collective term for the many Karneval greetings liable to be barked at you out on the streets. Alaaf! and Helau! are the most common, because they come from the two biggest Karneval cities, but there are almost as many variations on “Hello” as there are Karneval towns. Literally, a Narrenruf is the cry of an idiot.
Narrensprung – The Fool’s Leap, a traditional procession of leaping fools in the town of Rottweil.
Quetschenbüggel – This Dr. Seussian word is an old Rhineland term for a concertina. If you are not fond of jolly concertina music, Karneval is no place for you.
S'goht degege! – An obscure old-German saying, deriving from “Es geht dagegen!” (it goes against…) Whether it means against a wall or your principles, it can be used as a sort of bestial howl to be cried out repeatedly until euphoria turns to despair and you start telling total strangers that you love them and you’ve wasted your life.
Zunft – Another word for a Karnevalsverein, the clubs and societies that organise Karneval events.