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LEARNING

12 brilliant German words you won’t find in English

Unfortunately English let you down when you were trying to think of these things to say.

12 brilliant German words you won't find in English
A woman walks up actual 'Treppen' in Berlin in March. Photo: DPA

1. Verabredet

A woman writes in her caldendar. Photo: DPA

Germans don’t just agree to meet up at 2pm, and then rely on their mobile phones to explain why they’re late. They make utterly clear, unambiguous appointments. And then they describe themselves as “verabredet.”

“You are late. We were verabredet. I am simply not understanding this.” It’s an adjective that defines a whole culture.

2. Fahne

A man takes a nap after a few too many beers in Cologne. Photo: DPA

This does not just mean flag. It’s also the special type of “flag” (or the stench of booze) that flutters in your face and stings your eyes when a drunkard tells you he always loved her, you know, honestly, really loved her, despite how it looks. “Please wave that Fahne somewhere else.”

3. Drachenfutter

Roses. Photo: DPA

You’ve stayed out late and you weren’t supposed to. Your wife has put the kids to bed, made your dinner, and given it to the dog. What you need is Drachenfutter – a gift that will, literally, feed the dragon, outmoded sexist interpretations of gender roles notwithstanding.

“Oh no, I hope the late-night shop is open. I’m absolutely off my face and I need some Drachenfutter.”

4. Kummerspeck

Photo: DPA

The English have “comfort food,” but the ever-thorough Germans have taken that concept to its obvious biological conclusion. Kummerspeck, literally “sorrow bacon,” is the extra bulges that develop once you’ve consumed too much comfort.

“Is that Kummerspeck, or are you just pleased to see me?”

5. Fremdschämen

PFile photo: DPA

This is a truly vital word, missing from English, and indeed every language in the world (probably) – except German. It means to be ashamed FOR someone else. How often have you wanted to express that feeling in one neat, perfect word?

“Yes, I was very fremdgeschämt when Donald Trump got the date of the US election wrong.”

6. Rabenmutter

A T.V. show depicting a mother who pushes her children into show-business. Photo: DPA/ARTE

In keeping with their 19th century image of family roles, Germans have a special word for a bad mum. It literally means “raven mother”. Apparently baby ravens in the wild eat nothing but ketchup and are allowed to play with scissors.

READ ALSO: German word of the day: Die Rabenmutter

“Look, that child has not got a hat on and it’s below 20 degrees Celsius. What a Rabenmutter.”

7. Pechvogel/Glückspilz

Mushrooms Photo: DPA

In the Germans’ skewed image of the universe, the bird, soaring free through the sky, is an unlucky beast, but to be a mushroom is a fate associated with good fortune. It’s fun to be a fungi.

“Oh no, my fungi has ceased to grow. I am such a Pechvogel.” 

Pech means bad luck and Glück is good luck. See if you can work the rest out yourselves.

8. Quergebäude

Photo: DPA

Germans, it turns out, have specific names for different parts of a building, largely because of the structure of blocks of flats in Germany. There’s a Vorderhaus (front bit), a Seitenflügel (side bit), a Hinterhof (back bit) and something called a Quergebäude, which is, erm, the across bit. Quer means across, and can also be used as in the wonderfully literal term querlegen – to obstruct.

9. Handschuhschneeballwerfer

A glove-wearing snowball thrower in Gelsenkirchen, North Rhine-Westphalia. Photo: DPA

Everyone hates the coward willing to criticize and abuse from a safe distance. The Germans equate that person with the lowest of the low: the one who wears gloves when throwing snowballs. As far as they’re concerned, a snowball fight is not a snowball fight until someone gets frostbite.

10. Treppenwitz

Stairs in the foyer of the Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg. Photo: DPA

Another wonderful German word, for a bittersweet situation familiar to everyone on the planet. The Treppenwitz, literally “stair-joke,” is the brilliant comeback you think of when you’re already out of the door and halfway down the stairs.

“And you, sir, are a prick! Ach! If only I’d thought of that at the time!”

11. Verschlimmbessern

Photo: DPA

There’s being ham-fisted, or putting your foot in it, or there’s just plain clumsiness, but in German there’s the very specific act of verschlimmbessern, which is when you make something worse in the very act of trying to improve it.

“Oh no, that extra piece of cheesecake, far from being nutritious, has just verschlimmbessert my digestive tract.”

12. Radfahrer

Cyclists in Göttingen, Lower Saxony. Photo: DPA

This is a deceptively simple word that weirdly hints at Germans’ darkest perversion. It just means cyclist, but in some German circles it refers to an employee who sucks up to his superiors while treading on his inferiors, thus imitating the posture of a cyclist. Not literally. That would be truly horrid.

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Member comments

  1. My personal favourite is “Ausstrahlung” – the radiance or feeling that someone gives off… kind of like your aura, but somehow in german it sounds less poncey 😉

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GERMAN LANGUAGE

10 ways to express surprise in German

From woodland fairies to whistling pigs, the German language has a colourful variety of phrases to express surprise.

10 ways to express surprise in German

1. Alter Schwede!

You may recognise this phrase from the cheese aisle at the supermarket, but it’s also a popular expression in Germany for communicating surprise. 

The phrase, which means “old Swede” comes from the 17th century when King Frederick William enlisted the help of experienced Swedish soldiers to fight in the Thirty Years’ War.

Because of their outstanding performance in battle, the Swedish soldiers became popular and respected among the Prussians, and they were respectfully addressed as “Old Swede”. Over the last three hundred years, the phrase developed into one to convey awed astonishment. 

READ ALSO: German word of the day – Alter Schwede

2. Holla, die Waldfee!

This curious expression literally means “Holla, the wood fairy”. It can be used both as an exclamation of astonishment and to insinuate that something is ridiculous.

Engraving of a fairy in the picnic park in Enfield in the UK.

Engraving of a fairy in the picnic park in Enfield in the UK. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Mareike Graepel

There are various explanations as to how the forest fairy made it into the German lexicon. Some say that it comes from the Grimm’s fairy tale “Frau Holle,” while others say it comes from an old song called “Shoo, shoo, the forest fairy!”

READ ALSO: 10 words and phrases that will make you sound like a true German

3. Das ist ja ein dicker Hund!

Literally meaning “that is indeed a fat dog!” this expression of surprise presumably originates from a time in the past when German dogs were generally on the thinner side.

4. Ich glaube, ich spinne!

The origin of this expression is questionable, because the word “Spinne” means “spider” and also “I spin”. Either way, it’s used all over Germany to mean “I think I’m going crazy” as an expression of surprise.

5. Ich glaube, mein Schwein pfeift!

The idea of a pig whistling is pretty ridiculous, and that’s where the phrase  – meaning “I think my pig whistles” – comes from. Germans use this expression when they can’t believe or grasp something, or to express that they are extremely surprised.

The pig Rosalie stands on a farm in a pasture.

The pig Rosalie stands on a farm in a pasture. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

6. Meine Güte!

This straightforward phrase simply means “my goodness” and is a commonly used expression of astonishment.

7. Oha!

More of a sound than a word, this short exclamation will let the world know that you are shocked by something.

READ ALSO: Denglisch: The English words that will make you sound German

8. heilige Blechle!

Often when surprised or outraged, we might let slip an exclamation that refers to something sacred. This phrase fits into that bracket, as it means “holy tin box”. 

The peculiar expression comes from the Swabian dialect and refers to the cash box from which the poor were paid by the Church in the Middle Ages.

The green house number nine which won an award for energy-efficient renovation and construction in Saxony-Anhalt.

The green house number nine which won an award for energy-efficient renovation and construction in Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert

9. ach du grüne Neune!

This slightly antiquated expression literally means “oh you green nine!”, or “oh, my goodness!” and is one you’re more likely to hear among the older generation of Germans.

The origin of the phrase is disputed. One explanation claims that it comes from the famous 19th century Berlin dance hall “Conventgarten” which, although it was located in Blumenstraße No. 9, had its main entrance in “Grüner Weg”. Therefore, the locals renamed it as “Grüne Neune” (Green Nine).

Another explanation is that the phrase comes from fairs where playing cards were used to read the future. In German card games, the “nine of spades” is called “green nine” – and pulling this card in a fortune telling is a bad omen.

10. Krass!

The word Krass in German is an adjective that means blatant or extreme, but when said on its own, it’s an expression of surprise. Popular among young Germans, it’s usually used in a positive way, to mean something like “awesome” or “badass”.  

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