German word of the day: Die Selbstbeweihräucherung

'Selbstbeweihräucherung' is something you want to avoid at all costs in Germany - especially on your CV.

German word of the day: Die Selbstbeweihräucherung
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Selbstbeweihräucherung is a journey of a word. Contracted from “Weihrauch” (incense, think: priests swinging their censers) and “Selbst” (the self), the nominalised verb creates the image of someone shrouding themselves in smoke and the smell of Myrrh. 

So what does this strange image mean? 

In Germany, praise can be rare. Self-praise, meanwhile, is considered by many Germans to be a full blown faux pas. Selbstbeweihräucherung is a metaphor for inappropriate or excessive self-congratulation. 

READ ALSO: Seven German habits that foreigners really struggle to cope with

The image of self-incensing is a vivid, but a strange one, and its origins are just as mysterious.

Weihrauch hearkens back to the old high German “wīhrouch” from 750 – 1000 AD. In Germany, it was used by many different civilisations, from the medicinal or symbolic smokes of Germanic tribes, to Roman smoke-offerings, a practice later adapted (somewhat reluctantly) by the Orthodox Christian and Catholic Church. 

In Catholicism, the rising incense smoke is used as a symbol for the prayer – the praise – of the Christian people rising up to God. So, the connection to “praise” is clear – but there’s another reason incense lends itself as a metaphor to self-congratulation. 

There is a saying in German that “Eigenlob stinkt” (self-congratulation stinks). It turns out there is in fact a long history of associating self-praise with smell: the phrase appears for the first time in written form in a book of sayings from 1541. Even before this, in 1494, satirist Sebastian Brant wrote in the poem “Narrenschiff” (Ship of Fools): 

“Daß Lob stinkt aus dem eigeneneignen Munde.”
The praise stinks out of one’s own mouth.

So, it’s possible Selbstbeweihräucherung actually refers to the sometimes overwhelming, even smothering effect of incense. 

If this is the effect it has on German nerves, it’s probably something best avoided – in your CV and dinner parties alike. 

Example sentences: 

Seine Rede war eine regelrechte Selbstbeweihräucherung.
His speech was a down-right adulation of the self. 

Das müssen wir umschreiben, das klingt nach Selbstbeweihräucherung.
We have to re-write that, it sounds like self-praise. 

Ihre Bewerbung war gut, aber es gab ein Bisschen zu viel Selbstbeweihräucherung.
Her application was good, but there was a little too much self-congratulation in it. 

READ ALSO: 12 brilliant German words you won’t find in English

Member comments

  1. the article on selbstbeweihrauchrung says that Incense was adapted by the church from Roman or Germanic tribes. It also originates in the incense offered in the temple in Jerusalem and in the Tent of the Presence which predated that.

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German word of the day: Umstritten

Not everyone agrees on everything - and there are some things almost nobody can agree on. If you find yourself dealing with the latter, you may need to make use of this German word.

German word of the day: Umstritten

Why do I need to know umstritten?

Because umstritten is a handy word that can be applied to multiple situations, but is especially useful when chatting about current affairs or the big social issues of our day. 

You’ll likely come across it while reading articles in German newspapers, or hear your German friends use it while setting the world to rights in the pub. 

What does it mean?

Umstritten is best translated as “controversial” or “disputed” in English. As usual in German, you can easily work out – and remember – what it means by breaking it down into smaller components. 

The first is the prefix um, which tends to mean “around”. Think of German words like umkehren, which means to turn around or reverse, or umarmen, which means to put your arms around someone (or hug them in other words!). 

The second component is the verb streiten, which means to argue. So something that’s umstritten is something that there are lots of arguments around, like a controversial new law, a social debate or a public figure. 

Use it like this: 

Die Pläne der Regierung waren hoch umstritten.

The government’s plans were highly controversial. 

Sein Erbe als Fußballtrainer ist immer noch umstritten.

His legacy as football manager is still disputed today.