German word of the day: Der Rattenschwanz

This might sound like a very literal German compound word, but it can also be used to describe the repercussions or revelations of an action.

German word of the day: Der Rattenschwanz

Der Rattenschwanz translates to ‘rat’s tail’, and can be used in the literal sense, as well as having the alternate meaning that also exists in English, of a thin ponytail of hair at the back of the head. In German, the most interesting use of the word, however, is to denote a string of unintended and often unpleasant consequences. 

Rattenschwanz is primarily used this way in spoken German and is fairly informal, so you are unlikely to come across it written in newspapers or literature.  

It is rare to find a rat scuttling along without its tail following behind, so if a decision or action nach sich einen Rattenschwanz zieht (drags a rat’s tail along after it) this means it has a lot of repercussions. 

These consequences are generally unforeseen and pretty negative – a rat’s tail being something that many view as unpleasant. For example, if you decide to undertake a task as a favour for someone but it ends up taking hours and being much more laborious than you expected, you may say it brought a Rattenschwanz along with it. 

Some suggest that the origins of this phrase lie in the concept of the Rattenkönig or rat king, the phenomenon by which rats’ tails become knotted together with external materials such as horsehair or tree sap, rendering them completely interdependent. 

There is a lot of doubt cast upon whether this process can occur naturally, but the idea appears sporadically across Germanic folklore, as well as popular literature, and is often presented as a bad omen – particularly as rats were seen as carriers of disease. The first account of a Rattenkönig was recorded in 1564, though use of the term subsided in the 18th century, as hygiene standards improved and the phenomenon became rarer. 

This folkloric concept may link into the modern colloquialism, with the phrase relating to a slew of results that are generally intertwined and unavoidable. Unforeseen consequences of a decision, as with the Rattenkönig, can grow larger and larger, spiralling out of control.

READ ALSO: The new German words that perfectly describe the coronavirus pandemic


Der Skandal zog einen Rattenschwanz von Enthüllungen nach sich.

The scandal brought with it a slew of revelations. 

Durch die ernsthafte Krankheit hat er dann einen Rattenschwanz an Verletzungen und Krankheiten hinterher gezogen.

Due to the serious medical condition he was left with one injury or illness after the other. 

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German phrase of the day: keine Ahnung

Asked a question and haven't a clue how to respond? Then use this phrase.

German phrase of the day: keine Ahnung

Why do I need to know keine Ahnung?

This widely-used phrase is the German equivalent of the English “no idea” so it’s a great expression to know in these very confusing times. The full expression is: Ich habe keine Ahnung! (I have no idea).

Where does it come from?

The feminine noun Ahnung comes from the verb ahnen, which means “to foresee” or “to guess” which can have a slightly sinister connotation and is often used to express an indistinct, dark sense of foreboding.

Put together with the pronoun keine, however, the noun Ahnung takes on a much more flippant meaning and is commonly used as a response to a question to convey complete cluelessness.

The term keine Ahnung is also part of a popular German saying which comes from the middle ages: von Tuten und Blasen keine Ahnung haben which literally translates as “to have no idea about tooting and blowing”.

The phrase has its origins in the fact that the work that was least respected in medieval cities was that of the night watchmen, who carried a horn as a warning. 

From the point of view of the townspeople, their only competence was to stay up at night, walk around and blow the horn in case of danger. If someone was not able to do even this, then they were good for nothing. 

How to use it:

Weißt du, wann er zurückkommt?
Keine Ahnung!

Do you know when he’s coming back?
No idea!

Ich habe keine Ahnung was das bedeutet.

I have no idea what that means.