German words you need to know: Die Verschlimmbesserung

German words you need to know: Die Verschlimmbesserung
There are no happy faces in a 'Verschlimmbesserung' situation. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Bockwoldt
Here’s another oh-so typical German compound word, which perfectly captures a feeling or situation you want to describe.  

The noun Verschlimmbesserung is a colloquial term depicting the moment when your attempt to improve something only ends up making it worse. The word is a compound consisting of an oxymoron: Verschlimm- from the verb verschlimmern (‘to worsen’), with the prefix ver- indicating change, and -besserung from the verb verbessern (‘to improve’). It can of course be used as a verb too: verschlimmbessern.

A close synonym could be die Verschlechterung, meaning ‘worsening’ or a ‘change for the worse’. But even this doesn’t quite capture the essence of a Verschlimmbesserung.

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Die Verschlimmbesserung was even an entry in the Brothers Grimm 1854 German dictionary, but there are records of the word’s usage earlier still, for example in the 1810s.

We could all use this word in our daily lives, from frustrating arguments to governmental plans we may not agree with. Perhaps you’ve found yourself try to make things better in a relationship, only to say something that makes the whole situation worse. 

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Along similar lines to a Verschlimmbesserung, you may have heard of the linked phenomenon the ‘Cobra effect’, also known as a perverse incentive, in which an initiative brings about unfavourable results contrary to its original intentions.

The closest word English seems to have as a translation is the rather rare ‘disimprovement’ – doesn’t have quite the same effect as the German word … maybe that’s a Verschlimmbesserung in itself.

Examples:

Die Funktion ist eine komplette Verschlimmbesserung. Sie macht die Sache noch komplizierter!

The function is completely botched. It makes things more complicated!

Die Regierung hat die Lage ganz verschlimmbessert. 

The government has bungled the situation entirely in an attempt to improve things.


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