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GERMAN LANGUAGE

German words you need to know: Die Verschlimmbesserung

Here’s another oh-so typical German compound word, which perfectly captures a feeling or situation you want to describe.  

German words you need to know: Die Verschlimmbesserung
There are no happy faces in a 'Verschlimmbesserung' situation. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Bockwoldt

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.

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. 

READ ALSO: Das ist ja mal wichtig: The complete guide to German particles

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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GERMAN WORD OF THE DAY

German word of the day: Witzfigur

You may like to think your jokes are "witzig" - but beware of getting labelled with this German word. It's not nearly as funny as it sounds.

German word of the day: Witzfigur

Witz, the German word for “joke”, is one of the first words a lot of foreigners come to learn when they start learning German. But it may be a little longer until you encounter what’s known as a Witzfigur.

Combine the word der Witz (joke) with the word die Figur (figure or character) and you get die Witzfigur (wits·fii·guur) – someone who may well be (unintentionally) funny, but is more likely to be the butt of somebody else’s joke. 

Think of it a little bit like the English expression “figure of fun”, or – more commonly used – a laughing stock. 

A Witzfigur may pop up in jokes, stories and songs as a clownish sidekick who offers some light relief.

In some cases, these Witzfiguren are there to act as the wise fool and reveal some deeper insight into what’s going on. In many cases, though, they’re just there to get a cream pie chucked in their face. 

It’s worth remembering that not every character in a joke is the butt of it – that is to say, not every Witzfigur is a Witzfigur.

In German, there’s a tradition of jokes involving Klein Fritzchen (little Fritz) – a fictional boy who pops up time and time again in various comedic scenarios, usually in order to say something insulting to someone. 

READ ALSO: German words you need to know: Der Zappelphilipp

Little Fritz is not so much a figure of fun as a literal Witzfigur: a character in a joke. And in fact, his role in the jokes often involve delivering the punchline that makes someone else the laughing stock. 

That said, if you hear someone described as a Witzfigur in real life, it usually doesn’t mean anything good.

In fact, it often means they’ve done something pretty peinlich (embarrassing) or deserving of public mockery. And yes, it can often be applied to politicians.

By way of example, the term was recently used by Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) to describe Gerhard Schröder, the former chancellor of Germany who has recently been stripped of many of his perks for insisting on taking Kremlin-linked jobs.

When asked about Schröder, Lauterbach said: “He has succeeded in being a former chancellor (who is) now on the verge of being a laughing stock.”

So, by all means, make a “Witz” or two, and definitely don’t be afraid of doing anything “witzig” (witty or funny), but if you ever find yourself on the verge of become a Witzfigur, it could be time for a change of course.

Examples 

Er ist nur eine Witzfigur. Vergiss ihn. 

He’s just a joke. Forget about him. 

Ich habe angst davor, eine Witzfigur zu werden.

I’m afraid of becoming a laughing stock. 

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