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GERMAN LANGUAGE

Why traditional German names are often used as insults

An interesting quirk of colloquial German is that many insults base themselves around names. Could this explain why some traditional names have gone out of fashion?

Why traditional German names are often used as insults
Taking an insult. Photo: Pixabay

If you’ve been in Germany long enough you will probably have noticed how some names are used pejoratively to mean a variety of things that have generally negative associations. In some instances, the name simply means ‘idiot,’ in others it is a suffix or prefix to a negative word.

The mildest form of these examples are the ones given to young children. Often these are used endearingly.

If a child squirms around too much he is a ‘Zappelphilipp’. Or if he doesn’t look where he is going he is a ‘Hanns Guck-in-die-Luft’. 

These two descriptions have their roots in a collection of poems by the writer Heinrich Hoffmann in the mid-19th century.

Hanns Guck-in-die-Luft spent his life staring into the sky, leading to a collision with a dog and an inadvertent trip into the river. Wenn der Hanns zur Schule ging/ Stets sein Blick am Himmel hing/ Nach den Dächern, Wolken, Schwalben/ Schaut er aufwärts, allenthalben.” (When Hanns went to school/ he always looked into the sky/ to the roofs, clouds and swallows/ he looks up on all sides).

Zappelphilipp meanwhile was a fidgety boy who angered his father by being incapable of sitting still at the dinner table. In the poem, he fidgets and squirms so much that he ends up falling backwards from his chair. In the same moment he grabs the tablecloth and pulls the entire contents of the meal over himself.

Another variation of the name-as-suffix insult is a ‘Mecker-Fritze’. Meckern means to complain and this insult is used about someone who constantly moans.

There are actually a whole host of variations on using Fritz as a suffix. A ‘Werbefritze’ is some bigshot in the advertising business. An ‘Ökofritze’ is someone who’s just a bit too into their organic food.

Fritz appears to be used because it is such a generic German name. It is essentially a proxy for an everyman. The same is often done with the name Heini (short for Heinrich). For example, calling someone a ‘Prozinzheini’ is a way of saying they are a hick from the backend of nowhere.

And then there is the name Horst, which exists in a category of olf fashioned names that are used as direct insults. “Du Vollhorst!” means “you total idiot.” It’s quite a cruel way of telling someone they’re stupid – especially if their name actually happens to be Horst. The names Otto and Hans are often used in a similar way.

“These names are associated with the countryside and less educated classes by the urban people who use them,” Gabriela Rodriguez, an expert on names at Leipzig University, told Deutschlandfunk radio.

It is probably not a coincidence that many of these same names, which once were some of the most popular in the country, have now fallen out of fashion.

According to Knud Bielefeld, Germany’s foremost name researcher, Hanns was the most popular baby name up until the middle of the 20th century but has since crashed down to place 563 on the list.

Fritz, Heinrich and Horst suffered a similar collapse in popularity in the second half of the century. Phillip’s popularity lasted into the 21st century but its downfall over the past two decades has also been spectacular.

The good news, according to Rodriguez, is that “the name bearers have fewer problems with it than the people who find it offensive.”

SEE ALSO: What’s behind the strange German name for musical chairs?

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GERMAN LANGUAGE

10 words to help you enjoy the German summer

Summer has arrived in Germany, so we’ve put together a list of ten words to help you navigate the hottest season.

10 words to help you enjoy the German summer

1. (die) Sommersprossen

A close-up of a woman with prominent freckles.

A close-up of a woman with prominent freckles. Photo: pa/obs/myBody / Shutterstock | Irina Bg

The German word for ‘freckles’, translates literally as “summer sprouts”, as these little spots start to appear on many people’s faces as soon as the sun begins to shine in spring and summer.

2. eincremen

A woman applies sun lotion on a summer's day.

A woman applies sun lotion on a summer’s day. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

To help protect against sunburn, it’s important to use a lot of sunscreen during warm summer days in Germany. Thanks to the magic of German separable verbs, there is a specific word for applying creme to the skin – eincremen – which can also be used to talk about applying sun lotion.

Examples:

Den gesamten Körper vor dem Aufenthalt in der Sonne eincremen

Apply creme to the entire body before sun exposure.

Einmal eincremen reicht nicht, um die Haut einen ganzen Tag lang vor Sonne zu schützen.

It’s not enough to apply sun cream just once to protect the skin from the sun for a whole day.

3. (die) Hundstage

A dog lies exhausted on the stones of a terrace in summer temperatures.

A dog lies exhausted on the stones of a terrace in summer temperatures. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Martin Gerten

‘Dog days’ are colloquially referred to in Europe as the hottest period in summer from July 23rd to August 23rd.

The term ‘dog days’ dates back to the 14th century and was originally associated with the first appearance of the star Sirius of the “Great Dog” constellation. However, due to the changing position of the Earth’s axis, the time period has shifted by about four weeks.

Nevertheless, you’ll still hear people all over Germany referring to the “Hundstage.”

4. eisgekühlt

A glass of mineral water with ice and lemon.

A glass of mineral water with ice and lemon. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Daniel Karmann

There’s nothing better than cooling off with a refreshing, ice-cold drink on a hot summer day, so make sure to use this word at the beach bar to specify that you want your drinks at a near-zero temperature!

Examples:

Das Kokoswasser schmeckt am besten eisgekühlt.

The coconut water tastes best ice-cold.

5. (die) Waldbrandstufe

A sign on a forest path indicates forest fire level five.

A sign on a forest path indicates forest fire level five. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-centralpicture | Soeren Stache

The Waldbrandstufe – meaning forest fire level – is a warning system that has been used in all German states since 2014 to indicate the level of forest fire risk, based on the local heat and dryness levels.

Level 1 stands for very low fire risk in forests and level 5 for very high risk. When the Stufe (level) is above 3 or 4, certain measures – such as banning barbecues – will come into force locally.

You will often see the Waldbrandstufe sign in woodland areas, near beaches, or on weather reports over the summer.

Example:

Lagerfeuer werden aufgrund der hohen Waldbrandstufe nicht geduldet.
 
Due to the danger of forest fires campfires will not be tolerated.

6. (der) Strandkorb

Beach chairs stand in sunny weather on the beach in the Baltic resort of Binz on the island of Rügen.

Beach chairs on the beach in the Baltic resort of Binz on the island of Rügen. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

The “Strandkorb”, literally meaning beach basket, is a special type of beach chair that you will find on almost every German beach. The traditional beach chair was invented in 1882 by German basket maker Wilhelm Bartelmann in Rostock.

Example:

Hier kannst du in der Ostsee baden oder dich in einem Strandkorb entspannen.

Here you can swim in the Baltic Sea or relax in a beach chair.

7. (die) Radtour

A man and a woman cycle through Lüneburg Heath.

A man and a woman cycle through Lüneburg Heath. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/HeideRegion Uelzen e.V. | Jürgen Clauß, HeideRegion Uelz

Germans love biking, so it’s no surprise that a specific word exists for the summer phenomenon of going on a Radtour – bike tour.

READ ALSO: 10 things to consider for a bike trip in Germany

Example: 

Der gesamte Rundweg ist eine leichte Radtour.
 
The entire circular route is an easy bike ride.

8. Sonne tanken

A man on an air mattress sunbathing on a lake while a model boat passes him by.

A man on an air mattress sunbathing on a lake while a model boat passes him by. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Warnack

If you love summer, then you probably like to lie in the sun and soak up the rays. In German, you would call this “Sonne tanken” – literally to fuel up on sun.

Example:

Ich will einfach nur Sonne tanken!

I just want to soak up the sun!

9. (die) Sommergewitter

Lightning striking in the Hanover region in June 2021.

Lightning striking in the Hanover region in June 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

Another very specific word, this term is used to describe the phenomenon of summer thunderstorms.

Example:

Die ersten Sommergewitter rollen quer durch Deutschland.

The first summer thunderstorms are rolling across Germany.

10. (die) Eisdiele

A scoop of strawberry ice cream is placed on top of another scoop in a waffle cone at the "Eiskultur" ice cream parlor in Schöneweide.

A scoop of strawberry ice cream is placed on top of another scoop in a waffle cone at the “Eiskultur” ice cream parlor in Schöneweide. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jens Kalaene

Finally, no summer would be complete without a generous helping of ice cream. In German, the most common name for an ice-creme parlour is “Eisdiele”. 

The word seems to have joined the German language when the very first ice-creme parlour was opened in Hamburg in 1799.

READ ALSO: Spaghetti ice cream to Wobbly Peter: Why we love Germany’s sweet summer snacks

Example:

Es gibt eine sehr gute Eisdiele an der Promenade.

There is a really good ice-creme parlour on the promenade.

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