SHARE
COPY LINK
For members

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?

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

GERMAN LANGUAGE

REVEALED: The German versions of famous English sayings

From dancing at two weddings to killing flies, the German language has its own unique way of expressing the sentiments behind some of the most popular English sayings.

REVEALED: The German versions of famous English sayings

Though many popular English idioms are largely similar to their German equivalents, if you try to directly translate others into German you may be met with a rather perplexed look. 

Here is a break down of the (sometimes surprising) German versions of some of the most popular English idioms.

Zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagen

The German equivalent of the English “to kill two birds with one stone”, uses much smaller flying victims to describe achieving a dual purpose at once. It means literally to “beat two flies with one trap”.

READ ALSO: Why traditional German names are often used as insults

Wie du mir, so ich dir

If you find yourself mistreated in the same way you have behaved towards others, your counterpart might tell you “wie du mir, so ich dir”.

The English version of this phrase – “to get a taste of your own medicine” – is not used in German, so don’t try to directly translate it, unless you have a lot of friends who happen to be pharmacists.

Sich an die eigene Nase fassen

Heiko Maas (SPD), Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs, holds his nose during a press conference.

Heiko Maas (SPD), Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs, holds his nose during a press conference. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa/Pool | Marcus Brandt

In English, you might talk about “the pot calling the kettle black” to express irony or absurdity that someone accuses another person of exactly their own mistakes or shortcomings.

But in German, you’re unlikely to be understood if you start talking about kitchen utensils. Instead, you should tell someone to “touch your own nose.”

The origin of this saying is apparently down to an old Norman legal custom, in which a person who had unjustly insulted someone, had to touch their own nose with their hand while publicly apologising.

Example:

Anna war ganz schön sauer wegen meiner Verspätung. Dabei sollte sie sich an die eigene Nase fassen!

Anna was quite angry because of my lateness. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! 

Setz nicht alles auf eine Karte

The German version of “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” uses gambling rather than farmyard prudence to warn against taking big risks, and literally means “don’t put everything on one card.”

ein blindes Huhn findet auch ein Korn

The closest German idiom in meaning to “even a stopped clock is right twice a day” is the pejorative “a blind chicken also finds corn”, meaning that even the most incompetent can sometimes succeed.

ein gebranntes Kind scheut das Feuer

In English, you would say “once bitten, twice shy” to express that a person who has failed or been hurt when trying to do something is careful or fearful about doing it again. In German, you would literally say “a burned child is afraid of the fire.”

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

Besser ein Spatz in der Hand als die Taube auf dem Dach

This avian idiom is very similar to “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, though in this version a safe sparrow in the hand is compared with a flight-risk dove on the roof. The meaning is however the same, and is used to advise people not to risk the thing they have for certain – but which is of lesser value – for something more valuable but not guaranteed.

Sparrows land on a woman's hand to pick up bread crumbs in Berlin.

Sparrows land on a woman’s hand to pick up bread crumbs in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance / Paul Zinken/dpa | Paul Zinken

im Handumdrehen

In English, you might talk about something happening “in the twinkling of an eye” if it passes very quickly. In German, the equivalent speedy movement is a turning hand.

Example:

Das Problem haben wir im Handumdrehen gelöst.

We solved the problem in no time.

Jemanden auf den Arm nehmen

If you want to talk about someone being deceived in German, you would refer to them being pulled by the arm, rather than by the leg as you might in English.

The saying refers to the naivety of children, who are easily pulled by the arm and are also (generally) more gullible.

Examples:

Dieser Witzbold hat schon sehr viele auf den Arm genommen.

This joker has already taken a lot of people for a ride.

in den sauren Apfel beißen

A woman bites into an apple.

A woman bites into an apple. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

When Germans want to express having to do something unpleasant but nevertheless necessary, they talk about biting into a sour apple rather than a bullet.

Man kann nicht auf zwei Hochzeiten gleichzeitig tanzen

The joy of eating your cake (but sadly not being able to have it, too) is replaced in German with the phrase “One can’t dance at two weddings at once” to express the frustrating truth that you can’t enjoy two desirable, but mutually exclusive, things.

Ohne Fleiß, kein Preis

A less severe version of the English “no pain, no gain”, this German idiom literally means “without diligence, no price.”

SHOW COMMENTS