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German phrase of the day: Innerer Schweinehund

Imogen Goodman
Imogen Goodman - [email protected]
German phrase of the day: Innerer Schweinehund
Photo: Francesco Ungaro / Unsplash + Nicolas Raymond / flickr

Do all your best-laid plans go out the window when you hear that little internal voice telling you you're too tired/lazy/bored to do them? If so, our German phrase of the day is just what you need.

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There's a famous Cherokee fable called the Two Wolves that describes a conversation between an elderly man and his grandson.

The grandfather tells the young boy that he has two wolves fighting inside of him. One encapsulates all the negative traits that plague people, from arrogance to self-pity, and the other encapsulates all the good, from empathy and kindness to generosity and faith.

This internal battle is raging inside everyone, he says. "Which wolf will win?", the boy asks. The man replies: "The one you feed." 

In German, you might well hear this evil wolf described as "der innere Schweinehund" - literally your inner pig-dog, but more accurately your "inner temptation", "inner bastard" or "inner swine". 

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More specifically, the German phrase describes the weak-willed part of ourselves that we sometimes have to fight with on a daily basis in order to get things done or steer clear of our worst vices and habits.

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The word "Schweinehund" can be traced back to hunting practices in the Middle Ages, when specially trained dogs were used to charge at, stalk and subsequently trap wild boar.

By the 19th century, the word had moved into colloquial use to describe nasty, unpleasant people, and by the time of the Second World War, athletes were talking about "der innere Schweinehund" as a personification of the lazy part of themselves that wanted to do anything but train. 

Most famously, the incisive use of the phrase by a German Social Democrat in 1932 prompted a call to order in the Reichstag. 

Kurt Schumacher (SPD) had claimed that National Socialism had succeeded "for the first time in German politics in the complete mobilisation of human stupidity." He said the Nazis were specifically appealing to the worst of human nature - the population's "inner swine". 

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These days, you might hear Germans bandy around the phrase in much more of an everyday context.

It's your inner swine that might have encouraged you to stay in the Kneipe (pub) just a little too long on a weeknight, or scroll on social media for another hour when you were meant to be working on an urgent report. 

READ ALSO: German phrase of the day: Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund

The good news is that, as with the two wolves, psychologists think it's actually quite useful to envision an evil alter-ago trying to talk us into doing these silly things. So next time that inner bastard is trying to convince you to waste time or indulge a bad habit, you can tell it in German: "Not today, pig-dog!" ("Heute nicht, Schweinehund!")

Alternatively, you can work together with your inner swine to achieve some amazing things. Just check out the picture below in which a massive "inner swine-dog" takes part in a race in Frankfurt.

Inner pig-dog

An "inner pig-dog" runs alongside thousands of participants in a 6km running challenge in Frankfurt-am-Main. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Frank Rumpenhorst

As the Germans and Cherokees know, there's no getting rid of the inner swine, but it can be counterbalanced against its opposites: compassion, determination and willpower. 

Will the Schweinehund win out in the end? That all depends on how much you feed it. 

Examples:

Warum ist es so schwer den inneren Schweinehund zu überwinden?

Why is it so difficult to overcome your inner temptations? 

Heute kämpfe ich gegen meinen inneren Schweinehund. 

I'm fighting against my inner bastard today. 

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