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.
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.
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.