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5 of the most cringeworthy mistakes I’ve made in German

Learning German can sometimes be a process of trial and error. Sarah Magill talks about 5 of the most embarrassing language mistakes she's made along the way.

A woman sits outside her front door having locked herself out of her home.
A woman sits outside her front door having locked herself out of her home. Photo: pa/obs DVAG Deutsche Vermögensberatung AG | DVAG Deutsche Vermögensberatung

Having lived in Germany now for eight years, I like to think that my German – though far from perfect –  is now at a pretty good level. But when I look back at my language-learning journey over the past few years, I shake my head in shame when I think of some of the silly mistakes I’ve made. Here are some of the ones which still make me cringe.

1. Sie haben mich gespeichert

A few years ago, when I was subletting a room in the Wedding district of Berlin, I managed to lock myself out of my flat on a weekend when my flatmate was away.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to pick the right German language school for you

With no spare key, I had to call the Schlüsseldienst (locksmith) to get me back inside. I was delighted when a serviceman arrived in less than an hour, easily unpicked the lock and charged me less than a hundred euros for the service.

Wanting to express my gratitude, I told him Sie haben mich gespeichert, thinking this meant “you have saved me”.

His confused expression said otherwise, however, and after he’d left, a check online made me realise what I’d in fact said was – “you have stored me”. I knew the verb speichern from saving files on my computer at work, and mistakenly thought it meant “to save” as in “to rescue” too.  

What I should have said was Sie haben mich gerettet – retten being the verb for “to rescue”. Needless to say I’ve not made that mistake since. 

2. Ich bin echt krank

Around the same time period, I found myself feeling under the weather one day when I was due on a shift at work.

Unable to face a phone call in German, I constructed what I thought was a foolproof Krankmeldung (notice of being sick) via SMS and texted the shift manager, starting with the phrase Ich bin echt krank.

A sick woman in bed sends a message on her phone. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

A confusing reply from my then-manager, along the lines of “I didn’t doubt that you were sick” prompted me to run my message by a German friend. 

They laughed a lot and told me that, instead of saying “I am really sick”, I had said that “I am actually sick”, suggesting that I thought my manager didn’t believe me. 

What I should have said, was Ich bin sehr krank – “I am very sick”, although that also sounds a little clumsy. Nowadays, I would say something like Mir geht’s gar nicht gut (I’m not feeling well at all).

3. Ich bin entspannt!

This is a mistake I’ve made more recently, but hopefully won’t again. 

READ ALSO: 10 German words that English should adopt

At the end of a Zoom call with colleagues discussing an upcoming project, I signed off by telling them Ich bin entspannt! The polite chuckles that followed made me realise afterwards that I’d chosen the wrong word. 

Instead of saying “I’m excited” (ich bin gespannt) I’d said “I’m relaxed”. Though not too bad in the scheme of things, it wasn’t exactly the message I’d wanted to communicate.

4. Ich bin besorgt, danke

I have to admit that I’ve made this mistake more than once and felt no less stupid each time. 

On a couple of occasions, I’ve been in a restaurant or a cafe, and when the waiter has asked me if everything is ok, I’ve said Ich bin besorgt, danke, which means “I’m worried, thank you”. 

A waiter serves water to a table of diners. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Informationszentrale Deutsches Mineralwasser | Informationszentrale Deutsches M
What I should have said, of course, was Ich bin versorgt which means literally “I am supplied” and is a way of saying “I have everything I need”. 

5. Ich habe einen Freund auf der Straße gebumst

Last by no means least is this outrageous clanger I dropped once to my German tandem partner back at the beginning of my German-language learning journey. 

READ ALSO: ‘6 German words I now use in English’

Wanting to excuse myself for being late by explaining that I had bumped into a friend on the street, I apologised and told her Ich habe einen Freund auf der Straße gebumst. 

When her uproarious laughter subsided, she politely explained to me that I had just told her “I had sex with a friend in the street”, using the very rude German verb bumsen. What I should have said, was Ich habe einen Freund auf der Straße zufällig getroffen (“I met a friend by chance on the street.”)

I’m happy to say that that is one mistake I have never repeated. 

Member comments

  1. Someone snatched my phone right off my hands at the Hauptbanhof in Berlin, and my brain was trying to remember the word for ‘thief’ in German, and in the heat of the moment I guess my thought process was: “bad person – usually German is similar to English – the word has a ‘t’ and an ‘f’ in it” and out my mouth the word ‘TEUFEL!!!!’ came out. A few seconds later I realized I had just shouted “DEVIL!!!!” in the middle of a busy train station and I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life.

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Freudenfreude: Why we should all embrace this made-up German word

The term 'Freudenfreude' was recently identified by mistake as a German word. Here's why that is not such a bad thing.

Freudenfreude: Why we should all embrace this made-up German word

The German word Schadenfreude – or joy at another person’s misfortune – is widely used in the English-speaking world, where it was adopted over 150 years ago. But its opposite, Freudenfreude, is a new, and somewhat accidental, invention.

On November 25th, a San Francisco-based psychologist penned an article for the New York Times on how we need more Freudenfreude – a supposedly commonly used German word meaning joy at the happiness of another person, even if we don’t share that same happiness ourselves. 

A few international media outlets then heralded the “German“ concept, until the word got out (quite literally) in Germany. Some scorned the author’s mistake, while others praised her for inadvertently enriching die deutsche Sprache

“Since language is something that’s very much alive, you can always be happy when a new word appears somewhere,“ wrote the Süddeutsche Zeitung. 

The Munich-based newspaper pointed out how other now-popular German words “took a while until they were finally widely used” – and then were often incorporated into other languages’ vernaculars when they lacked a similar word.

READ ALSO: ‘6 German words I now use in English’

Let’s face it: sometimes to sum up a concept in English (or Spanish or Slovenian or whatever our language) we need a word in German, even if it doesn’t exist yet. 

The now ubiquitous Wanderlust, a desire for travel, or Zeitgeist, spirit of the times, were also once made-up words that could only be neatly described by placing two German nouns together.

The same goes for Freudenfreude. Sure, we have “empathy”, but that also could mean feeling someone‘s pain during a sad moment, not just their joy during good times. Otherwise, we could say we’re happy for someone, but why use three words when it can be so neatly summed up in one?

We still don’t have a single, snappy word that describes when your good friend passes the important test you failed a week ago, and you still feel proud that she’s making progress. Or that feeling that even though life is not going right for you right now, someone else’s success shows that it still can.

A few days after the New York Times article was published, the newspaper ran a correction on the article that Freudenfreude is not a German word.

But by that point, it was already on the path to becoming one.

READ ALSO: 10 German words that English should adopt