Schnell! Aufgang! Why Everything Is Better in German
Recently, the English speaking world has been in a tizzy over how German-speakers are adopting our words and assimilating them into their language. (“Sh*tstorm,” for example, recently made it into the German dictionary, meaning a public outcry, and its use in polite society is perfectly acceptable even for public figures like Chancellor Angela Merkel.) I find this amazing, given the richness and creativity of the German language, with its capacity for linking words together until you have daunting chains of guttural compound words that are excellent for shouting: Wirtschaftswunder! Weltanschauungskrieg! In fact, it is my opinion that we should take some German words in exchange. We’ve already done this with the word Zeitgeist, meaning “the spirit of the times,” and Schadenfreude (joy or satisfaction at someone else’s misfortune,) is slowly making their way into common English. But certain other words are too interesting and hilarious to be left solely to the Germans.
For example, I once had a roommate who left angry notes around the house whenever the front porch light wasn’t on, or the shower curtain wasn’t closed, or food was placed on the wrong shelf in the pantry. While the English language left me struggling for a word to describe her (obsessive compulsive just sounds too clinical), German provides me with the hugely satisfying Korinthenkacker, meaning a person who fixates on small, petty details: literally, a raisin-pooper. And then there is the Backpfeifengesicht, or a face badly in need of a fist, i.e. that person who is so irritating that you can’t look at them without wanting to punch them. A Handschuhschneeballwerfer, “glove snowball-thrower,” alludes to someone who’s such a wimp that he needs a glove to throw a snowball. The Germans have some great deadpan idioms as well, such as Er kann mir gestohlen bleiben—it translates to something to the effect of “He can remain stolen,” implying that this person could be kidnapped without anyone really caring.
Have you ever gravely offended your partner and come home with a peace offering of flowers, chocolates, et cetera, to make amends? There is a word for that in German: Drachenfutter, literally “dragon fodder,” or the offering one makes to appease the dragon. Recently, a roommate from Leipzig (not the Korinthenkacker), gave me the words Heimweh and Fernweh, which mean longing for home and longing for a place you’ve never been respectively, or homesickness and wanderlust (also a great word we’ve taken from German). Torschlusspanik, literally “door close panic,” is the panic that hits you when you realize that you’re getting older, that you haven’t accomplished everything you wanted and that remaining opportunities are few and far between.
German also has plenty of philosophical words expressing complex ideas that just don’t exist in English. Weltanschauung means one’s comprehensive conception of the world; Weltanschauungskrieg, then,means a war of ideologies. Weltschmerz, literally “world pain” describes the disillusionment you feel when your image of the perfect world doesn’t match up with reality. Less lofty but far more applicable to everyday life is Kummerspeck, or “grief bacon,” used to describe weight gained through emotional overeating.
You can take your pick from Fremdschämen, which means when you are embarrassed by the antics of a friend or acquaintance, or Packesel, meaning the person who gets stuck carrying everybody else’s bags on a trip—literally a pack-mule—or Treppenwitz, (Germany’s answer to the French l’espirit d’escalier,) meaning when you come up with the perfect retort to something once the situation is over. But it is clear that German has an abundance of words and phrases to offer English, and using them will only enrich our vocabulary.
What other great German words and phrases do you know?