Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Fantastic German Words I, or Eight German Words that are the Hammer!

If you have spent any amount of time getting up close and personal with the German language, you will have met - and sometimes been bowled over by - some truly brilliant expressions and words that you awkwardly try to drag into your own language, dropping them on occasion to find your people looking at you askance and questioning your apparent loss of communication skills. There are just some words that are too good to be cached and squirreled away by German speakers, only to be used and understood among them.

Yes, yes, we've all heard of Schadenfreude, Wanderlust, Doppelgänger, and Gesundheit, and it's good those words have burrowed into and taken up residence in the English language. But why stop there? Following are words I would offer up as candidates for regular use around the world. The direct translations are funny enough to try out in casual conversation, so go ahead!

By the way, things in Germany that are REALLY COOL are described as "the Hammer":
  "Have you seen the new James Bond movie?  It's the Hammer!"
  "I met the new English teacher yesterday. She's the Hammer!"

1. Strohwitwer   (Straw widower)

A Strohwitwer is a man whose wife is gone for a few days - visiting family, on a tour with friends, or staying with her mother-in-law because she lives in a bigger and more interesting town with lots of shopping possibilities (ähm...Esslingen).

     Martin: "Dirk's wife will be in Hungary, and you'll be in Wisconsin. We'll both be straw widowers."

2. Drachenfutter   (Dragon fodder)

When a German husband stays out too late, comes home drunk, and/or invites his boss, his wife, and their children over for dinner before talking to his wife about it, he better head to town to find some Drachenfutter. This is a gift (or several) which is a usually humble and often poor attempt at making peace and winning back his wife's affections. Just its name would be enough to make me seethe. So you screwed up, and I am the dragon?? But since Martin knows that the only thing that works with me is a sincere apology and I think he's only screwed up twice in his blameless life anyway, I find the word cute - and probably appropriate for some women.

     Hans:  "Have a nice evening. Heading home?"
     Franz:  "No, if I want to have a nice evening, I first need to go to Breuninger's for some dragon fodder."
     Hans:  "Well, good luck to you, then."

3. Feierabend   (Celebration evening)

This is quittin' time in Germany. At the end of the work day, colleagues say "[Schönen] Feierabend!" ("[Have a nice] celebration evening!") You might only be going home to re-heat last night's leftover frozen pizza, pop open a beer, and watch reruns of Tatort, but what's not to celebrate? At least you're not working.

     Gudrun:  "Celebration evening!"
     Joachim:  "Same to you!"

4. Eselsbrücke   (Donkey bridge)

Now isn't that more clever than "mnemonic device", which I just had to look up and check three times to spell correctly?  An Eselsbrücke is any little trick or hint we use to remember something we don't want to forget. I use donkey bridges a lot to remember genders in German: 

  der Tisch: a table is masculine because it's hard and unemotional, like a man.
  die Milch: milk is feminine because milk comes from female mammals.
  das Radler: I don't have a donkey bridge for that, which is why I keep thinking it's der (masculine).

I actually did use this term - in English - with my American students, and it started catching on with some of them.

5. schlaftrunken    (sleep drunk)

This does not mean what you think it means. It has nothing to do with alcohol or its regretable side effects. This is an adjective to describe how I feel in the morning before I've had two cups of coffee and a chance to sit somewhere in silence, waking up slowly without the encouragement of other humans. My brain isn't working quite right yet, my eyes feel fuzzy, I'm trying in vain to remember the disturbing details of that crazy dream I was having yet wondering why I'm bothering, and emails from friends and family back in the States that arrived while I was sleeping don't make any sense. The effect becomes amplified if I was jolted out of a dead sleep by the doorbell or the telephone.

     "I went to the door at 8:00 Saturday morning totally sleep drunk and expecting an emergency, and I opened it to find a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses who wanted to talk about the afterlife. I was tempted to send them to it."

6. Unverschämtheit  (Unshamedness)

This, as you can see, is a noun. There are clearer English words to use here (such as "impudence"), but I wanted you to get the full effect of the emphasis of utter lack of shame or good sense. Shame seems to be important in Germany, and there are many German words with "Scham" as their root. Calling someone's action an Unverschämtheit is saying that the person committing the deed clearly has no regard for protocol or the Moral Code whatsoever.

     Martin (while driving past a busy, open, and operating semi-automatic carwash facility on a Sunday afternoon):
     "Washing their cars on the Lord's all-holy Sunday?? What a godforsaken unshamedness!"

7. Zweisamkeit  (Twogetherness)

Yes, that's right - not "TOgetherness," but "TWOgetherness." This only works to label the comradery of two people, not three or ten. It's a gorgeous word, don't you think? It carries a bit of a sad tone with me, since Einsamkeit means loneliness or solitude! But if there are two of you, at least you're not totally alone, and there's also something cozy about the idea of two lonely people finding a connection with each other.

8. Kummerspeck  (Sorrow bacon)

The Americans have the term "comfort food" for the junk we eat when we are feeling down, lonely, or out of sorts.  The Germans have a word for what our bodies accumulate as a result of eating comfort food. Sorrow bacon is the extra fat we (especially women) put on, mainly on our waists and thighs, from eating unhealthy crap because we're dissatisfied with something in our lives. I think "Kummerspeckkummer" might be the distress we feel when we look at ourselves after we have accumulated the Kummerspeck from eating the comfort food.

There are just too many fantastic German words for one blog post.  To be continued...

1 comment:

  1. Tnanks, these expressions were very entertaining to read. I already knew most of them, but I like word Zweisamkeit...