Written Rambles10 Fabulous German Words With No English EquivalentTyler Vendetti

This past week, I journeyed to Berlin, Germany with one of my best friends in an effort to avoid the utter sadness that comes with the impending conclusion of my study abroad experience. Despite not knowing a lick of German (my apologies to every person that had to endure my not-so-impressive hand gestures and aggressive pointing), the trip was a success and we both left feeling more cultured and a little more appreciative of our English-speaking countries. That’s not to say the German language is unpleasant. In fact, there are a handful of fantastic German words that describe life more perfectly than any English word could. For example:

1) Weltschmerz (n.): mental depression or apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state

They say that the grass is greener on the other side, but it’s that kind of mindset that causes the grass on your side of the picket fence to look gray and infested with earwigs. Which is to say, comparing a perfect situation to the real life scenario is bound to land you with severe case of weltschmerz, a word used to describe the disappointment you feel after watching the inevitable destruction of your unrealistic expectations. (Thanks for that, every Disney movie ever.)

2) Kummerspeck (n.): excess weight gained from emotional overeating

One can always count on the Germans to be literal and they do not disappoint with kummerspeck, the exact translation of this phrase being “grief bacon.” As in, “I bombed that test on vegetarianism so badly, I need some bacon to cure my grief.” Other possible food substitutes include candy, ice cream, tubs of cookie dough, bathtubs of cookie dough, and carrots, for all you “healthy” stress eaters that put the rest of us to shame.

3) Torschlusspanik (n.): the fear, usually as one gets older, that time is running out and important opportunities are slipping away

Picture this: you’re 26 years old. You’re living with your parents and struggling to maintain the underpaid assistant job, meanwhile, your best friends are landing CEO positions and securing future husbands. Nothing is happening according to the 5-year plan that you made during your senior year of college, and you can’t help shake the feeling that someone accidentally clicked “fast forward” on your life. That particular type of desperation is known as torschlusspanik, meaning “fear of the gate closing.”

4) Fremdschämen (n.): the almost-horror you feel when you notice that somebody is oblivious to how embarrassing they truly are

The only thing worse than being in an embarrassing situation is watching someone enter an embarrassing situation and being powerless to stop it. Grandparents and sitcom characters are usually the worst offenders of obliviousness and the most likely to evoke fremdschamen, or the cathartic sense of pain you feel witnessing another person make a fool of themselves.

5) Backpfeifengesicht (n.): a face that cries out for a fist in it

Rather than try to explain what backpfeifengesicht means, I’ll instead provide a list of people that might possess a face that’s just asking to be punched:

-       Teenagers who complain about “terrible” Christmas gifts they got, like cars.

-       People who tattoo their significant other’s name across their face, or anywhere.

-       Disrespectful bros.

-       Whoever started the “felfie” trend.

-       People who eat hamburgers with a fork and knife.

-       Hitler.

6) Erklärungsnot (n.): the state of having to quickly explain yourself

Erklarungsnot refers to the exact moment you are caught with your hand in the cookie jar and forced to explain yourself with only a split second to think. Unless you’re a good liar, the results of erklarungsnot are usually unbelievable and silly, like “my dog ate my homework” or “I didn’t know streaking through the grocery store was illegal!”

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  1. Hi Tyler,

    Just bumped into your article and I fell in love with it. Great topic!

    There is one pretty word I’d like to share with you. Being Bavarian, I like the word „Zuag’roasta“. In Franconia, the part of Bavaria where I live, this word is called „Neig’schmeggder“.

    Basically, it means something like non-local resident, but in Bavaria, it has a pretty deprecative touch. A „Neig’schmeggder“ tries to blend in, but always fails and will always fail. It’s the clothing, the way they behave, but mostly the dialect. You literally can smell that they are not natives.

    Imagine a „stiff-assed brit“ (quote from James Bond) just having moved to Mississippi, entering a bar and saying something like „Sir, would you have the kindness to draw me your finest beer?“ :-)

    Natives will roll eyes, eye up the person and giggle: „Look, a „Neig’schmeggder!“

    As there are many people from allover Germany moving to Munich or Nuremberg due to their job, we have a LOT of Neig’schmeggde. :-)

  2. Bauernschläue
    are nice words.

  3. Ahh, yes, I just rememberd “Mundraub” – literally “mouth robbery” which means the the theft of food (usually from another persons plate, as far as I know).

  4. A word I am really missing in English is “sympathisch” which kind of applies to a pleasant aura of a person or a person who you would judge to be trustworthy even if you don’t know him/her. It is similar to “nice” (nett) but not quite the same. It’s even hard for me to explain the meaning fully in English and it’s really annoying as I quite like using the word in German and I regularly find myself struggeling with words when I want to say the same in English – any help?

  5. Oh, there is a word for “emotional overeating” too. It is “Frustfressen”.

  6. Schadenfreude: a feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about the troubles of other people
    I just love German words!

  7. “Fahrvergnügen” is a word meaning “the love of simply driving,” which I think is pretty beautiful. It’s my favorite German word.

  8. Klugscheisser — someone who shits cleverness. The English equivalent is know-it-all — but doesn’t quite hit the spot as cleverly!

  9. A bit outside of the subject, but my favorite German words are Baumschule (nursery) and Handshuh (glove). With the first, I always think of the place where little trees go to school. And with the second, I picture a hand with a shoe on it. Then there’s Fingerhut (thimble), a hat for the finger.

  10. I love the way some of these words (like Schadenfreude and Zeitgeist) are now in common use in English with no need for translation, much the same as we have appropriated the French “rendezvous” etc. We lived in Germany for some time and my wife and I still pepper our English with German words that are just…better, maybe because the are so onomatopoeic and descriptive. For us a key will always be a “Schlüssel”

  11. Fachidiot. Someone who knows a great deal about a very narrow subject.

  12. I sure that Douglas Adams came up with words for all of these in the Meaning of Liff but it’s awesome that these exist in actual German- not just in a cult comedy dictionary…

  13. The most important German word is missing in this little compilation: Feierabend
    Feierabend is the time of day when you leave the office to go home or have a beer with your colleagues (so called Feierabendbier)
    Literally it consists of the two words feiern (to celebrate) and Abend, which is the evening.

  14. Menschenverstand is definitely not a common word, the correct expression is Hausverstand, which means common sense,, stuff you are supposed to know know even if you have no university degree. It means a logical approach to things.
    Backpfeifengesicht is an oldfashioned word, even when I was young (which is quite long ago) Backpfeife, meaning slap so in the face, was oldfashioned. In Austria, the word Watschengesicht is more popular.

    • Renate, this is probably a regional thing. I’ve never heard “Hausverstand”. We’ve always used “Menschenverstand”. I grew up in Bavaria.

  15. Treppenwitz is called “hindsight bias” in English so that one actually does have an equivalent.

    • “Treppenwitz” is the same thing as the French “esprit de l’escalier.” Both expressions are common. The English expression “hindsight bias” is a more specialized term, used (presumably) in psychology and sociology. “Treppenwitz” is (among other things) the power that enables me to come up with a perfect retort to a sarcastic gibe–but only later, when my assailant and I are not even within shouting distance.

  16. Fusshupe – a horn for your foot.
    Its a word for small dogs like Pekingese. They dont bark if you step on it, the make a sound like a small horn.

  17. As a German native speaker, I would say that “Allgemeinbildung” is definitely not the same as common sense. Common sense in German is “gesunder Menschenverstand”. That’s about being able to live your life like a ‘normal’ adult should, knowing how to do things & to (re)act in situations, not being an idiot.
    “Allgemeinbildung” however, is about knowing the basics of history, geography, biology, physics, chemistry, psychology, culture and so on. You are supposed to know when WWI and II took place, which poems Goethe and Schiller wrote, what the capital of Norway is and so on. :)

  18. Treppenwitz does have an English counterpart: Staircase wit- that perfect comeback or counterpoint you think of shortly after an argument ends.

  19. Rampensau